Oct 24, 2008

Bus systems that work

Buses may not be sexy (least of all Delhi's buses like the one above). But most cities desperately need to improve their basic bus systems.

And I am not talking about Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) this time. No matter how much BRT you put in, neglecting the basic bus system will undermine your efforts. Jakarta is finding this.

The same goes for urban rail systems. These work best when complemented and fed by a good bus system. Seoul realised this in 2004. Unable to expand its subway, it turned to bus improvements for a dramatic boost to its system.

Maybe the only thing less sexy than a bus is bus regulation!

But if you care about public transport it is time to get interested in regulatory questions like
these: Who should plan the system? Who should own what? What roles are best for the public sector? What roles are best for businesses? How should they be rewarded? What kind of competition works for city buses?

Getting the regulatory framework right is at least as important as the engineering. Maybe more important!

It is hard to get people to focus on this but better understanding of the key choices would save most cities a whole lot of trouble. Certain ways of regulating and organizing a bus system can set the scene for long-term success. Certain other ways are dead ends that work well only if you have a large number of captive users, who have no other choice.

Take a look at the categories below.
They are from a recent paper I wrote on this [Update: It is called "Public Planning with Business Delivery of Excellent Urban Public Transport" published in Policy and Society, vol. 27, no. 2, 2008. See a preprint pdf here and here is the journal's link].

Which one fits your local bus system best? Do these categories work for your city? Feedback is welcome, since this typology is a little different from the usual approaches.

  1. Public monopoly:
    Services are owned, planned and operated by a publicly owned enterprise. Strangely enough, this is the option that is still most common in the United States (despite the fact that 'socialism' is a dirty word there). An urban region may have several of these state-run operators. In theory at least, the state takes total responsibility for the outcomes here and there have been successful state-run bus systems. However, good intentions do not always lead to strong and ambitious systems.

  2. Proactive planning with service contracts:
    Services are planned by a state agency, so the public sector takes primary responsibility for the planning of the network and for many of the service outcomes. Nevertheless, operations are procured from independent businesses (either private or state-owned) under service contracts (which can be issued via competitive tendering). In the most strongly planned systems, the state agency collects fares and pays operators for bus service provided, sometimes in combination with other incentives payments. Examples include Helsinki, London, Seoul (since 2004), and increasingly many others. Singapore appears to be headed in this direction too - something that I had called for (pdf). Unless I am confused, Indore in India may even be an example.

  3. Area franchises (well regulated):
    Operators are given the right to serve a whole area but with some obligation to do so in a comprehensive way and to meet service standards in return for exclusivity and discretion over many tactical details of service. Responsibility for outcomes is shared between the operator and the state. Hong Kong, Singapore (until 2009) and many Brazilian cities seem to have such systems. There is often no competition (or there may be competitive tendering sometimes) but effective regulation can help achieve a reasonably effective system.

  4. "Passive" route franchises:
    Operators are given the right to serve routes, usually with some simple service obligations and at least some exclusivity. Unfortunately, with this approach the public sector often takes little active responsibility for outcomes. The network often ossified into a set of moribund, long-established routes that no-one has an incentive to reform (or is willing to risk changing). Regulation tends to focus on fares and on protecting incumbents. This option gives the worst of both worlds - competition is prevented but it lacks the benefits of effective regulation or proactive planning. Buses in many Malaysian cities and Seoul's buses before 2004 are examples. Kuala Lumpur's RapidKL and Rapid Penang in Penang seem to represent recent attempts to shift to Option 3 but unfortunately only partially, without sufficient exclusivity.

  5. Deregulation:
    The state has little direct influence over service outcomes. Almost always, it is the vehicle rather than the route that is the subject of licensing. The most extreme form of deregulation involves vehicle licensing with little or no barriers to entry or exit. Simple quantity limits may be added to this, but still with no obligation to provide service. Jeepneys in the Philippines are an example as are South Africa's 'taxis'. Effective deregulation may also exist if franchises lack exclusivity or allow for sub-contracting, as in Bogota's buses outside its Transmilenio system. Outcomes with deregulated public transport in cities have generally been disappointing. The number of cheerleaders for deregulated urban public transport has nosedived in recent years.

I have argued that Option 2 is catching on and seeing lots of success, especially when combined with ambitious efforts at network integration. Of course, planning is no guarantee of bus system success (as many public monopolies show).

But success with urban buses is certainly elusive without strong planning. Options 4 and 5 are serious mistakes. The era of a strong push for deregulation of bus systems seems to be over.

Oct 5, 2008

Places worth loving (and protecting from traffic)

What is "success" in urban transport policy?

A common answer used to be "keeping vehicles moving and avoiding traffic jams".

But by now, most people involved with urban transport realise that "keeping the traffic moving" is NOT a useful goal.

Mobility, especially mobility for vehicles, is just a means to other ends. It should never be seen as an end in itself. If we make preventing congestion our goal, we are confusing ends with means.

OK. So what is the real goal of urban transport planning then?

Most of us tend to answer "accessibility"! Planning for accessibility involves trying to make it easy to REACH the things we want to (like contacts, services, goods, jobs, education).

This seems like progress. Here we have a much more coherent purpose for transport planning, right?

Unfortunately, accessibility doesn't seem to excite many people. Despite decades of lip service to accessibility planning most cities still have way too much traffic-focused transport policy.

Everyone seems to agree that accessibility is the real objective. But in practice, speeding up the traffic is what most urban traffic agencies work at hardest.

What are we doing wrong? Maybe accessibility planning seems too abstract and difficult to explain? It is hard to put into practice. Accessibility has defied efforts to measure it in practical, action-oriented ways.

The magic of great places

I wonder if PLACEMAKING offers a more compelling way forward than accessibility.

I have been excited about this since I heard Fred Kent and Kathy Madden, of Project for Public Spaces, speak at the World Cities Summit in Singapore earlier this year. I think they are onto something very important.

"A place worth loving" trumps traffic focused planning much more powerfully than the abstract idea of accessibility.

Cities that have done most to tame traffic tend to be blessed with places worth protecting. The historic city centres in Europe fit this bill. Rebellions against expressway building emerged when road projects threatened much-loved neighbourhoods in American cities from the late 1960s or Australian or Japanese cities in the 1970s.

Project for Public Spaces is working on bringing a placemaking perspective into US traffic engineering with catchphrases including 'context-sensitive design' and 'streets as places'.

I don't think placemaking replaces accessibility planning or proves it wrong. I think it gives access thinking a tangible and compelling focus to rally around.

The transforming power of these ideas shines through in this 10-minute StreetsFilms interview with Gary Toth the Senior Director of Transportation Initiatives with the Project for Public Spaces.

For those of us outside North America this video also offers some lessons on avoiding the mistakes that took the USA so far down an automobile dependent path.

Oct 1, 2008

How do those Dutch do it?

You probably know that the Netherlands has lots of cycling. They sure do! An amazing 27% of ALL trips* in this rich country in 2005 were by bicycle.

Riding in the Netherlands is also remarkably safe.

Safety in numbers (from "Cycling in the Netherlands", p.13)

So what is their secret?

How did the Netherlands get to be such a cycling paradise? There are several rather unhelpful theories.
  • "It is a flat country": No doubt this helps. But there are plenty other comparable flat places with much less cycling.
  • "The Dutch have a long-standing 'bicycle culture'": Certainly they do. But is this a cause or an effect? So did many other countries at some point in the 20th century. Yet most of them somehow lost their 'bicycle cultures'.
  • "They have good weather for cycling": I hear this when I talk about cycling in hot and sticky Singapore. But I suspect this theory is only popular among people who have never spent any time in a damp and windy Dutch winter.

A recent publication from the Netherlands might help.

"Cycling in the Netherlands" (pdf) is an easy, non-technical read and is visually very striking.

One of its key aims is to share with the rest of us the lessons learned from decades of experimentation with bicycle policy by various Dutch agencies and local governments.
Based on the frequent requests for information from policy-makers, politicians and NGO’s from all over the world, we decided to produce a comprehensive brochure about cycling in the Netherlands, giving an actual overview on the results and findings of relevant studies and experiences.
I also highlighted the document recently on the Cycling in Singapore blog.

So what CAN the rest of us really learn from Dutch bicycle policy?

Probably we can learn many things. But here is one key conclusion from the report ... bicycle policy works!
A direct link is visible in the Netherlands between bicycle policy and bicycle use. In the first place, good bicycle facilities are simply a necessity to facilitate the many cyclists. These good bicycle facilities keep bicycle use high and continue to grow. (p.6 Foreword)

... a consistent approach by Dutch policy makers to the bicycle has had a demonstrable effect. Municipalities which have had a focused bicycle policy for some time have a higher bicycle share than other cities. Traffic safety has also benefited from the bicycle policy. (p.19)

* the data cited at the top of this post was from the Cycling in the Netherlands report (p.9)

[Update: a new website, Fietsberaad, will also be of interest for Dutch bicycle policy insights. This is "
the brand new international website of the Dutch Fietsberaad (Bicycle Council), the expertise centre for cycling and all related subjects. This English website provides access to the most up-to-date information, the main facts and the best examples from the Netherlands and other countries."