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Planning is key to public transport excellence (but by all means delegate operations to businesses)

Vienna's public transport is an example of excellent integration and planning

I have long been interested in public transport systems in which a public agency takes responsibility for the excellence of a highly integrated system. This interest was provoked by Felix Laube's explanations of Zurich's public transport system and by Paul Mees' excellent book, 'A Very Public Solution'.

I am also interested in the growing trend for such agencies to often delegate operation of most services to business enterprises under service contracts, often with competitive tendering.

Examples that I have blogged about include Seoul and Bogotá but many others are moving in the same direction, such as various Scandinavian cities, Adelaide in Australia and London famously. Even Indore in India has created a much-praised bus system with a similar regulatory approach.

This year, Singapore announced a shift in this direction too, something which I called for in an OpEd in Ethos Magazine (see April 2007 edition).

I recently finalised a paper that reviews this phenomenon (pdf here). It concludes:
This story presented here seems to be one of an industry successfully discovering the appropriate role for the public sector. It would be misleading to imply that there are no more problems nor dilemmas. Nevertheless, I have drawn attention to the fact that many recent success stories in urban public transport have been associated with strong public sector planning and control, either ongoing or reasserted. For many, this has gone hand in hand with both competition (for the market) and a role for political deliberation and accountability mechanisms. This ambitious public sector planning has involved the creation of dedicated agencies that have been empowered to coordinate the system at a metropolitan scale. The most successful cases have devoted their ability to do proactive planning to seeking excellence via ambitious levels of network integration.

In the West, a shift towards this model is often seen as ‘privatisation’. However the international and historical perspective provided in this chapter reveals that proactive planning with service contracts should be better understood as a retreat from deregulation. More generally it is a response to the poor results seen whenever the public sector fails to take responsibility for overall system outcomes, such as under passive approaches to franchising. Recent European Union directives will give the model of proactive planning with service contracts a further boost in Europe. It will be interesting to see if it can also succeed in North America where such reforms have so far been very limited.

Questions of pathways were also addressed. Although some had suggested that public monopoly may be a necessary intermediate step for developing cities, we have in fact seen a surprising range of cities taking more direct paths towards this effective combination of public and private roles.

The question remains of how widely 'proactive planning with service contracting' can be applied, especially in the South. This review suggests that it may be possible in more developing country contexts than has previously been assumed. It will be important to watch those cities in the South that have adopted this model. Most of the cases discussed here were in middle-income or high-income contexts with reasonable prospects for mustering sufficient institutional capacity. However, we have also seen that this approach is now spreading to India where the case of Indore seems promising. However, it is not yet well documented. Indore’s bus system, and other Indian cities that may emulate it, will need to be studied to see if this model will prove to be an enduring and successful one for such low-income contexts. This would have important implications for public transport across the South.

Comments on the paper are welcome.


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