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Heavyweight champions for better buses

Many cities strive for better public transport. But too few do enough to improve their BUS systems.

For Reinventing Transport this time around I discussed bus improvements with public transport planning veteran, Colin Brader of ITP.  

Colin has worked on numerous public transport projects around the world and is one of the authors of the 2019 EBRD report, "Driving change: reforming urban bus services".

A key point in our discussion: Cities need bus reform champions. We will see that one even has a bus improvement "heavyweight".

Scroll down for highlights of our conversation or listen with the player below.

Click here to learn how to subscribe to this podcast.

Yangon bus stuck in traffic. Yangon has made drastic bus reforms recently.

Colin Brader is the founder of the UK-based international transport consulting firm, ITP, and is currently ITP’s Chairman. For more than 2 decades he has worked through ITP on projects that have transformed public transport systems in many countries and brought mass transit to mega-cities across the world. Just one prominent example for which he gained recognition was his role in the development of the Lagos BRT Lite system.

I was prompted to interview Colin by finding his "Driving change: reforming urban bus services", an excellent policy paper from of the Sustainable Infrastructure group of EBRD (the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development). You can download it for free. Despite the European source, it aims to help a global audience.  It was produced in partnership with UITP and GIZ as a contribution to the MobiliseYourCity Partnership for sustainable urban mobility. The authors were Colin Brader of ITP consultants, Ian Jennings who is EBRD Senior Urban Transport Specialist and Kjetil Tvedt, EBRD Principal Economist.

Here are highlights and key points from my discussion with Colin Brader 

It was a wide-ranging discussion but here are some selected highlights.

If you want better cities and better urban mobility, bus system improvement should be on your agenda, as it has been in Turkey, Georgia, Cairo, Chittagong, the Philippines, Jordan, Johannesburg, Delhi, Colombia, Yangon, Moscow and many other countries and cities.

Minibus 'taxis' in Johannesburg.
Buses are enormously important and do especially well when they are part of an integrated network, with all bus lines as well as all other public transport lines working together. This works for the user and for the city. [2:07]

The main focus of the report is bus systems outside the richest countries but there is much there for cities all over the world. [2:52]

Buses and minibuses really are VERY important.

They are especially vital across Latin America, Africa and Asia where they carry the majority of all motorised trips in many cities. Even in famously rail-rich cities like London, Hong Kong or Singapore, buses still carry more trips than rail.

Pay attention to governance and institutions

As a young transport planner, Colin knew little about governance and institutional arrangements. He quickly learned, from bitter experience, that a plan that is strong from an operations or engineering point of view will often fail. What actually determines success are often issues of governance, institutional structure and political power. [4:50]

Colin recommended a useful document at this point: Institutional Labyrinth: Designing a Way Out for Improving Urban Transport Services--Lessons from Current Practice. It is a resource published by the World Bank and it sets out the principles of reform to quality public transport based upon years experience of senior people in the World Bank. [5:57]

"Low Regulation" Bus Systems have big problems and some strengths

The report covers many kinds of bus sector reform.

But our discussion returned several times to "low regulation" bus or minibus systems that have "competition in the route". This is what I called 'deregulation' in a previous Reinventing Transport edition. Examples include Jeepneys in the Philippines or minibus taxis in South Africa or Colectivos in Mexico City or Matatus in Kenya.

Source: EBRD (2019) Driving change: reforming urban bus services, p.6

Such services often collectively carry huge numbers of people. They can be a key part of the local economy. They enable people need to move around, fulfilling an important function. [7:47]

On the other hand, they are often a large source of pollution. They often fail to offer the kinds of service that people increasingly expect.

They often cause congestion due to behaviour such as waiting in swarms at busy places such as shopping malls or interchanges with mass transit. [12:26]

Such behaviour is rational for each individual driver but harmful more widely. In this kind of system, income of the driver or crew is typically dependent on the getting as many passengers as possible their vehicle. Their livelihoods are precarious, since they need to earn the daily rental for the vehicle before they get anything for themselves. Fierce competition for passengers is understandable.

But the results on the roads often conflict with the city's goals. They often conflict with passengers' wishes for a more reliable and less stressful experience.

Low Regulation Bus and Minibus Systems are a Kind of "Trap"

Change to low-regulation bus systems can be a huge and complex challenge. So much so that Colin is sympathetic when the authorities in many cities take a look and decide to wait. Sometimes the changes required are just too much too soon. [9:17]

Change always needs strong champions who needs to be secure and committed to change to see the process through when things get tough. Before such a huge effort, any prospective bus reform champion needs to ask themselves, is it worth it? Sometimes, waiting is the wise choice. [9:44]

Changing how thousands of people (such as the Jeepney drivers of Cebu) run their businesses is very difficult. Changing the institutions to govern those businesses is always difficult. It is a big task to reform all of this and to find many people new employment.

In some ways, the sheer complexity and number of actors makes this kind of system a trap that is difficult to escape.

Colin cited the example of Jeepneys in the Philippines. A Jeepney owner might be a Filipino working overseas who has invested in a few Jeepneys back home. Each will likely be operated by a family member who then rents to a driver who may also get other family members or friends involved as 'barkers' to attract people into the vehicles. There is also a network of maintenance businesses. There's a whole interleaved structure of support to this informal system. It is a huge number of actors to engage in any reform process. [13:57]

Threats and Opportunities for Transport-sector Jobs

Another challenge is to avoid harming vulnerable people in the process of reform. A huge barrier to reforms to escape the low-regulation situation is fears over livelihoods. We hear this, for example, in various cities across Africa at the moment. Many jobs are on the line and these are people with little margin for error. [17:32]

On the other hand, Colin mentioned that the poor working conditions for transport workers can also be an opportunity that can make change attractive! Bus improvement scenarios can sometimes improve the lives of many of the actors involved.

"When you talk to drivers, their insecure employment environment is something which they're not happy with, in that, you know, they have to go out every single day to earn their money to feed their children to keep their house. They can't afford a sick day. They can't afford a holiday or whatever. So the ability to migrate towards a system of proper employment legislation where they're guaranteed a regular income, where they're guaranteed holidays, where they get sickness pay. That's something which is quite attractive."

But every case is different and there are no easy general answers unfortunately.

Lagos BRT Lite - where listening and engagement paid off

Lagos has had a very informal system including both buses and minibuses (known as danfo).

Lagos Metropolitan Transport Authority (LAMATA), the newly formed strategic transport authority for Lagos, had plans for BRT on a key corridor.  But, as Colin explained, the existing buses were "regulated" more by transport unions than by the Government. This arrangement did not serve users' interests well and certainly conflicted with changing city goals.

Despite this daunting and low-trust situation, LAMATA embarked on a successful effort to transform public transport in the pilot corridor. Crucial to success was a commitment to public engagement and negotiations with those unions. And crucial to this, according to Colin, was the effective championing of the process from Dr Dayo Mobereola, who was Managing Director of LAMATA at the time.

A key result is that the BRT lite is now a joint venture including a cooperative formed by the union members who had been operating on the corridor before.

Colin explained that five years later, the evaluation survey showed that, with more service and better maintenance, more people were actually employed in transport on the corridor after the BRT lite than before. [19:56]

Lagos BRT Lite is not perfect. Colin says it is certainly "a bit ragged around the edges" but it did achieve most of the key goals that were intended.

A Bus Reform "Heavyweight" in Kiev

Kiev is another city mentioned in the report, where bus reforms have achieved a great deal despite being based on a series of relatively small changes, rather than any dramatic transformations.

The city had a large and comprehensive public transport network, but the system had not been adapted to a changing city and was suffering from neglect, declining usage and low morale.

Proposals for a series of small but important changes found a champion in Mayor Vitali Klitschko, a former heavyweight boxer. The Mayor fast-tracked several quick-win changes that successfully  changed attitudes and built support and momentum for further improvements. [27:04]

The changes were 'tweaks'. Much was achieved by re-crafting the network a little and by tightening up the process of service procurement. The changes took buses from a medium level of regulation to a slightly tighter level of regulation.

Results included 13% lower energy consumption and 14% cost reductions per passenger.  Interchanges were reduced by 20% by eliminating unnecessary transfers.

There was more

This article is getting a little long. It was an interesting conversation and we covered several more topics but I won't summarise them here. If you are interested, have a listen! 

Here are some of the other topics we discussed: 
  • The UK's Bus Deregulation Saga and how bus services have changed over the decades in Birmingham, where Colin is based. [32:24]
  • A Checklist or 101 Guide for Bus Improvements Champions around the world? [36:06]
  • Incremental versus all-at-once changes to bus systems [39:00]
  • Many politicians and public transport users in middle-income and low-income cities are thirsty for bus system change. They can see the suffering and the lack of 'dignity of travel' everyday. [41:49]
  • Motorcycles are fierce competition for public transport. But a study Colin worked on in Vietnam revealed that people at several stages of the life-cycle were open to shifting to public transport if it could be improved. For people in the more risk averse stages with dependents and responsibilities, the motorcycle is actually a reluctant choice even in 'motorcycle kingdom', Vietnam. [43:29]

IF YOU LIKE THIS, please share or recommend Reinventing Transport to anyone who might be interested. And subscribe, if you haven't already (it's free):
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This post was prepared with the help of a transcript created by


  1. Hi Paul. This is the first podcast I've heard from your site as as I expcted it is most intersting and educative. Look forward to more.

    1. Thanks Sujit! If you go back I think there are several over the last year and a half that you might find useful. Feedback always welcome.

  2. I agree with a lot of the points you made in this article. If you are looking for the Employee Assistance Program, then visit Ableventures. I appreciate the work you have put into this and hope you continue writing on this subject.


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