Buses: not sexy but the only solution

Urban mobility is perceived by developing country cities’ leaders as their most pressing and difficult challenge. Citizens spend hours in traffic. Seeking to overcome it, powerful and wealthy citizens create odious symbols of inequality, such as the exclusive road lanes for high-level bureaucrats in Moscow, or the private helicopters over São Paulo. Inequality is indeed the main obstacle to effective mobility solutions, as I will propose here.

Mobility is peculiar: different from other challenges such as education or housing, it tends to get worse as societies become richer. It is particular as well, in that solutions are largely counter-intuitive: as it seems to us the Sun circles around the Earth, it seems that more road infrastructure will solve traffic jams. And, of course, both perceptions are equally flawed.

Population growth, and all that comes with a higher income per capita, such as smaller households, larger living spaces per person, and an increase in the percentage of non-residential buildings, will make Latin American cities double or treble their built-up area over the next 50 years. It will make most Asian cities grow more than 1,000 per cent and African ones more than that, albeit over a longer period. How will mobility be solved in these giant cities?

BRT: not just a cheaper alternative

Clearly it will not be car based; public transport is the only option. But, which public transport? In the age of maglev high-speed trains, rail appears to be the obvious, modern solution. Rail manufacturers’ enormous marketing and public relations budgets – and sometimes that is a euphemism – often counting on their embassies’ support – reinforce this view. However, the only possible means to provide mass public transport to all inhabitants of a developing country city are bus-based systems. While São Paulo recent underground lines have cost US$250 (R$560) million per kilometre, Rio is constructing Bus Rapid Transport (BRT) lines for less than US$10 (R$22) million per kilometre. Operational costs are also lower for BRTs than for rail systems.

The advantages of bus over rail are not just a matter of cost. While underground systems have some advantages over BRT, the opposite is true as well. In terms of capacity BRT is very similar to an underground system: Bogotá’s TransMilenio moves up to 47,000 passengers/hour/direction (PHD), which is more than all of the world’s underground lines, except for a handful. And there are many known ways to optimise and increase TransMilenio’s speed and capacity, which have not yet been implemented. Guangzhou’s BRT moves up to 37,000 PHD, more than all Chinese underground lines, except for Beijing’s line number 2.

Speed-wise express BRT lines are similar to an underground on roads without traffic lights; and it does not cost much to construct underpasses for BRT at intersections. It is usually easy to add a passing lane at stations, in order to have express routes with buses stopping only every several stations. Undergrounds cannot have express routes unless a second parallel line is built. More importantly, BRT journey times can be shorter for several reasons. When changing lines, underground passengers have to alight, walk hundreds of metres and wait for another train; BRT buses can change lines without wasting time getting off and walking to the other line. In order to carry any given amount of passengers, many more buses than trains are required. Therefore, BRT frequency is much higher, particularly at off-peak hours. This means, unpleasant waiting time at the station is shorter.

Underground stations need to be at least one kilometre apart from each other for efficiency’s sake; BRT stations can be efficiently located 500 metres apart. This means walking time from the origin of the trip to the station and from station to destination is shorter. Some BRT systems, such as Guangzhou’s, operate buses in ordinary mixed-traffic streets and the BRT trunk-way in the same route; which means buses can collect passengers close to their trips’ origin and leave them close to their destinations.

Public transport users are exemplary citizens who contribute to reduce congestion. They should be rewarded with low-cost, high-quality travel. Why send them underground? It is much more pleasant to travel on the surface, enjoying natural sunlight and views of the city. It is also preferable not to spend time in long underground corridors and stairways, which, even when they are mechanical, often break down.

If buses are so wonderful, why weren’t they preferred in London?

If buses are so wonderful, why weren’t they preferred in London, Paris or New York? Why aren’t they preferred in developing country cities? Before getting into that, let’s be clear that my position is that all public transport is good and undergrounds are formidable, wonderful systems. The issue is what to do when the mobility challenge is vast and the resources to tackle it are scarce. At any rate, what should be done first?

When the first undergrounds were built, in the late 1880s, buses did not exist. As Dinesh Mohan points out, into the first decades of the twentieth century streets were still cobblestoned, like they were during Roman times.1 A ride on solid rubber wheels would have been rough. And the technology for pneumatic tires, which could support heavy vehicles, only appeared in the 1930s. Therefore, buses only fully entered the scene around 1940. Then they were the new thing, sexier than trams, which they replaced all over the world in a couple of decades. But of course, by then, what was truly sexy was the private car. Another reason for underground systems was that historic centres of cities, such as Paris or London, had narrow, winding streets. The only way to move fast across them was by underground.

Developing country cities are different. They usually have large arterial roads. And they do not have a unique, well-defined centre. They have many centralities, the importance of which is ever-changing, often waning. They are well suited for BRT. But they have middle-class and high-income citizens whose political priority is to obtain more and more road space for their cars. They do not want to give up an inch of road space, existing or newly built, to buses. At the top of their demands to government are more road infrastructure and undergrounds. In very unequal developing country societies, higher-income citizens rarely have the intention of using the undergrounds they demand. They only see them as a means to reduce traffic by putting others underground, namely, bus riders.

In more advanced developing countries, high car-ownership levels hide the fact that many households own a car, but cannot drive to work: relatively few in an office building have access to parking. The fact is that a large majority of those who drive to work in developing country cities have a higher income than most public transport users. Giving in to the pressures of the powerful society members who drive to work is what governments tend to do. It is politically easy to spend billions on undergrounds and other rail systems, which do not take space away from cars. However, it is neither the best technical, nor the most democratic option.

If there are alternatives, it is not technically correct to prioritise a system that will only solve mobility for a small minority of a city’s population, leaving the majority stranded. Not even the largest underground and suburban rail networks in developing country cities reach 15 per cent of their populations; in fact most undergrounds in those cities move less than 5 per cent of their population. Such is the case with Rio’s two underground lines whose share in the city’s daily trips is only 1.78 per cent. Building one underground line is expensive, and the cost per passenger increases with each additional line, as they are prioritised by demand: each additional line costs the same per kilometre, but moves progressively less passengers per kilometre.

Suburban rail?

Most developing country cities have relatively unused, often abandoned, rail lines that are said to offer a great opportunity for the operation of urban and suburban passenger rail service. Suburban rail differs from undergrounds in that it has lower acceleration and longer distances between stations, and train carriages are designed for mostly seated passengers. While suburban rail investment costs can be low, operational costs per passenger are high. When an overground urban rail line is in service, it has to be fenced off, creating an inconvenient barrier through urban areas, which also tend to deteriorate and lower the values of surrounding areas, and sometimes even foster crime. Negotiating road intersections can be complex and expensive for overground urban rail. In fact, when such urban rail corridors exist, BRT works better than rail. High-capacity BRT systems have a much higher PHD than any suburban rail line; buses can come in and out of the rail/BRT trunk-way. And it is much simpler to solve the issue of intersections with the road network with bus underpasses, or even traffic lights.

As for light rail or tram systems: they are pretty and usually more stable than buses, but they costs more, have lower capacities and are operationally less flexible.

Before investing in rail, it seems logical to first use the existing road infrastructure to accommodate public transport. It does not take an MIT PhD; a committee of 12-year-olds would also conclude within half an hour that the best way to use scarce road space is with exclusive lanes for buses. An exclusive BRT lane may move up to 70 times more passengers than a lane used by cars. To clarify the issue, let´s imagine that a catastrophe leaves us with enough fuel for only 5 per cent of vehicles in a city: to whom would we allocate it? For survival, we would necessarily allocate it to trucks and buses. Now, if what is scarce is not fuel, but rather road space? Shouldn´t we do likewise?

History shows how societies accustomed to flagrant injustices do not perceive anything wrong with them. That was the case with everything the French Revolution changed, before it happened. In the United States women could not vote for President less than 100 years ago, and African Americans had to give up their seats to white citizens in a bus until the middle of the twentieth century, and good, ordinary people and great thinkers saw nothing wrong with it. Now, a bus slowed down by traffic is as flagrantly undemocratic as women not being able to vote. If all citizens are equal before the Law, as all Constitutions state in their first article, a bus with 100 passengers has a 100 times more right to road space than a car with one.

Road space, the space between buildings, is probably the most valuable physical asset of a city. How should we distribute it between pedestrians, cyclists, public transport and cars? Regardless of what is done, it should be clear it is neither a technical issue, nor a legal one: it is a political issue.

A different solution, a different way of thinking

Implementing solutions to this political issue requires first a different way of thinking; a democratic way of thinking that truly assumes all citizens are equal and have the same right to public assets such as road space.

New technologies such as maglev should make rail systems faster and less costly. Bus systems will benefit from new technologies too. Driverless cars are anticipated in a few years; but driverless buses, operating on established routes, exclusive lanes in the case of BRTs, are simpler to implement and should arrive sooner. Advances in battery technologies should also make electrical buses more efficient and less costly.

New urban design can accommodate buses in creative ways: hundreds of thousands of hectares of new cities to be built in the developing world over the next few decades could incorporate thousands of kilometres of bus-only roads along greenways, which would constitute formidable, low-cost, high-quality, public transport systems. Let’s imagine a city in which clean, well-lit, safe buses, operating on exclusive lanes anywhere where there is traffic, with underpasses to avoid traffic lights, are found everywhere at all times. Above all, public transport trip times in such a bus system would be much shorter than those by private car, which would be discouraged not just by longer travel times, but also by a gamut of parking restrictions. Such a public transport system would achieve that most difficult challenge in a developing country city: get higher income citizens to use it alongside their fellow citizens. Most importantly, such a system is economically possible for any city. As a symbol, the sight of a bus moving swiftly along a bus-only lane as expensive cars stand still in traffic is a picture of democracy in action.

1 Dinesh Mohan, Mythologies, Metros & Future Urban Transport, Indian Institute of Technology, TRIPP Report Series, 2008.

Enrique Peñalosa is President, Institute for Transportation & Development Policy and Mayor of Bogotá, 1998-2001.