by Ulises Hernandez, Abigail Cochran, and Dan Chatman
The world is becoming increasingly urbanized. Governments and transportation authorities face the challenge of accommodating rapidly growing urban transport demand with efficient, safe, affordable and sustainable transport, whether privately or publicly provided. At the “BRT and private transit: Integration in domestic and international contexts” symposium held at UC Berkeley on October 20th, a number of academics, researchers and other experts in the field discussed topics relating to the integration of public and private transport modes in domestic and international contexts. The event was sponsored by the Volvo Research and Educational Foundations.
Bus rapid transit (BRT) is a commonly adopted strategy for delivering cost efficient but rapid mass transportation in cities. Originally innovated in Latin America, BRT has become widely adopted throughout the world, often in locations where mass transportation was previously made available only by a number of competing private bus companies, and sometimes informally, without effective regulation or safety standards. Integrating BRT with private and informal transit modes has been a daunting challenge in many locations. The integration process heavily depends on the specific context of the city, the incumbent transportation alternatives, and the institutional capacity and the policy objectives of implementing the intervention. If done well, public-private-informal transport integration could reduce the rapid increase in auto ownership in urban areas, or even reduce reliance on autos over time.
In a rich presentation, Robert Cervero from the University of California, Berkeley, provided an overview of the challenges of BRT-paratransit integration, using research conducted in Jakarta, Indonesia and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. One major challenge is buy-in from existing private operators. Cities sometimes hire incumbent operators as employees of the BRT system and enable them to participate as shareholders of the new operator entity. Sometimes those incumbent operators are subcontracted to provide feeder or direct line services.
Jakarta’s BRT is a closed trunk system with no feeder buses. Since BRT infrastructure was underutilized and there was strong competition among incumbent minibus operators, the city incorporated some of those operators into providing direct-line service, but outcomes have been mixed. Meanwhile, the city of Dar es Salaam had a very fragmented incumbent system, with more than 6,600 minibuses and many operators owning only one or two vehicles. This made the negotiations for integrating and merging with former operators very complex. Currently the city is exploring a redeployment of these operators to areas unserved by the BRT network.
Research presented by Roger Behrens, from the Centre for Transport Studies at the University of Cape Town, reinforced the idea that designing an appropriate strategy to incorporate previous paratransit/informal services is critical for the evolution of BRT projects. The South African government adopted a Public Transportation Strategy in 2007 to develop BRT trunk corridors and phase out informal services. But some projects faced significant financial constraints and still require subsides. There was notable resistance by former informal operators, which, in many cases, has delayed BRT implementation. More than two thirds of the transportation services in South African cities are provided by unscheduled, low-capacity, self-regulated paratransit systems. Based on his extensive research in South Africa and elsewhere, Behrens suggests the need to consider a long-term strategy not just to integrate but to allow the co-existence of informal transit and BRT.
Developing a BRT system and incorporating incumbent private and informal operators can be a very slow journey. But in some cases it can happen more quickly. In 2007 the Chilean capital, Santiago, implemented what at the time was called “the worst public policy ever implemented in Chile”: the Transantiago BRT System. According to Juan Carlos Muñoz from the Pontificia Universidad Catolica de Chile, the system was implemented and opened to users so fast that the bus infrastructure was not ready, there was a lack of information provided to users, and a financial deficit mounted. As the system matured, though, user acceptance increased, and Muñoz argues that the system proved to be efficient. Muñoz suggested that cities should learn from Transantiago’s experience and consider applying a similar “Big Bang” approach, with some adjustments. A citywide BRT system, Muñoz argued, should start with complete, system-wide fare integration, but without making actual changes to system capacity and operations; using this approach, it may be possible to gradually adjust the capacity and build the required infrastructure for BRT adoption.
Clearly system capacity and user familiarization affect public-private transit integration from the user perspective. Abigail Cochran and Kelan Stoy presented findings from a recent research project on the Barranquilla, Colombia, BRT system. A graduate student group led by Professor Daniel Chatman conducted in-depth interviews with residents of Barranquilla, Colombia, to understand how Transmetro, a new BRT system, changed their mobility patterns, and how it interacts with the existing private and informal mass transportation services in the metro area. Transmetro was conceived as an integrated system with trunk-line corridors as well as feeder bus routes. Many interviewees reported benefits from the new system, but the majority also identified several drawbacks, particularly due to the elimination of former direct-line microbus routes, the extreme overcrowding of Transmetro at peak hours, and the unpracticality of using the BRT for short, local trips. Such challenges are likely mirrored in other BRT systems but have not been studied very much from the user perspective. There is still no good solution to the problems caused when moving from a private/informal point-to-point system to a public/private trunk-and-feeder system.
The interviews with Barranquilla residents revealed a high reliance on motorcycle taxis, or mototaxis, to make short-distance trips within their neighbourhoods. Despite safety issues, many interviewees cited convenience and affordability as reasons for using mototaxis. The mototaxismo trend is not unique to Barranquilla: many cities in Latin America have witnessed an increase of this mode, which in many cases is not legal. Daniel Rodriguez, from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, showcased the results of recent research on motorcycles in some Latin American cities. He found that the private motorcycle user, mototaxi user, and mototaxi driver had different socio-demographic profiles. Despite the unreliability inherent in these services, along with high fares and inconsistent coverage, there are potential advantages including low operational costs, convenient door-to-door service, and travel time savings. Rodriguez suggested re-thinking the traditional approach of banning mototaxi operation in cities, since they fill a gap that currently is not being served by formal public transit services, and since bans have not always been effective.
Besides informal alternatives, mass transit systems would benefit from better integration with “last-mile” services including car- and bike-sharing. Multimodal transit station infrastructure in high-density areas that accounts for parking provision, walkability, and urban design is a concept termed “mobility hubs.” Susan Shaheen of the University of California, Berkeley, provided a very interesting overview of some cities’ strategies to develop mobility hubs and ultimately enhance the transit network.
The cities of Boulder, Colorado and San Francisco, California in the U.S. are working on improving real-time information for transit users by providing trip-planning applications used to assess cost, time and distance of different route and mode alternatives including such last-mile services. Medellin, Colombia, has strategically deployed bike sharing systems around BRT and cable car systems. The “killer app” for in the Medellin case is arguably fare integration. Being able to use a single fare card makes it is possible to transfer seamlessly from transit to the bike share system for one free hour of riding.
Public-private mass transport integration is becoming an issue, and an opportunity, in some US cities, despite a long historical period without very much private mass transport. Tilly Chang, Executive Director of the San Francisco County Transportation Authority, described some results of a pilot program to regulate private corporate buses in the city, which move about 17,000 commuters every day from San Francisco to their workplaces and back, making them a significant alternative to drive-alone trips. These corporate shuttles appear to be associated with increased transit ridership, walking and bicycle use, as well as with a reduction in car ownership. But the increases in such privately provided mass transport services have prompted concerns about congestion and curb management conflicts with public transit buses. Chang’s presentation provided a clear example of how these emerging alternatives require better understanding, and facilitating policies to enhance their benefits and mitigate their negative impacts. The pilot program in San Francisco provided information to settle some operational rules including utilization of buses over 35 feet long, curb usage free of charge for shuttles that are free and open to the public, nominal curb charges for other corporate shuttles, and provision of real time GPS data to monitor program operations.
Understanding private mass transport and its integration with public transport, both in US cities and elsewhere, would be incomplete without studying private transport as an economic industry. In the US, there has been an ongoing discussion among researchers, urban planners, and transport regulators about the impact and legality of app-based door-to-door “ride sharing” services such as Uber and Lyft. Aaron Golub of Portland State University presented new research in progress about these services’ economic feasibility in the long run. He suggested that services like Uber and Lyft may be predicated upon an excess supply of labor. For example, in Brazil in the late 1990’s, informal transit services increased concurrently with unemployment, and there are similar examples from elsewhere in the world. In the US, the financial crisis of 2008 might have created labor conditions favorable to the emergence of app-based ride-source services. Golub questioned how sustainable “the Uber model” is given that his calculations suggest the net earnings for drivers in the US could be as low as $4 per hour after accounting for hidden costs that contract drivers might not initially take into account when deciding whether to participate. Whether these services can be a sustainable option for providing last-mile connections to mass transit, in the long run, may depend on either public subsidy to be financially sustainable or adjustment of the business model. For example, instead of door-to-door services, these providers could serve predefined pick-up zones, reducing costs.
Transportation systems are changing rapidly, boasting an expanding number of alternatives fostered by technology, user demands, and economic conditions. Not only have city authorities been responding to these changes, but so too have technology and transport providers. Nova Bus Vice President of Sales, Robert Mowat, presented the company’s strategy for providing city transportation solutions to mitigate congestion, air pollution, and climate change, and to enhance road safety and energy use. Mowat discussed the ways in which local city and transport network conditions influence which type of system makes the most sense to implement: BRT systems, conventional bus lines, feeder systems or commuter services.
The symposium ended with a group conversation among the panelists. There was agreement that the problem of integrating private and informal mass transport with public transportation is important and achievable in some contexts, but that the challenges in developing world contexts like South Africa, Colombia, and Indonesia are huge. Much depends on the institutional and market context into which new BRT services are introduced, and on the ability of the public sector to manage a complex negotiations and subsidy process. Meanwhile, cities in the US and elsewhere in richer countries are confronting new technology-driven forms of mass transport and ride sharing that have the potential to either help or hinder urban transport sustainability. How these parallel transport system development processes can inform each other is an important question for further research.