‘Give priority to public bus transport’

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Mr Enrique Penalosa, President, Institute for Transportation and Development Policy.
Mr Enrique Penalosa, President, Institute for Transportation and Development Policy.

R. Balaji

Roads and bridges cannot support efficient urban transport systems but public transport systems can. The solution to urban mobility is in an efficient allocation of road space with priority for a well-designed public transportation system, cycle tracks and footpaths, and not just for cars that cater to the few. An efficient Bus Rapid Transport System (BRTS) is low cost and can serve better than subway trains, argues Mr Enrique Penalosa, President, Institute for Transportation and Development Policy.

The US-based institute works for environmentally sustainable and equitable transportation policies across the world. As a former Mayor of Bogota, Colombia, Mr Penalosa implemented the TransMilenio, a BRTS, which is considered among the most efficient in terms of cost and speed. Here he shares his views on public transportation with Business Line.

Excerpts from the interview:

You say wider roads and flyovers cannot solve traffic problems. But this runs counter to prevailing practice. Why should things change?

There are two reasons to start doing things differently. One is about equity and quality of life. When extensive infrastructure is created for cars at the expense of pedestrian space, there is a conflict. Remember, 90 per cent of the people in Chennai, or in any Indian city, do not have cars and space is a limited resource that has to allocated equitably.

And the other is technical. Cities anywhere in the world have been able to address urban mobility only with public transport, not with longer roads and flyovers. This is not my idea. The biggest political movements in the second half of the 20th century in large western cities were those against highways cutting through urban areas. In New York, Jane Jacobs, author of The Death and Life of Great American Cities, led the movement against a highway through Manhattan. But in many cities it happened and they discovered that the quality of life was hurt. In our case (Bogota), it was done top down. I was inspired by the success stories and when elected (as mayor) I implemented the ideas. There is a tremendous scarcity of space and so the need to allocate and use the resource efficiently. With a good BRTS, one lane can move 40,000 people an hour. A car lane can move about 1,800.

So, if you are going to have bridges and flyovers, then do have exclusive lanes for buses from the beginning. The flyovers will get jammed with traffic anyway but at least a large number of people will continue to move. Subways (trains) are wonderful but it is nearly always difficult to have the huge resources needed and they are expensive. So you need a great quality bus system with high capacities and high speed.

How does a subway system compare with a BRTS?

A kilometre of BRTS system can cost up to $10 million but a subway can cost much, much more. A BRTS is not just about exclusive lanes for buses. It is an entire system with properly designed stations and buses to move large numbers of people in and out fast, automated card payment systems, and so on. That is why it is a success only when done properly, as in Istanbul or Bogota. In Delhi, because of the design, people like the Metro and the BRTS, in other cities they can be better.

Why do you emphasise broader pavements at the cost of road space?

Footpaths are not just about equity or happiness. They are an integral part of a mass transport system. A trip starts with a walk. Better the quality of a footpath, the longer will people walk to their destination. In Chennai, people do not seem to realise that they have a right to pavements. They walk on the streets even at risk to their lives. That attitude is common to most developing countries. People in power and the rich will demand space for cars. But everybody benefits from the pavement. The difference between a developed city and a developing city is the quality of public space.

You do not need to park cars at the ground level, taking up street space. They can be underground. But I hear developers say that the regulations here do not allow car park under open places, only under buildings. I do not see why that should be so. Large buildings have a responsibility to the city to improve the pedestrian space around them. But that is a regulatory issue.

How do you sell a concept like this at first?

You should do a few high-quality streets at first — with lanes for a BRT, great bicycle paths and footpaths. The people will realise how a city can be. Look at the future of Chennai. Do you see everybody using cars? That is not possible. Efficient public transport is the solution. Even people with cars will use a fast, efficient and comfortable public transport system. In Bogota, 20 per cent of the BRTS users have cars. London does not allow office buildings to have car parking. This is to encourage people to take public transport.

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(This article was published in the Business Line print edition dated November 22, 2009)
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