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Old July 11th, 2009, 11:33 PM
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Question Public transport: comparing the options

By Debra Efroymson
Regional Director, HealthBridge ,

There is no question that a large, densely-populated city requires a high quality public transport system. Public transit is the only efficient, safe way to move large numbers of people throughout the city and thus relieve traffic problems and congestion as well as making it possible for people to arrive at work without enormous expenses of time or traumatizing trips in terrible traffic.

Even in smaller, less crowded cities, heavy reliance on personal transport (by car or motorbike) for travel throughout the city leads to congestion, pollution, and road injuries; so much worse for larger, more crowded cities. Fortunately the very density of a city such as Hanoi means that a quality public transport system is a possibility, as there are enough potential riders to make a system feasible.

But while it is unquestionable that Hanoi needs better public transit, it is likewise true that not all systems will provide equal benefits. It is important to look before one leaps, and consider whether the system under consideration will in fact deliver the anticipated benefits. Assuming that the different options are similar in terms of capacity, key issues to consider include feasibility, the effect on the city’s appearance, and cost.

In terms of feasibility, issues include how much time it will take to build the system and how much misery commuters will suffer during the construction; if it is to be an underground system, how far underground it must go; and potential problems with flooding and the electricity supply. Another important issue, when different lines are being built by different companies, is whether and how the various lines will connect, including ease of transfers and a universal fare system.

Consider the time construction will require. As in other areas of life, so with construction of public transit systems: the initial estimates of time (and cost) tend to be excessively optimistic. Construction of the Bangkok Metro, for instance, began in 1996, and was not completed until 2004. The project suffered multiple delays. In many cities, the map showing the extent of the system includes dotted lines indicating planned lines that have not been completed, even a decade or more after opening the system. Time and cost overruns and high subsidies to the system can prevent the completion of the entire plan.

Underground systems must be deeper than the foundations of the high rise buildings in the city, often requiring the system to be built far underground. This of course increases the costs of construction and of providing ventilation, and contributes to problems in terms of flooding. Deeper systems also mean long rides on escalators down and up, adding substantially to trip time and also proving highly unpleasant for anyone with the slightest tendency towards vertigo.

The flooding issue is not insignificant. In Bangkok, according to Wikipedia, delays were in part a result of “challenging civil engineering works of constructing massive underground structures deep in the water-logged soil upon which the city is built.”

Aesthetic issues, though perhaps less important than others, should not be ignored completely, especially in a city as attractive as Hanoi. Blemishes in the appearance of Bangkok, already marred by numerous elevated expressways and multi-storey parking lots, are less significant than in the appearance of a city which still maintains much charm. Construction of an underground Metro naturally requires the frequent digging of very deep holes, which mar the city’s appearance as well as leading to untold misery to commuters. Worse yet is the construction of a sky train, which involves obstruction of views, heavy shadows, and ugly cement posts. Street level systems, while sometimes unattractive, are far less scarring than a sky train, and can if tastefully done actually contribute to the attractiveness of a city.

But of course the key consideration must be cost. Consider again the experience of Bangkok. The Metro cost US$2.75 billion for 21 km, or US$130.95 million per kilometre—twice that of the sky train. Meanwhile, the anticipated cost for Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) in Bangkok is $33.4 million for 36 kilometres or just US$0.93 million per kilometre. That is, BRT will cost an estimated 67 times less per kilometre than the sky train and 141 times less than Metro. (As these are not inflation-adjusted figures, the actual difference is even greater.)

A final key question is whether, once built and in operation, people will use the system. Projections in Bangkok for use of the Metro were at over 400,000 riders daily, yet in fact there are only about 180,000 riders daily. In addition to the issue of fare and accessibility to an underground system, there is the simple truth that people do not like to travel underground. It feels unnatural. There are no views. It is disorienting; one does not know where one is. It can even be claustrophobic.

In order to increase ridership, fares on the Bangkok Metro were drastically reduced from an initial range of 12-38 baht to just 10-15 baht per trip. Yet ridership still did not improve. It is, after all, a lot to pay to be transported about in tunnels. The question of affordability remains; in 2006, fares ranged between 14-36 baht per trip (7,200-18,700 đồng). Although the fares are high, the low ridership and high maintenance costs incur substantial government subsidies, so the system is not just unaffordable to potential users, but to the government (and thus population) at large.
Might there be better options than overpriced systems that are unpopular? As mentioned, surface systems such as tram or BRT are far more affordable than underground or overhead systems. The lower costs allow for the building and operation of a far more extensive system; the more places reached, the more popular and viable the system. After all, one problem with both the sky train and the Metro in Bangkok is that they don’t take people very many places. They can’t; it would cost too much to extend the system.

Further, surface systems blend better with the city; they are not as ugly, and can even increase attractiveness. Trams in particular do well at contributing to street life; they seem less obtrusive than buses, and are thus popular throughout Europe. And a final benefit of street-level systems is that they serve to further discourage motorbike use, thus reducing congestion, pollution, and traffic injury.

Given those advantages, Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) is being adopted by cities throughout the world. Its low cost is one great attraction. The South American city of Bogotá, as part of its transformation to a more liveable city, built a BRT system and used the savings over Metro to add extensive pedestrian and cycling systems and to build parks. For the cost of a 17 km Metro line, the city built a 388 km BRT system as well as those improvements in public space and other transport.

Since the system operates above ground, there are no pressing issues of ventilation and electricity. Since BRT mostly operates on a dedicated route, it does not need to compete with traffic and thus can move swiftly. Since the buses are built to be level with platforms and have multiple wide doors, passengers getting on and off the bus require very little time. As a result, the efficiency of BRT is similar to Metro at a fraction of the cost. Finally, since the system can be used on regular roads and thus diverted to areas of greater need or for other reasons, the system is far more flexible than any rail-based system.

Consider again the Bangkok experience. To deal with its mind-boggling transport problems, the city first built elevated expressways. These were very expensive, and encouraged people to drive more. Congestion and pollution worsened. City officials finally learned their lesson and turned to mass transit, but as they were reluctant to disturb the street-level traffic, they decided to build a sky train. Expensive, ugly, and reaching only limited parts of the city, the system proved immensely popular with desperate users, but left much to be desired in other ways. City officials, pondering their next step, again decided that they could not take space away from cars, so they built the Metro. This, as mentioned above, proved far less popular (and more expensive) than anticipated, and again reached only a few parts of the city.

Finally, in recent years the city has begun building its BRT system. Did transport planners finally learn their lesson?

Whatever the system that is finally chosen and built in Hanoi—preferably only after significant study and analysis, and comparison of various options—a key point remains. Public transit only works if people can access it. This includes safe street crossings and walkable sidewalks; further benefits ensue if there are bicycle riding and storage facilities. If you can’t reach it, you can’t ride it. And since one of the key benefits of quality public transit is increasing the liveability of a city, it only makes sense to consider cost-saving measures by choosing a less expensive option, building a far more extensive and thus useful system, and investing the savings in the types of projects that will make the city more attractive and the whole endeavour exceedingly popular: quality walking and cycling paths, trees, and well-designed public spaces.

The stakes are high, the potential benefits immense, and the possibility for waste and corruption also enormous. It is of vital importance that the public contribute to the debate and ensure that Hanoi makes a wise choice.
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