Q&A with Dario Hidalgo, Part 2: Modernizing Public Transportation
Photo by Luis Molina.

TransMilenio, the BRT system in Bogota, Colombia, is known for its high ridership: the 84-kilometer system with 1,100 articulated buses carried 1.6 million trips per weekday in 2009 and the number keeps growing. Photo by Luis Molina.

This interview is part of a bi-weekly series with sustainable transportation advocates, planners, engineers, journalists, sociologists, and other experts working to shed light on best practices and solutions from across the globe. We welcome your suggestions for future Q&As.

In Part 2 of this interview, Dario Hidalgo from EMBARQ (the producer of this blog) explains why BRT matters for cities around the world, as a follow-up to the recent release of his new report, “Modernizing Public Transportation,” the first comprehensive review of major bus improvements in 13 Latin America and Asia cities.  The 40-page main report will be accompanied by nine case studies, released over the next several weeks. Hidalgo’s answers below are a more in-depth continuation of  Part 1 of the interview, which you can read here.

Can you highlight a particularly interesting finding in one of the forthcoming case studies?

Each case study has something remarkable, for example:

  • Curitiba’s long history of integration between land use and transport, without ever doing detailed transport demand studies (i.e. origin-destination surveys and transportation demand modeling);
  • Quito’s respect of the cultural heritage in the historic downtown;
  • Bogota’s transformation of very informal operators into large-scale organized transit providers and its continuous ridership growth despite declining user ratings;
  • Leon’s approach of negotiating with all existing transit companies and its pioneering approach in fare collection and trunk-feeder operations;
  • Mexico’s and Guadalajara’s fast implementation of BRT in less than two years;
  • Guayaquil’s extremely efficient operation with a very small public agency for planning and control;
  • Sao Paulo’s and Santiago’s contrasting stories in citywide integration.

Each project overcame technical, institutional and financial barriers, and provides very rich lessons.  According to one of the peer reviewers, the case studies are “fun reading.”

What is your explanation for those who think BRT might compete with other metro rail projects? How do you argue against people who say this?

BRT is a real alternative to rail transit for medium and even high capacity corridors, at a fraction of the cost. It is very important to do a complete alternatives analysis before committing to any particular alternative.  Rail has advantages in traffic impacts (use less right-of-way or non-grade facilities), and is usually safer, more reliable and may have less emissions depending on the power source (carbon generation may result in higher greenhouse gas emissions than internal combustion engines.)

Nevertheless, there are no important differences in commercial speeds and land use impacts, and BRT has less access time and transfers.  As a result of the high capital cost of rail and larger implementation times, socio-economic evaluations usually favor BRT. But we insist: complete lifecycle cost and benefits evaluations should be completed before committing to any transit alternative.

How does your work apply to developed countries? Do any cities in developed countries come to mind as good possibilities for BRT?

BRT concepts are applicable for any transit corridor, in developed or developing cities alike. What is needed is some minimum demand levels and the commitment of the authorities to prioritize transit over general traffic.  BRT has proven successful in several U.S. and Canadian cities, such as Los Angeles, Cleveland, New York, Boston and Ottawa. It is growing in favorability as more applications happen. European cities have their own version of BRT.

What makes a city conducive to BRT?

BRT is not a matter of the city; it is a matter of corridors. You need corridors that have some level of density and mixed use, or, as in Curitiba, you need to plan a city that has density and mixed use around the BRT corridor. It is always important to serve the highest demand areas, such as the central business districts. BRT should not be thought of as a peripheral mode of transit.  All cities in Colombia with more than 600,000 inhabitants have or are implementing BRT, and all of the BRT corridors go through downtown areas.

What’s the quickest way to improve the quality of information that planners have access to? And where’s the balance between moving slowly with too much information and moving forward without enough information?

While it is very good to have complete transport planning data, such as origin-destination surveys and detailed transport networks in geographic information systems, it is not a must.  It could be enough, in the short term, to have reliable traffic and transit surveys on selected corridors to know the peak section (which commands the operational design and the fleet size) and total ridership (which drives the revenue from user fares.)

It is also very important that planners see other systems and adapt the design concepts to their own conditions. We recommend that all the planning is done with the purpose of making the system a reality not just to evaluate and produce nice reports.  Good planning can be completed in six months to two years. Skipping planning—or bad planning—may result in costly implementation and operation.

In the report, you say to manage community involvement through “participatory processes”—what do you mean by this?

Most systems reviewed are the result of political leadership, using top-down approaches, where the community has not played a key role in shaping system design through participation. Greater community involvement through public audiences and the use of social media may help in designing better systems. It may take more time and require efforts to adequately inform the populous, but at the end, the project will respond better to the community needs; the project will be owned by the community.

What do you hope to gain from this report?

We wish the report will help the sustainable transport community in several ways. Agencies in charge of bus systems may use the statistics presented in the report for benchmarking exercises, looking carefully into the areas in which they have lower performance indicators than others, and review their practices for continuous improvement. Planners are expected to learn from the “hiccups and glitches” so they do not repeat some common difficulties. Decision makers may recognize the bus systems’ complexities and take appropriate measures to face institutional, financial and technical barriers. Researchers may find material to initiate or complement studies aimed at understanding and improving bus systems.  We recognize the report is a snapshot for selected cities, and will need to be expanded and updated.  We hope it sparks better understanding and better planning, implementation and operations of bus systems.

Can you explain operational productivity and how it is important? What has made Guayaquil’s system so productive in terms of ridership (the system has a high number of passengers per bus-kilometer and per bus)?

Operational productivity is an output-input type of indicator, expressing the number of passengers aboard the buses (output) per unit of service delivered, for example, per bus-kilometer (input).  A system is more productive if it carries more passengers per bus-kilometer.  As bus-kilometers are the main driver of the operational costs (for fuel, tires, maintenance, etc.), it is important to have high operational productivity to keep the user fares as low as possible (or reduce the size of operational subsidies.)  There are wide variations in operational productivity across the systems, due to different corridor conditions (i.e. high density, mixed use corridors tend to have higher productivity) and route design (i.e. longer routes with low usage on the extremes reduce the productivity.) Guayaquil shows very high productivity and very low user fares—the corridors are dense and the routes not very long.

What do you think makes Bogota’s system so expensive compared to the other systems?

Bogotá is designed for very high throughput, with dual carriageways (highways where the two directions of traffic are separated by a central barrier or strip of land) at locations like stations, large stations, pedestrian overpasses, improved public spaces, very large interchange stations and sizeable depots and bus maintenance facilities.

In addition, the bus fleet is large, and the system includes an advanced electronic fare collection system, automatic vehicle and centralized dispatch, and dynamic user information systems. Bogotá needed a very high capacity system, for 45,000 passengers per hour per direction. As a result, the capital investment is higher than in other systems. So is the ridership: the 84-kilometer system with 1,100 articulated buses carried 1.6 million trips per weekday in 2009 and the number keeps growing.  Most cities and corridors do not need the very high capacity implemented in Bogotá and may be able to have the BRT corridor they need for less than $3 million per kilometer.   

Looking at an Asian example, can you briefly describe Jakarta’s system?

Jakarta is a medium capacity system implemented in a very short time.  Since some BRT concepts were not completely understood, such as the need for large buses with several doors for boarding and alighting, the system had some initial operational problems. Despite that, the system was a very attractive alternative due to its higher speed than traditional buses running in mixed traffic.

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