Green Transport: A.K.A Bus Rapid Transits

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National Cheng Kung University

By John Paul Sipin De Guzman
National Cheng Kung University, Taiwan

Introduction

The gospel of a sustainable world has been the center of debate among politicians, the theme of discussion among world leaders, and the cry of civic societies, and is perhaps the most preached doctrine of the last decade. People the world over have come to realize the Earth’s current situation cannot be further ignored. Many have come up with creative ideas to attain sustainability, but further research is needed to confirm the feasibility of these ideas. While thousands of research projects and practical applications thereof are being conducted to achieve this end, several thousand ideas more are being added to reverse the effects of climate change. Hopes are high to reverse the current trend and this essay supports the very core of a sustainable world.

In this essay, I will present evidence on instituting reforms within public transportation, particularly among city bus systems. The importance of this issue cannot be undermined as city buses contribute a large chunk of carbon dioxide emissions, and use a lot of fuel, much of which is wasted due to congested roads and minimal ridership. Still, city buses play a rather important role in society. Eliminating buses across the board in favor of modern metro rail transits is not an option mainly due to financial feasibility. Therefore, city buses must fulfill their mission without violating the gospel of a sustainable world.

The need for Bus Rapid Transit (BRT)

Transport has played an especially important role in responding to the challenge of averting dangerous climate change [1]. By 2050, as much as 30 to 50 percent of total carbon dioxide emissions are projected to come from the transport sector, compared with today’s 20 to 25 percent [2]. Governments have the obligation to provide public transportation, which often comes in the form of inefficient bus systems. The main purpose of public transportation is to discourage use of private vehicles, which is the main cause of traffic in urban centers. Conventional bus systems are totally misaligned in this defined purpose, and often cause the public to resent the system and opt instead to drive their own vehicle, ultimately leading to more traffic and fuel consumption. Apart from these, car-centric cities became the norm in many developed countries [3]. Urban planning encouraged private vehicles over mass transit. Take the U.S. for example; from 1969 to 2001, the number of miles travelled by the average American in a given year increased more than 150 percent [4].

The emergence of modern Bus Rapid Transits (BRT) in cities across the globe has brought hope to the future of mass transportation. It elevates the standard to a different level by offering quality service at a low cost, and most importantly, reduced carbon emissions. In juxtaposition with BRT, conventional buses provide low service quality and emit larger amount of carbon dioxide. As such, BRT systems have been identified as an inexpensive and efficient public transportation option [5-7]. They apply rail-like infrastructure and operations to bus systems with offerings that can include high service levels, segregated right of way, station-like platforms, high quality amenities and intelligent transport systems [8].

Three case studies of BRT systems in selected cities will be presented in the following headings to support the argument that government policies championing BRTs are viable solutions to increase the contribution of the transportation sector in averting climate change and eventually achieving a sustainable world.

Case 1: Taipei, Taiwan – Five-year policy saved the day

As Asia accounts for the largest increase in vehicles, BRT in Taipei is a timely solution. The city bus system remains one of the main mass transit systems in the Taipei metropolitan area, complementing the MRT. The system is composed of one government agency and 14 private companies. Over the past two or three decades, increased incomes and auto-ownership have sharply reduced the percentage of trips made by public transport in most of the industrialized countries and the developing world. Rising costs and lagging fares have necessitated large subsidies virtually everywhere. Taipei’s public transport system is no exception [9]. This phenomenon has brought many bus companies from cities all over the world into bankruptcy, Taipei being one of the notable exceptions.

Taipei’s secret was the implementation of Alternatives for Promoting the Development of the Public Transportation Sectors (APDPTS). It was a five-year policy initiated by Taiwan’s Government from 1997 to 2001, to anticipate the emerging risk of loss of mass transit ridership brought by economic success on the island. Yu [9] found that although the population in Taipei increased compared to five years prior to implementation of the policy, because of APDPTS, the decline in bus ridership appears to have been arrested and auto-use was also reduced. Following the same line of logic, wasted fuel consumption resulting from minimal ridership is likewise reduced, while reduced auto-use implies trust over BRT increased, suggesting ridership is also most likely to increase over the long term.

Case 2: Los Angeles, California, USA – BRT disproved myth

Environmental conservationists should celebrate the penetration of BRTs in the U.S. as the country holds the title of being the world’s heaviest polluter. In fact, several BRTs are now in operation across the country, though for the purposes of this essay, the focus will be on Los Angeles. Zev Yaroslavsky, a L.A. County supervisor and the BRT’s biggest champion declares, “No doubt, we’ve taken some people out of their cars. The myth that Angelinos won’t ride a bus of any kind is bogus” [10].

The system ferries approximately 16,000 passengers each day. Although the number is still low, 16,000 daily passengers is a milestone for car-centric L.A. society. Building a rail system is very expensive. Los Angeles’ experiences of building an underground subway cost $258 million a mile, while surface-level light rail has cost $44 million a mile, on average. The BRT cost $330 million, valued only at $24 million a mile, while providing commuters equal, if not more convenience. BRT brought societal, financial and environmental benefits. While the rail systems need separate infrastructures, BRT is built on existing ones. Think tank Sustainable Build [11] pointed out construction of large-scale infrastructures is a major contributor of pollution, and also contributes to the loss of habitats of species during land-clearing.

Photo of Curitiba BRT station. Credit: Sasha Aickin

Curitiba BRT station. Credit: Sasha Aickin

Case 3: Curitiba, Brazil – A BRT success worth emulating

One cannot talk about BRTs without mentioning Curitiba’s BRT system. It became a global model even for industrialized countries. The buses run frequently, some as often as every 90 seconds, reliably, and the stations are convenient, well designed, comfortable, and attractive. Consequently, Curitiba has one of the most heavily used, yet low-cost, transit systems in the world. It offers many of the features of a subway system, including vehicle movements unimpeded by traffic signals and congestion, fare collection prior to boarding, quick passenger loading and unloading. The main difference between systems is Curitiba’s is above ground and visible. Around 70 percent of Curitiba’s commuters use the BRT to travel to work, resulting in congestion-free streets and pollution-free air for the 2.2 million inhabitants of greater Curitiba [12].

Curitiba’s success neither happened by chance nor by luck. City planners during the 1970s conceived them all through careful planning and consideration. They initiated a system that focused on meeting the transportation needs of all people with the mission to reduce the use of private vehicles. Curitiba now enjoys the numerous benefits of BRT. On top of living in the most livable city in Brazil, if not in the entire Latin America, Curitibaños spend only about 10 percent of their income on transportation considered to be way below the national average. Based on 1991 traveler survey results, it was estimated that the introduction of the BRT had caused a reduction of about 27 million private vehicle trips per year, saving about 27 million liters of fuel annually. Most importantly, compared to eight other Brazilian cities of its size, Curitiba uses about 30 percent less fuel per capita, resulting in one of the lowest rates of ambient air pollution in the country [12], if not on the entire Earth’s surface.

The Bottom Line

The respective BRTs of Taipei, Los Angeles, and Curitiba proved to be proponents of environment sustainability. All of them came into existence because of ambitious government policies. This work hopes to stir curiosity among governments around the world that such policies aren’t far from being achieved. Social and economic benefits are at stake. Ultimately, mother Earth would benefit.

References

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11. Gray, J. Pollution from construction. 2010 1 October 2010 3 December 2011]; Available from: http://www.sustainablebuild.co.uk/pollutionfromconstruction.html.

12. Goodman, J., M. Laube, and J. Schwenk, Curitiba’s bus system is model for rapid transit. Race, Poverty & the Environment, 2006: p. 75-76.