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Making bus services high quality

When public transport, walking and cycling are able to satisfy people’s daily travel needs, there will be less reliance on private cars and motorcycles in urban areas. Cities will be more livable, the air will be cleaner, there will be much less traffic, roads will be safer and lifestyles will be healthier.

For the Philippines to create livable cities, special attention should be placed on raising the quality of bus services. Reliable and convenient bus services need to be part of any city’s arsenal for improving mobility and reducing traffic.

In combination with other modes of transportation, buses bring people closer to their destinations. A 12-meter bus can carry over 80 people, sitting and standing, and use up the least road space per capita. Buses can be deployed on existing roads, minimizing capital costs, and buses can be moved flexibly to new routes as demand changes.

Even where rail services are plentiful, buses deliver the bulk of public transport trips. In cities such as Singapore, Hong Kong and London that have elaborate rail systems, buses still account for around 60 percent of public transport trips compared with about 40 percent by rail.

Therefore, in big cities, both bus and rail services need to be high quality and well-integrated in order to best serve the commuting public. A balanced approach is required. If train services are improved but bus services remain low quality, we will continue to see the same congestion that we find today on the MRT-3 and LRT-1.

Trains will continue to be packed like sardines and therefore not be an attractive alternative for car users.

P2P (Point-to-Point) buses are an example of a modern bus service. P2P buses operate according to a schedule; the vehicles are clean, low emission, comfortable and PWD-friendly (even persons on wheelchairs can board); and are air-conditioned with wi-fi so riders can relax or be productive. If you have not tried riding a P2P bus, you should.

The public response to P2P has been very positive. In a 2016 survey of users, 99 percent of respondents would use it again and 98 percent would recommend it to a friend. The survey also revealed that 27 percent of passengers were former car users.

When people abandon a less efficient mode of transport (private car or motorcycle) and adopt a more efficient mode of transport (walking, cycling, bus or train), it enables the limited road space to be used more productively. This is the kind of “modal shift” that is needed in order to reduce traffic and improve mobility for all.

The initial P2P routes connected Makati, Ortigas and North EDSA. Alabang, Antipolo, Katipunan, and Fairview were later added to the network. The good news is that the DOTr is developing even more P2P routes around Metro Manila. But P2P, with all its innovative features, has still considerable scope for improvement.

The main problem withP2P buses (and other bus services) is that they are stuck in traffic. Travel times and vehicle speeds are no better for P2P buses than for private vehicles. People who value time and convenience will not see any advantage in taking a P2P bus instead of a car.

The shift from car use to public transport will gain real momentum when buses have shorter travel times and are more reliable and predictable than using a car. The car user has to think, “If I took the bus, I would be home by now.” How do we achieve this?

The solution is to give buses, wherever possible, a dedicated lane and to allow them to travel, unimpeded by private cars. Imagine if P2P buses could move in an exclusive bus lane and travel at 25-50 kilometers per hour! This is the principle behind Bus Rapid Transit or BRT, now operating in 166 cities and moving over 32 million people daily. BRT is the fastest growing form of mass transit globally for good reason.

In congested streets, BRT can be your best friend. BRT’s economic benefits are greatest in roads where vehicles are stuck in traffic. In one lane filled with cars, the normal flow of vehicles can move around 2,000 persons per hour in one direction. A well-designed BRT system can carry more than 15 times that number of people per hour, using the same road space and a shorter travel time.

On a dedicated bus lane, nine buses per minute moving an average of 65 persons per bus in one direction translates to 35,000 persons per hour. This is the passenger throughput of the Guangzhou BRT, which serves around one million riders each day, exceeding the capacity of many rail systems.

Because roads are a public asset, built and maintained with public funds, the government has an obligation to maximize the asset’s economic and social benefits. On congested roads with a high volume of travelers, giving priority to private cars is the least efficient use of that public asset.

To clarify the principle behind efficient use of road infrastructure, the National Transport Policy, approved by the NEDA Board on June 27, 2017, instructs that “the focus is on moving more people than vehicles. Public mass transportation in urban areas shall be given priority over private transport.”

In recent years, a frequent objection to BRT projects was that “roads are already too congested” or “there are too many cars using the available road space”, implying that allocating a lane exclusively for buses would inconvenience too many car users. The National Transport Policy rejects this argument and asserts that the mobility of people should be the paramount objective in the use of transport infrastructure.

Indeed, the massive government expenditure that goes annually into road building and maintenance is not intended to be a subsidy for car users who are from the wealthiest 10 percent of society. Roads should serve the general public, particularly the vast majority who do not own cars.

Major cities all over the world, including Seoul, London, Seattle, Mexico, Boston, Istanbul, Rio de Janeiro and New York, have adopted BRT and shifted buses from busy “mixed traffic” corridors into exclusive bus lanes. In these cities, passengers get home earlier, bus services are efficient and public transport ridership has increased.

Because BRTs can match the capacity of rail systems and can be implemented in a few years with relatively low capital expenditure, they generate high economic benefits. And BRTs can be implemented in a socially inclusive way.

In many Latin American cities and in South Africa, existing transport operators (the equivalent of our jeepney and bus owners) became shareholders in new firms operating the BRT buses. Their business became more sustainable and more profitable. For today’s transport industry workers, there will be many new jobs in BRT systems, including for drivers (2-3 shifts of drivers per bus, instead of today’s one driver per bus for the entire day), station security and maintenance, fare collection and customer services.

Implementing BRT is one way of transforming the bus/jeepney industries. Bus operators would be paid on a “fee per kilometer” basis regardless of ridership, with incentives and penalties for performance. This new business model would replace the boundary (jeepney rental) system and the practice of paying bus drivers a commission based on ridership (which leads to problematic on-street competition among buses and jeepneys).

If implemented in big and small Philippine cities, BRT would get many people home sooner and safely. Today a person traveling on a bus from Fairview to Makati endures more than three hours of travel time each way. A BRT on EDSA would enable commuters to travel from Fairview to Makati in a little more than one hour, saving close to two hours of travel time in each direction. The social and economic benefits are huge.

Three BRT projects have been approved by NEDA Board — one in Cebu and two in Metro Manila. The BCDA is considering a BRT for BGC and New Clark City. Davao City is firming up a project that will introduce high quality buses traveling on dedicated lanes with “bus priority” traffic signals. These projects are part of the formula for easing today’s traffic crisis, with results achievable in this administration.

There is no time to lose. BRTs are the “low hanging fruit” among the many priority infrastructure projects. Accelerating their delivery will enable President Duterte to make good on his promise of a more comfortable life for all during his term.

Robert Y. Siy is a development economist, city and regional planner, and public transport advocate. He can be reached at mobilitymatters.ph@yahoo.com or followed on Twitter @RobertRsiy.

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