Developing World

quote of the week: priorities for slum dwellers …

On the priorities for infrastructure in developing world "slums," the entry-level neighborhoods that tend to welcome new arrivals from the countryside:

Sewage, garbage collection and paved roads are, for obvious reasons, vital, and can be provided only from outside. But even more important, in the well-informed view of slum-dwellers, are buses: affordable and regular bus service into the neighbourhood is often the key difference between a thriving enclave and a destitute ghetto. 

 Doug Saunders, Arrival City: 
How the Largest Migration in History is Reshaping Our World.  
p 310.  

 

the explosive global growth of bus rapid transit (BRT)

recent study from ITDP  surveys the growth of BRT around the world over the past decade.  

BRT Infographic

 

Note that IDTP thinks of BRT as something that matches the performance of rail using buses.   ITDP's BRT standard excludes many of the projects that the US Federal Transit Administration calls BRT, which amount to premium buses in mixed traffic with minimal speed and reliability features.*  

China has created the largest quantity of true BRT systems, but of course in per capita terms it's Latin America that is building true BRT most intensively.  Fast-developing middle-wealth countries like China, India, Mexico, and Brazil are the sweet spot for BRT because (a) car ownership is still moderate, (b) government power tends to be consolidated enough that decision making is easy, (c) there is simply not enough money to build massive rail transit systems, at least not quickly and at the necessary scale.  

This news is also interesting in light of the forthcoming Rio de Janeiro conference on climate change, and the rumours that China may be ready to commit to reducing emissions, putting pressure on India to do the same.  Latin America, where many countries of similar wealth already have relatively strong climate change policies, is the perfect site for this conversation.

The other interesting stat is how rapidly the BRT revolution has moved.  Of all the true BRT in the world, 75%  was built in the last decade, mostly in middle-income countries, and the pace shows no signs of abating.

Fortunately, those middle income countries amount to a big share of the world, which could mean a real impact on global transportation impacts over time.

 

* (I tend to agree with ITDP's concern that the overly weak use of the term BRT is making it hard to talk about the original point of the BRT idea, which was to mimic what rail rapid transit does in terms of speed, frequency, and reliability.  This meaning is inherent in the "R" in BRT, which means "rapid".)

the evolution of logic in privately planned transit

Step out into most developing world cities, and you'll see something like this:

22226236

 Lots of vans sitting around, or looking maybe like they're about to go somewhere useful.  Vague cardboard signs in the windows suggest they may or may not be public transit of some kind.

They're called mutatus in Nairobi, colectivos in Latin America.  Over much of the world these informal, private, for-profit vans, run at low cost for low fares in areas of high demand, forming the basic public transit for a city.  Generally they run along a particular route out of a hub like the one above, but sometimes it's possible to vary the route depending on what you can negotiate with the driver.  You can count on them to hit key locations but not necessarily the exact path they'll take.  You also can't be sure of when they'll go.  Sometimes they wait until they're full before leaving.  

Today in Atlantic Cities Emily Badger tells the story of the Digital Matatus project, an attempt to map and describe the spontaneously evolved patterns that these semi-fixed-route buses operate.  Although nobody planned this network, it's more orderly than you'd guess.  Download the sharp, complete map here.

Matatu map slice

What do I notice?  Practically everything goes downtown!

Matatus have organized themselves into routes because that's to their benefit; they train customers where to wait for them along reasonable paths so that they aren't driving around looking for customers individually.  The idea of the route — and of an efficient, non-duplicative spacing between routes — arises spontaneously from the economics of the product.

But they almost all converge on downtown, creating huge jams there.  Nairobi is clearly big enough to  have large flows of people crosstown to many non-downtown destinations, suggesting that a more efficient and liberating network would have more grid elements.  This is a common thing that goes wrong in privately evolved systems.  Every matatu wants to go downtown because it's the biggest market, and a mutatu driver doesn't have to be coordinated with anyone else to fill a bus going to and from there.  This  problem that bedevils privately routed and scheduled operations everywhere.  

Crosstown service, by contrast, requires frequency on a single path connecting several major dots, and it has to leave from organized non-downtown hubs where many other services connect to it.   That requires more organization, so it's less likely to arise spontaneously out of private operators optimizing for themselves. 

So you get a single market overserved and other markets underserved.  This is very much like the way a narrowly-focused transit agency will throw too much service at a single market rather than building a network useful for many markets.  It takes more planning and management to create a network, and this usually requires a government willing to impose order.  

This same problem was observable after the wholesale privatization of buses in Britain.  Suddenly there was lots of duplication of bus service into the biggest downtowns as everyone chased the easiest prize, but service disappeared from crosstown markets that could have done well, but that required a network of organized connections to succeed.  That network is what privately motivated transit has trouble delivering, because it usually requires cooperating with people who are perceived as competitors.

Now and then, these systems get reorganized by government into more logical routes that spread the network across the city for easier everywhere-everywhere travel, as happened in Santiago in 2007.   The transition is hell, but when you're finished, you have a network that's much easier to use to go all over the city, and a much smaller knot of buses downtown.

The moral?  Disorganized transit systems "planned" by the actions of many private actors do naturally evolve certain forms of efficiency, but they do not naturally evolve into the most efficient and productive network for the whole city.  That final push into coherence requires network design!

guest post: shaun cleaver on zambian public transit

Shaun
Cleaver is a PhD student at the University of Toronto. His main career focus is
disability and rehabilitation in low resource settings. This work has taken
Shaun to Haiti, remote northern Canada, South Africa, Cameroon, and most
recently Zambia where he is exploring the possibility of conducting
participatory research with leaders in the disability community

I am a
temporary resident of Lusaka, having recently relocated to Zambia’s capital
city from Canada. Now that I am here I need to get around, and doing so has
been a voyage of discovery into the public transportation system that is
responsible for most of my comings and goings in this sprawling African city.

There is currently no system to
disseminate information on public transportation in Lusaka.  As a new rider
looking to understand the network in its entirety, I have been forced to cobble
together information gleaned from specific discussions, my own experience and
observations, and rare nuggets left on the internet like messages in bottles
left to float on the great Internet Sea and hopefully find their way to future
adventurers trying to make sense of the chaos.

In
analyzing operations here I am building upon my perspectives as a regular user
of multiple systems in high-income countries (particularly in Southern
Ontario), as well as those of low-income countries where I have lived, such as
Haiti. Where they apply I will draw upon the principles described by Jarrett in
this blog and the associated book. As Jarrett states in the Introduction of the book, there
are some important differences between public transportation between “the
developed world” and “the developing world,” but also some common phenomena. I
will use this post to identify the characteristics of such a system to provide
a baseline perspective for blog readers unfamiliar with these realities. Indeed, some analysts suggest that these features
should be applied to transportation systems in high-income
countries too
, making it even more relevant that riders in those countries
understand the consequences of such structures.

Loading: What makes it all go?

Like many
cities in low- and middle-income countries (especially
Africa
), public transportation in Lusaka is operated as a seemingly infinite
number of mostly-independent small businesses that depend exclusively on fare
revenue. The backbone of the system is the minibus: a van with row seating
operated by a 2-person crew (a driver and a conductor, to whom I will refer to
collectively as the operators). I have heard differing accounts as to the
proportion of buses that are operated by their owners – as compared to those
that owned by entrepreneurs in some revenue-sharing arrangement with the
operators – leading me to conclude that both models are common. In order to earn a living the drivers and conductors need to maximize the revenue from their one vehicle
while minimizing the operating expenses, the most substantial of which is fuel.
With massive unemployment in Zambia and low wages the norm for the masses,
there are many people willing to do this work on a rather tight margin. Time is
a concern for drivers, but less-so than the cost of petrol, so the constant
preoccupation of the operators is ensuring that all available space on the
moving vehicle is earning fare revenue. Usually the bus will generally not move
until full (the exception being when movement is likely to help it fill).

At this
point I feel obligated to substantiate what is meant by “full”. In objective
terms, this means that each of the benches in the four rows behind the driver
has four fare-paying adults, and that there are another two adults in the front
next to the driver. Thus, the minibus is only “full” when there are 19 people
in it (and it is possible to squeeze another few riders if there are low odds
of a police checkpoint). Remember that I am referring to a vehicle that is
effectively a van. Consider this: when boarding I usually prepare the fare
prior to entering, as when I take my seat I am not able to reach into my pocket
due the proximity of the other riders. 

In
addition to the “market forces” that incentivize the individual operators to
pursue ridership goals, the system has
regulations imposed upon it by the municipal and national governments, and some
amount of collective self-regulation. The governmental regulations apply
primarily to the vehicles, but also to the routes and stops. The most visible
aspect of those regulations is the mandatory colour scheme, which has
traditionally seen all registered public transportation vehicles painted
different shades of blue and white (although white with an orange stripe was
recently approved as an acceptable alternative). Vehicles are also registered
by the Road Traffic Safety Authority (RTSA) as having met certain safety
standards.

Lusakans
have varying accounts of the regulation of routes and stops, but the evidence
is pointing towards minibuses only being authorized to and pick up and carry
passengers on a limited number of pre-identified roads. On certain major arterial
roads the stops are more clearly established with designated pull-out areas,
whereas on other roads it is common practice to pick passengers up or drop them
off just about anywhere.

Photo 2.1

Fare chart displayed on window of minibus.

Operators have organized into a syndicate, but it is not clearly visible to a rider and seems to be only rarely referred to in the
media. Nonetheless, operators seem to have a collective voice to negotiate the
designation of roads as being minibus approved and to set fares. Minibus fares
are formally established and publicized according to a fare by distance model. It is notable that the publicized fares do not include every
origin/destination possibility, yet every journey has an established and
precise fare that is collectively known to conductors and regular riders,
although often rounded up or down to the nearest half kwacha.

Of note,
journeys that start and finish among more quiet parts of the routes seem to be
priced more affordably than trips of similar distances in busier areas: I am
unsure if this is the product of intentional calculation, or simply based upon
the collective experience of what riders will pay and operators will accept in
order to fill the minibus. On the routes where large buses run these sometimes
cost less than minibuses, although the ride is generally slower due to the
longer fill times.

Setting off: How it all fits together

Lusaka’s
urban form and road network converges with the imperative to maximize ridership
to create a radial system focused on the traditional commercial area west of
Cairo Road (referred to locally as “Town”), where the minibuses serve four
central terminal stations. According to these conditions the radial system
self-perpetuates. Riders know that any destination in the city can be accessed
through a connection in Town, and therefore usually head there unless there is
a specific outbound destination in-mind. Operators want their bus to be full
before moving and the sequential departures in the downtown terminals ensure
timely filling. Once a vehicle sets out on it route it will likely have
passengers heading all the way to the route’s outer terminus; there the
operators find that the best way to fill the minibus is to serve the most
popular destination – Town.

In a
system that is driven by millions of individual micro-decisions there are few
examples of system-level thinking, making information on the system as a whole
conspicuously absent. In trying to understand the collection of possible trips
that the system allows I have had to patch together multiple practical
questions about how to get from individual points A and B. Almost inevitably
the answer goes “First you look for a bus into Town; when you get to Town ask
for the bus to where you are going.” Lusaka's
minibus fare structure includes no provision for making connections between
different routes. Instead, the rider must pay a fare penalty with every
boarding. This has the effect of enforcing the "one transfer into
town" model as the cheapest way to get from point to point, even if making
connections would effect a time savings or shorter trip distance.

Photo 3.1

llennium Station, the smallest of the four central terminals, on a quiet Sunday afternoon.


To date I
have only seen one example of a route map; one rider’s best guess at
identifying the patterns of movement as drawn onto a Google Map. Consistent with my
experience, the legend is laden with question marks; fortunately, it is close
enough to being accurate as to be useful. Other points of reference that I have
found include an ode to the
minibus operators
 and a superficial but
practical account
 
that essentially concludes that ‘it’s really just far easier to
take a taxi.’ 

Despite
this seeming anarchy, there are clearly routes. The picture of Millennium
Station shown here demonstrates the (surprisingly) orderly system of organizing
the minibuses by destination, a welcoming particularity of the central
terminals. As a new rider it was initially nerve-wracking that the vehicles
themselves were void of visual markers to indicate the route. Having been a
Lusaka-resident for less than two months I have already internalized the
irrelevance of such markings: if the minibus wants you as a passenger they will
let you know where they are going. If I am headed home but not at one of the
downtown terminals I know to listen for a conductor hanging out the window
yelling the familiar “Garden,
Ng’ombe, Roma,
 yooooo!” that will take me along the predictable route
home. 

Astute
readers will have presumably identified certain drawbacks of this
organizational arrangement. “If all of the minibuses converge on a limited
area, does this not strain the road capacity?” (Answer: yes, yes it does.) “If
there is sufficient demand for origin/destination pairings outside of Town,
would drivers not seek to fill that void and serve those riders?” (Answer: sort
of, read on.) “If all of the minibuses fill at the terminal, what happens to
those riders who try to board minibuses along the route?” (Answer: they watch a
lot of full buses drive past them while waiting for one that stops to let off a
passenger; or, for reasons to be explained shortly, a spacious minibus could
pull up, but this is usually not as much of a blessing as it seems).


Photo 3.2With
almost all vehicles converging on the city centre the congestion there is
indeed horrendous. For most of the connection-required trips that I take I know
in advance that up to half of the travel time will be spent inching down one of
the few roads into Town, before waiting for my next minibus to fill and inching
back out again. For this reason it is very desirable to identify travel possibilities
that do not include a downtown connection. 

Fortunately,
I have found a few. One of these is at the terminal in front of the University
Teaching Hospital (in the central south-eastern part of the city, well outside
of Town). Here there are minibuses that serve other parts of the city using
orbital lines of travel, including two routes that get me close enough to walk
home. Using either one of these reduces my travel time by a minimum of 30
minutes. Sounds great, eh? Sort of – if we bear in mind some caveats. The first
is that the minibus takes longer to fill; and only does so reliably at certain
times of day (particularly as the hospitals day activities come to an end,
around 5pm). The  time I save traveling
is sometimes more than accounted for while sitting on a slowly filling bus for
an hour. Next, the operators charge a fare premium for the “short-cut” (a term
that seems to nearly gain official status in the frequent fare disputes among
unsuspecting riders). To be fair to the operators, the fare premium is not
unwarranted due to the time lost in filling this lesser used route, and the
operators seem to have to pay a fee to use the terminal: serving these unusual
routes does indeed address an unmet demand, but does so at a cost. As a rider I
am still in the process of determining when it is in my interest to use
“short-cut routes” and plan my journeys accordingly.

Indeed,
the use of the terminals seems to be a calculated decision on the part of
operators. In one sense the benefit is clear in that the vehicle at the front
of the queue is guaranteed to fill and then the driver and conductor need only
to replace disembarking passengers along the route. On the other hand, time is
lost while waiting for one’s turn and the fee to use the terminal cuts into
profits.

For these
reasons it is not uncommon to see a minibus begin its journey somewhere along
the route. As a passenger, however, boarding an empty minibus en-route can
prove to be a tactical error that often leads to a frustrating wait of unknown
duration as the conductor runs up and down side streets looking for any signs
of potential paying customers. To give the minibus the appearance that it is
about to leave the drivers will often turn on the ignition and inch the minibus
forward as the conductor frantically tries to steer people on “Come, come,
let’s go! We’re going!” moments before the driver cuts the ignition once more.
Often enough the bus will venture off-route as the driver and conductor whistle
for attention.

More
occasionally the vehicle will proceed forward along the route to repeat this
ritual in more promising locations. It sometimes, but rarely, occurs that this
forward progress is sufficient to allow a rider to reach a destination before
the minibus fills.

Photo 3.3

Inbound minibuses on the Ng’ombe-Town route. The minibus in the foreground is following the line of the route. The vehicle in the background (with its door open) was previously on the main road, traveling left to right. The operators chose to stop at the side of the road to collect more passengers and upon seeing none began reversing up the side street (the vehicle eventually disappeared from view; I left before it emerged).

On the road: the pearls and pitfalls of this type
of system
 

In this
environment, where the city is large and private automobile ownership is beyond the means of most, there is substantial demand for public
transportation. The capital investment required to serve that demand (by
purchasing a minibus) is notable but not extravagant. High unemployment and low
wages mean that there are plenty of people willing to depend on the thin and
unpredictable profit margin earned by drivers and conductors. The inevitable
response to that equation is the abundance of
minibuses
,
which makes competition a necessity – but not usually in ways
that make operations more pleasant.

Riders
feel one perpetual manifestation of this when approaching busy mid-route stops.
Since I frequently board inbound minibuses at the University of Zambia I happen
to know that stop to be notoriously undesirable: accessing the stop requires
walking along a long footpath with only one destination, so the conductors
start aggressively courting passengers over a hundred metres from the stop,
well before riders can see which vehicle they are being asked to board. Once a
conductor has claimed a passenger for his (usually empty) minibus there is an
understanding that the passenger belongs to him. Of course this conflicts with
the interests of all competing operators (and quite often with the interests of
the passenger) leaving physical aggression as one of the few tools to enforce
the claim. The conductors often shout at one another and try to steer
passengers towards their vehicles. Sometimes the situation comes to blows. The
entire charade occurs while there are more than sufficient passengers to fill
any one given vehicle, yet a multitude sit immobile as operators calculate how
many more passengers are worth their while to compete over. 

At busy
stops and some terminals there is another group of individuals who add to the
dynamic, the “call boys” or ngangwazi. Call boys provide the
“service” of collecting passengers for approaching vehicles, in exchange for a
payment from operators. Readers familiar with the informal economy in
low-income countries will know that this is not merely a benign value-added
service: the call boys will steer riders away from operators who do not pay.
Call boys can be very aggressive in their activities as their earnings are
based upon their ability to influence ridership and operator behaviour, and
aggression is one of the few tactics they have at their disposal to achieve
this goal. Call boys are thus generally disliked, although their presence is
usually tolerated as a fact of life. On occasion the activities of call boys
can reach a tipping point that stimulates an organized response, as has
recently occurred at one of the terminal
stations

Photo 4.1

Above: Showgrounds-Manda Hill bus stop on Great East Road on a Saturday. This is pull-out stop design is typical on Lusaka’s arterial roads, although some have the additional feature of a barrier between the stop and the road with a single entrance on the approach side and an exit on the far side. Note that this photograph was taken from the sky walk over the intersection of Great East and Addis Ababa roads; a maddening piece of pedestrian infrastructure that (along with the associated fencing of the intersection) forces one to climb/descend two stories to cross the road. On the plus side there is at least a reliably safe passage, a feature not available at the bus stop.
Photo 4.2

The large-size bus that I was riding was full and ready to depart the limited access pull-through stop at Millennium Station. Just before it left the minibus pictured at right reversed in through the exit to block our passage and collect a few additional riders.


The
designated pull-outs that have been created for stops are at least advantageous
in that waiting passengers are more fully separated from the speeding traffic.
Those with specific entrances and exits (presumably designed to instill flow on
the otherwise erratic vehicle movement around stops) can occasionally be a
curse, however, as it is not uncommon for a minibus to bypass the entrance and
park blocking the exit – ensuring that no one moves until that (now) front
vehicle is full. Predictably, this strategy also
comes with conflict.

The
corollary of the empty minibus waiting to fill is the full minibus speeding
toward its destination. Many of the secondary roads in Lusaka have wide rights
of way but only one paved lane in each direction. When traffic is heavy it is
thus common to see drivers leave the road in order to bypass traffic. Although
I have yet to see a vehicle stopped for this manoeuvre I am quite confident
that it is illegal. Interestingly, this is a strategy that is mostly employed
by minibuses and the occasional taxi, making me believe that this is a
calculated risk on the part of drivers where the potential of a fine/bribe is
weighed against the revenue lost by weighting in traffic. Using the logic of
spontaneity, it is almost possible to interpret the unpaved shoulders as public
transportation queue jump lanes. 

Since
Lusaka public transportation vehicles arrange riders by rows they are equipped
with “flip down seating” where the aisle disappears as the vehicle fills. This
design means that half of the bus must disembark/re-embark if a passenger in
the back right corner needs to alight, a reality that passengers seem to accept
readily, although grudgingly. Minibuses thus fill in a predictable pattern
where the permanent seats near the front fill first, followed by the back seat,
followed by the aisle. Although it is tempting to try and avoid the most buried
of seats it is necessary for someone to take them – and the vehicle will not
move until someone does. Besides, sitting in an aisle seat is no relaxing nap
either as the rider needs to regularly exit and re-enter the vehicle to allow
others off.

Fares are collected by the conductor in a wave starting at the
front and moving backwards as soon as the vehicle starts moving, with riders
shouting out the “name” of their stop (usually a nearby landmark). With the
varied and precise fares there is a constant issue of having adequate change;
it is common practice for a minibus to pull into a petrol station mid-route in
order to simultaneously gas up and seek change. With the back seats of the bus
being beyond the reach of the conductor it means that the fare payments and any
change given need to be passed from hand-to-hand. The process is even more
complicated on the busy routes where large buses are used and money needs to be
passed over as many as 5 rows of intermediaries, creating plenty of
opportunities for dropped coins.

With the
operations focused on full and fast-moving (where possible) vehicles, “problem
riders” are not particularly welcome on Lusaka minibuses. Although it is not
uncommon to see a rider board with construction supplies or a massive bag of
corn flour (with the payment of an additional fare), I have yet to see a rider
with a disability, nor a parent with a stroller, sights which are commonplace
during my transit journeys around Canadian cities. Strollers are likely a moot point for most Lusakans as in Zambian culture the traditional way
for a parent to carry a child is using a chitenge with the
baby wrapped around the mother’s back. As for the disabled, the current situation at least disadvantages, if not outright excludes,
riders who have practical difficulties in meeting the expectation of boarding
quickly and squeezing oneself into a tight space.

Riding
minibuses is far more affordable than owning a vehicle or riding private taxis,
but still expensive on local terms. One advantage of a radial network in a
system where every transfer means a new fare is that almost every
origin-destination pair involves only one connection, and making the journey a
little cheaper in the process. I learned this myself in my daily commute for
language classes from my home in Roma (north part of the city) to Bauleni
(south-east). When I would travel there through Town there was only one
connection and the fare was 9.50 kwacha (currently 5.5 kwacha = $1US), and the
one-way trip would take nearly two hours with the traffic. Through some
experimentation I learned how to make the same journey using a combination of
inbound, outbound, and orbital routes (including a shared taxi), requiring five
connections, but dropping my travel time to under 90 minutes. However, the
total fare rose to 19.50 kwacha. The entire journey from home to class by
private taxi is about 25 minutes in the morning rush hour, but costs me 80
kwacha. Meanwhile, until quite recently the minimum monthly wage for a domestic
worker in Zambia was 480 kwacha for up to 24 days of work. Had a maid or
cleaner been making the same trip that I was (which is not implausible), using
the slowest and cheapest routing, the fares would have consumed the
equivalent of an
 entire month’s salary.

The
reality that travel is expensive helps to explain the ridership behaviour of
patiently waiting at stops while vehicles take an eternity to fill and depart:
a rider is always free to get up and leave the vehicle before their
destination, but by doing so (s)he will forfeit the fare paid early in the
ride. It is possible to chase down the conductor and try to persuade the
granting of a refund or a rebate, but this is a discussion in which a rider
holds precious little leverage. Indeed, there is a more severe form of this
situation where minibuses have maintenance issues; it is not uncommon to see a
crowd waiting near a vehicle that is jacked up for a tire change so that those
riders can benefit from the remainder of the trip for which they have already
paid.

Reflecting on the ride

The
foundational principles of this system ensure that it will only remain a
viable, let alone enticing, option for the primary transportation needs of a
certain section of the population: those in the income band that can afford to
use it but not afford greater convenience. Presently, that population is large
enough, and their expectations low enough, to support an entire industry. The
system exists at the convergence of a price point that is accessible to a large
number of riders, the profitability required for operators to earn a meagre
living, and a level of functionality where riding is (usually) at least a bit
preferable to walking. In this respect, public transportation in Lusaka is
similar to a large and growing number of rapidly expanding cities where the
current public policy is that the government offer the absolute minimum of
attention and interest. The rider’s experience on such a system is directly
proportional to that interest and attention.

Beyond income, there is
also an element of class association; some Lusakans that I
have spoken with do not consider minibus travel even for the trips where it
could make practical sense and in the situations where it definitely makes
economic sense. It seems to be a common sentiment in more elite groups that
staying home is preferable, “as that is not a transportation
option for me/us.”

With
minibus riders and operators not well-represented among the economically or
politically powerful, this form of transportation seems to be framed as a
problem (rather than a solution) in the dominant discourse. One seemingly
common framing is that of minibuses “creating congestion” by veering from their
designated routes or stopping outside of designated areas. With this framing
the apparent solution to the hot-button issue of congestion is the application
of increasing constraint to minibus operation. Similar views are common regarding
the enforcement of regular
departure times
, and the obligation that operators accept passengers with disabilities
(Persons with Disabilities Act). There have even been calls for citizen
surveillance regarding vehicle conduct
and maintenance
. Such strategies use the stick while neglecting the carrot: the current
realities of discomfort and unpredictability are in fact rational products of a
system where the prime incentivizing force is the ability of a multitude of
independent operators to generate a very thin margin of subsistence profit.
Although it is possible to improve the situation experienced by riders through
greater regulation and enforcement, these options should be recognized as one policy
stream among many; and that these options need not be limited to those that
shift the burdens from riders to operators.    

“MaConducta’, nisala!”: Disembarking

Despite
its pitfalls, public transportation in Lusaka is generally safe, as understood
from both crime and road safety dimensions. It is, however, intimidating to an
unfamiliar rider, and there are no mechanisms to encourage rider orientation at
a system-level (note that I do not consider having a conductor run up and grab
your arm while asking “Where are you going [right now]?” to be
reasonable orientation). This post will hopefully serve as a de-mystifying
agent for at least some potential riders with open minds, patience, and an
interest for a respectful taste of the daily reality of many Lusakans. May we
collectively establish how to maximize the system for what it does well while
systematically steering clear of its worst issues.

is walkability a right? how would this work in india?

Sarah Goodyear in Atlantic Cities asks today if walkability should be conceived as a right.  She's talking, though, about India:

To call attention to the appalling situation faced by pedestrians in the city of Chennai, the newspaper The Hindu has launched a campaign called “Right to Walk,” which aims to "reclaim our city’s footpaths" and "goad local officials to act."

So far, dozens of readers using the Twitter hashtag #righttowalk have sent in photos and detailed accounts of sidewalks completely blocked by trash, parked cars and motorbikes, vendors, road signs, and construction.

All good.  In the US, which is much more accustomed to the language of rights, the argument should be even more effective.

As for India: obviously I sympathize with the pedestrians there, having been one myself. It's typically a brutal urban environment, and arguably even worse for cyclists, who are legion.

Dscf2117But one fact of life about the Indian city is that it's very difficult to keep any public space empty enough to offer unimpeded transport by any mode. Just as any unfenced patch of urban land is quickly claimed as somebody's home, an empty patch of street tends to be seen as available for either transport or business purposes, and naturally evolves a locally best use that may not be transportation at all.

Even the car lanes of Indian streets can be gradually reduced, in width and number, though a purely natural and unregulated process. The process goes like this: (1) so many people walk and bike in the curb lanes that motorists start avoiding them, (2) people set up tables in the curb lanes and sell things to the people walking there, and cars begin stopping to make purchases, (3) eventually the whole lane fills up with a mix of peds and commercial activity and the occasional random patch of customer parking, even to the point that durable private structures get built in the public right-of-way. In Visakhapatnam, Andhra Pradesh, I once toured a former 4-lane street that had gradually turned into a narrow 2-lane street through this gradual process that Indian planners call "encroachment."  

Key take-away:  Developing-world infrastructure has to be self-enforcing of its assignment of space, and this is a tough design problem that runs contrary to the instincts of developed-world urbanists.  Otherwise, the natural jostling process by which uses compete for available vacant space tends to prevail over all but the most vigorous demarcations.  This is why developing-world Bus Rapid Transit, and any other single-mode transport infrastructure, must have hard physical barriers to its right-of-way in order to function at all.  Otherwise, space is gradually lost to the sheer pressure from other uses.  

(The problem is especially severe for transit lanes because these only function of they are literally empty most of the time, thus allowing each bus to move through rapidly.  And in the Indian city, empty space looks like available space.)

The process by which available space gets used is comparable in some ways to the self-organization of public space that characterizes the famous developed-world shared spaces, but in India the process tends to be much more responsive to immediate physical and economic forces, including the urgency of commercial activity and the danger presented by the motor vehicle.  Cars do retreat in the face of a sufficiently large volume of pedestrians, bicycles, and informal commerce, but the struggle along this ever-moving frontier is certainly not safe, or pleasant.  

And I'm not sure how defining a "right" would change that.  Perhaps it would.

quotes of the week: cars vs buses in delhi

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"Car owners are the creators of wealth. Do you realise that they get exhausted sitting in their cars due to traffic jams and they reach office completely tired? It affects their efficiency. Do you want them to perform less?"

B B Sharan, the chief petitioner opposing Delhi's
new on-street Bus Rapid Transit system, on
the grounds that it leaves less space for car traffic. 

"The problem of car users, who are in a minority, is being portrayed in the press as the people's problem. The fact is that less than 10% people in Delhi use private cars. More than 33% travel by buses and 30% walk to work."

Geetam Tiwari, a road safety expert and professor
at Delhi's Indian Institute of Technology (IIT)

After months of drama, Mr. Sharan's complaint is being considered by Delhi's High Court.  

Note that even the professor is reluctant to note the obvious: that buses that are allowed to run quickly and reliably will be more useful, and thus likely to attract even more than 33% of travelers.  Unless, of course, you assume that class boundaries are absolutely rigid, with eternally fixed numbers of "bus-people", and that nobody changes their behavior based on utility.   With that assumption, you're stuck with a purely entitlement-based argument, still a very strong argument in Delhi but not the only one.

Side note:  Summing up the professor's percentages, it appears that some significant share of Delhi commuters are much-besieged cyclists, riding in immensely dangerous conditions.  The daily reality of the Delhi curbface is that vendors fill up pedestrian spaces, including any sidewalks/footpaths, forcing pedestrians as well as cyclists into traffic lanes.  Traffic in Delhi is often slow but always turbulent, with vehicles accelerating unpredictably to jump into perceived gaps in traffic. 

DSCF2117

First photo:  BBC

the beginning of the end of car travel growth?

Melinda Burns in Miller-McCune profiles a new study with some surprising news:

A study of eight industrialized countries, including the United States, shows that seemingly inexorable trends — ever more people, more cars and more driving — came to a halt in the early years of the 21st century, well before the recent escalation in fuel prices. It could be a sign, researchers said, that the demand for travel and the demand for car ownership in those countries has reached a saturation point.

The study is by Lee Schipper and my former colleague Adam Millard-Ball, both now at Stanford. Car ownership is slowing down too:

There are signs of saturation in vehicle ownership, too, at about 700 cars per 1,000 people in the U.S. — more cars than licensed drivers — and about 500 cars per 1,000 people in Japan and most of the European countries. Car ownership has declined in the U.S. since 2007 because of the recession.

It will be interesting to see how much car ownership rebounds as the US emerges from recession, which of course depends on when and how quickly that emergence occurs.  There are certainly some signals that the sustainable-urbanist alternative to car ownership — urban life dependent on a suite of options including transit, cycling, walking, and car-sharing — is holding its value through the recession better than car-dependent life is doing.  If so, we might never see car ownership rebound to the 2007 rate.

Car ownership is still rising in the developing world, of course, but Schipper doubts that can continue.

“My basic thesis is, ‘There ain’t room on the road,’” he said. “You can’t move in Jakarta or Bangkok or any large city in Latin America or in any city in the wealthy part of China. I think Manila takes the prize. Yes, fuel economy is really important, and yes, hybrid cars will help. But even a car that generates no CO2 still generates a traffic problem.

“Sadly, what is going to restrain car use the most is that you can’t move.”

Well, if developing-world cities weren't growing horizontally, creating new space for gridlock, I'd be more confident in that call.  But it's definitely encouraging. 

weekend distraction: colombian bus rapid transit

Commenter Adriana offers a feast of videos of Bus Rapid Transit systems in Colombia.  Not Bogotà’s well-promoted Transmilenio, but a collection from smaller cities:

  • A flashy video on Cali’s El Mio (“Mine!”) by Mauricio Alzate is a nice example of how all the techniques of marketing video can be applied to something as seemingly prosaic as BRT.  If you live in a wealthier country you my find this video easy to make fun of, but BRT can be transformative in a city that has known only a gridlock of collective taxis, pedicabs, etc., and this kind of flashiness has a role in building understanding and excitement about that.
  • From Bucaramanga, a video on how using your new smartcard system correctly will help you win the approval of pretty young women.
  • From Pereira, an informative nonflashy video showing how the BRT system looks from a driver’s point of view, with little text boxes capturing the viewer’s thoughts along the way.  This video is a good place to notice the South American preference for high-platforms with high-floor buses.  Most of the rest of the world prefers low-floor, partly because of inter-operability with ordinary street-running and also for ease of emergency exits between stations, as well as for the intrinsic qualities of vertical space within the vehicle.  So when you see a high-floor system outside South America you can be pretty sure that South American planning consultants have been there.

Palestine: Time to Think About Transit?

Can good planning help address the grievous problems of the Palestinian territories, including the challenge of conceiving its patchwork of lands as a viable state? My friend Doug Suisman, a Los Angeles architect in private practice, has been working on the problem for years, through a remarkable project called the Arc. The New York Times profiled it five years ago.  Despite all the bad news from Israel and Palestine since then, the work has continued.  The idea is to have a plan for the urban structure and transport infrastructure of a Palestinian state, something that’s ready to go when an independent state is created and that can even be part of the run-up to independence. Continue Reading →