18 February 2008

Now blogging at "Reinventing Urban Transport"

The Urban Transport Asia blog is dead, long live the Reinventing Urban Transport blog!

I have decided to start blogging on urban transport again after a long break.

But instead of writing more here, I will be blogging at Reinventing Urban Transport.

05 December 2006

Make not owning a car the smart choice

I submitted this article to the Straits Times and it appeared on 17 November 2006.

Make not owning a car the smart choice
by Paul Barter

Urban transport policy in Singapore is becoming more difficult to handle.

In the early 1970s Singapore faced traffic chaos, a failing bus system, little money for infrastructure and acute awareness of space limitations.

The answer was a hard-headed “bargain” that offered steady improvements in space-efficient public transport at the price of making ownership of space-wasting cars unattainable for most. This has been widely seen as a success

However, both sides of this bargain are under growing strain. Demands for broader access to cars have been difficult to resist. At the same time, pressure has intensified to dramatically improve public transport. These trends may be heading us towards a policy dead end and may be a concern for LTA policy makers as they conduct the recently announced ten-year review of land transport policies.

Restricting car ownership has been a key plank of Singapore transport policy since the 1970s. It works but it is a blunt instrument. Ownership restriction is an indirect way to tackle congestion and there is political fallout from the frustration of those denied car ownership. But with space at a premium, the need to keep traffic under control remains strong. Congestion remains a constant threat, even with only one third of households owning a car. At the same time, the scope for cost-effective expansion of road capacity is modest.

These issues prompted policy-makers to seek ways to allow broader access to cars while containing their usage, especially at congested times and places. 'Off-peak' cars are an example - although much cheaper to buy, they cannot be used during the busy times of the week. Car-sharing, which offers short-term car use with fees based on time and distance, is another promising option, as we will see.

For a decade now, the policy for mainstream privately-owned vehicles has been shifting from high purchase and ownership taxes, to one with a greater reliance on usage charges, especially Electronic Road Pricing, to deal with traffic problems. This policy shift also foreshadowed a slight relaxation of the vehicle quota limit, although recent low COE prices have been as much a result of soft demand as of increased supply.

Implementation of this policy to have lower fixed costs and higher usage costs has in fact been cautious. This is apparently from concern that easing ownership restrictions too quickly could cause a surge in car numbers and soaring ERP and parking prices.

Nevertheless, if the policy remains in place we can expect gradually lower price barriers to ownership - in addition to the decreases of recent years - together with rising usage costs. A logical extension of this policy, which is not yet on the agenda, would be to put all vehicle taxes, and even insurance, on a 'pay-as-you-drive' basis. This would require reliable measurement of distance driven, perhaps via an improved ERP system.

Meanwhile, more affordable access to cars has paradoxically fuelled mounting political pressures to improve public transport. Traditionally, policy makers face constant calls to keep fares affordable for the poorest sections of society. Not surprisingly, this is the case in Singapore as well. But here, it will be increasingly those in the middle of the income scale - with a wider range of transport options to compare with mass public transport - who will demand improvements.

It is likely that more households with rising incomes will tend to keep using public transport, such as the expanded MRT and LRT network and buses, for some trips but become intolerant of less-than-excellent service. A growing group can afford liberal use of taxis. Also, as usage costs go up, even car-owning households can be expected to keep the car at home and use public transport.

As a result, the number of “part-time” public transport customers will continue to grow, straddling a broader band of incomes. This is because cars are increasingly an option at lower incomes than previously, while usage costs are rising. Declining satisfaction with bus waiting times and complaints about taxis are a foretaste of things to come. More calls for better public transport service can be expected from this group of “part-time” customers.

However, current regulatory and financing arrangements for public transport make it difficult for the regulators to drastically raise standards and require the operators to meet this challenge for better service, especially if fares cannot be significantly increased.

Are these three constraints - from lower-income households to keep fares down and from the middle-income to both expand access to cars and raise public transport service standards - taking us to a dead end then? Must we retreat to a policy of just suppressing aspirations for cars? Fortunately, there are other possibilities.

What if we instead embrace these trends and even take them much further? There might be a cost-effective way to push most car costs onto usage fees, to address aspirations for greater access to cars, and to simultaneously embrace the need for excellent alternatives to privately owned cars. But how?

Strangely, offering greatly expanded access to cars could actually be an important part of the solution. Not by increasing car ownership, but on a fee-for-service basis, especially through the growing car-sharing industry. At least five car-share companies now operate in Singapore, offering their members short-term access to cars, without the high fixed costs of actually owning one. They have a highly usage-based price structure which encourages them to be used in moderation, as a complement to other modes of transport. This means there should be no need to limit the number of car-share cars via COEs or ARF. In fact, they should be much more explicitly encouraged.

We should view car-sharing, together with car-rental and taxis, as important elements of the alternative to privately owned cars. They are a natural fit to join with public transport and the humble modes of walking and bicycles in a comprehensive 'alternative mobility package'. The best examples of this concept have been pioneered since the late 1990s by Switzerland's highly successful car-sharing company, 'Mobility', through its customer-friendly cooperative arrangements with other transport businesses, especially public transport.

On their own, none of these modes can compete with the convenience of owning your own car. But the Swiss experience is showing that together they can offer a competitive package of transport services that in many ways is comparable with privately owned cars, but at much lower up-front cost. Public transport must continue to improve as well, but a mobility-package approach should share the burden and take some pressure from its shoulders.

So we could make car-ownership increasingly unnecessary by working harder to make a non-car-owning lifestyle an attractive option. This policy emphasis offers a way to address the aspirations for convenient mobility which many of us currently focus on having our own car.

The low levels of car ownership in places like Tokyo, Manhattan, Hong Kong island or central Paris demonstrate that affluent people will happily remain “car-free” if the alternatives are comprehensive enough. Singapore too can aspire to be a place where not owning a car becomes the smart choice for people in every income bracket.

23 September 2006

Kyoto funding opportunity for BRT

The prospects of funding Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) in the 'Global South' just improved!

According to Business News Americas (found via http://www.transportnews.org)
The TransMilenio public transport system in Colombian capital Bogotá has become the first mass transit system in the world to be considered a clean development mechanism (CDM) in accordance with the Kyoto Protocol, the Andean Development Corporation (CAF) stated in a press release.

The UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) has approved CAF's methodology to consider the TransMilenio scheme as having a CDM component.

This means that it is officially accepted that the TransMilenio system reduces the emission of greenhouse gases because of its greater efficiency in transporting passengers and due to the partial substitution of private means of transport by high quality public services.
This means that it will be "be eligible for carbon emission reduction certificates (CERs), which can be traded with developed countries to help the latter reach the carbon emission reduction goals set out under the Kyoto Protocol".

This answers a call made by Wright and Fulton in a paper that I reviewed last year. They argued that projects like Bogotá's BRT system, which involve mode shifts to inherently more efficient modes of transport, such as well-used public transport systems, are far more cost effective than efforts that focus on fuel technology. Their arguments focused especially on BRT as offering widespread opportunities.

It will be interesting to see if this sets a precedent that can be followed up on by many other similar projects.

The photos with this post are of Mexico City's BRT line, known as Metrobus.

03 August 2006

'Naked streets' and safe chaos

I recommend taking a look at YouTube's GlobalSouth group which has more than 60 short videos now on transport in developing countries.

A striking number of the videos are simply footage of streets or intersections in countries like India, China or Vietnam. Most of them show traffic that at first glance looks completely and utterly CRAZY, often with a mind-boggling diversity of road users doing anything and everything you could imagine.

And the amazing thing is that it seems to work. For some good examples look here or here.

One traffic clip (this one of an Indian intersection) provoked hot discussion at sustran-discuss in April. Some saw it as horrifying, while others suggested it was actually working very well. No consensus emerged I am afraid (see here and several responses). By the way, the Indian video looks to me like it may have been deliberately sped up a little to improve the slapstick effect!

Here is one of the approving sustran-discuss comments:
As it happens, I shot a similar video last summer in Urumqi, except there's also a pedestrian crossing going through it which is freely used by the cars doing u-turns. I started to video it to show people how bad the traffic and driving was. After 10 minutes of filming I realised that it all worked rather well, and felt suitably humbled about my prejudices.
Let me assume for today that the chaotic looking situations in these videos are actually rather safe, with few serious accidents (although probably quite a few minor ones). This is a big assumption (and I don't have the evidence to make it) but it does not seem unreasonable.

The roads in these videos all seem somewhat 'naked' - along the lines of the 'shared space' approach to road and intersection design. Maybe they are inadvertently naked and not by careful design as shared space advocates might want. But these streets or intersections are working (maybe even working well!?) without all the traffic engineering paraphernalia or signs and traffic lights, etc. Or maybe the signs and lights are just being ignored.

Does this threaten to turn our quest for order and traffic discipline on its head? Maybe streets with vulnerable road users actually NEED a certain amount of chaos to work safely!? Maybe they need to have all those crazy turning movements, mixed vehicles, pedestrians meandering and bicycles sailing through in order to keep everyone awake and alert to the unpredictable? Maybe, as David Engwicht puts it, safe streets need more intrigue and uncertainty not more predictability.

Someone else wasn't so sure, however:
It is a trade-off of efficiency and safety! Similar driving behaviors
and situation in most of Chinese cities, resulting an "official record"
of 100,000 more fatalities and 520,000 more injuries annually!!
Indeed, some of the videos DO show examples of chaotic Chinese urban traffic going HORRIBLY wrong (WARNING: not for the squeamish - some of these crashes are a tad upsetting).

This made me wonder. A casual look suggests that the key difference might be speed. The accident scenes in the video from China almost all show situations in which the traffic is light and the speeds high, even though in most cases nothing much else is different about these crash intersections compared with other 'chaotic' intersections. This is more a question than a conclusion, of course, based on this little video-based 'investigation'!

But running with this idea for a minute anyway, maybe the horrendous traffic accident statistics that we read about low-income countries (high rates of accident per vehicle, not per capita) are not happening at the really 'crazy' times at all and are not a result of the obvious disregard for rules - at least not when it is at its most obvious?

Maybe these same chaotic places only become dangerous when the traffic is lighter, when there is not enough chaos, and the motor vehicles tend to pick up speed? A hypothesis that would be worth testing more carefully I think.

A bunch of other questions arise. I wonder if there are any simple design features for such places that could prevent speeds, and hence danger, from increasing at times when traffic is light?

The naked streets toolbox apparently can work such magic ... with designs that make it feel like a pedestrian or playing child or bicycle might leap out in front of you at any moment, even if there are none around. Could we find low cost ways to do this that would suit Indian or Vietnamese cities? Or maybe I don't know enough about shared spaces as done in Europe. Could it be that Dutch naked streets also get dangerous when there are too few people using them?I must find out.

On the traffic efficiency side there are other questions, which I will save for another day.

24 July 2006

Part 3 of "Moving Forward: towards better urban transport"

This is the third and final part of the video.
Part 2 of "Moving forward: towards better urban transport"

SUSTRAN Video "Moving forward" now online

Six years ago I helped produce an educational video on urban transport policy for the SUSTRAN Network (and some funds from the Southeast Asia Regional Canada Fund.

I have finally got around to putting it on YouTube. So here is Part 1, and Parts 2 and 3 will follow shortly.

Sorry they are a little grainy. The VCD version was never of super high quality.

"Moving forward : towards better urban transport" gives a brief introduction to some of the isssues related to modern urban transport in the 'global South', with a focus on Southeast Asia. It has footage from Burma, Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand and Singapore, this documentary outlines problems associated with transport in cities. It also introduces some of the key tools to tackle these challenges, and make urban transport safer, cleaner, healthier and more people-friendly.

Credits: Produced in 2000 by the SUSTRAN Resource Centre (Malaysia) for the SUSTRAN Network, with the assistance of the Southeast Asia Regional Canada Fund. Produced and directed by Zaitun M. Kasim and Paul Barter. Video concept by Paul Barter, Tamim Raad, Zaitun M. Kasim; editing by Neil Felix, Pusat Komunikasi Masyarakat, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.