Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Why transport planners need to think small

Why transport planners need to think small to tackle climate change

- Simon Bishop, Delhi, India

No matter how big or small all movements have their heresies and orthodoxies. In the domain of transport policy, questioning the primacy of motorized public transport over cycling and walking is like suggesting that the world may not be flat after all. The mercury rose and emails flew on the Sustainable Transport Sustran online discussion group earlier this week when Beijing’s announcement to make the city ‘a public transport city’ by 2015 hit the wire.
One contributor questioned Beijing’s strategy, which was based solely on raising levels of rail and bus ridership to 45%. Once the mainstay of China’s urban transport system, the bicycle, didn’t even get a mention.

From where I'm sitting in Delhi I added that there is a tendency to see 'motorized, mass public transport', through rose tinted glasses as if it is 'the' solution to growing automobile use. A huge amount of emphasis is put on the Metro and now BRT as ways to solve congestion (never mind about all the other externalities). Bicycles and legs are ignored despite holding a huge modal share, over half of all trips in Delhi.

I think it was the Indian economist Dasgupta who showed that you could make public transport free in the UK and still only effect a very small shift to it from the car (6%). The fact is that cars are damn convenient and people will use them unless they are literally prized away from doing so. The vast majority of people use public transport in London and NY because they have to. It’s well nigh impossible to park your car and it will cost you big time if you do! I hope that Beijing's approach will witness parking restraint and pricing as a lynchpin of its policy, otherwise it will be a funding drain and a white elephant.

The rose tinted spectacles also ignore the role of cycling as faster and more convenient than the bus over short to medium distances. Why swap a more convenient form of transport for a less convenient one? The only other thing that can compete with the car over these distances is the motorcycle, which should also be deterred for safety reasons and its high emissions of Nitrogen Dioxide.

Presently people don’t ride, or use cycle taxis because motorised vehicles make them less safe. They need an ‘image makeover’. And planners continue to ignore rider comforts like tree cover and vendor zones in hot countries air pollution all over.

Cheap interventions like prioritising access for cycles and pedestrians across high speed vehicle canyons should be a priority. These interventions save lives, make cycling and walking practical, and come in cheap - kilometre for kilometre a cycle track in London would cost less than 1/400th the amount of the Jubilee Line extension.

In terms of our greatest challenge, global warming I am perturbed. Where you have quality bus systems (with good timetables in the off peak and feeder services) they consume amounts of per capita energy rivalling that of the car. Quoting London, the average actual CO2 emissions of a bus is 40% that of a car, PM10 emissions are 3 times and SO2 emissions 25 times greater - that's not much of an improvement and certainly not enough to stabilise carbon emissions at 450ppmv. In Taipei, taking account of door to door emissions, the Metro actually consumes more energy than a car!

The counter argument to all this is that Asia is not London and you can’t compare ridership levels in London with Asian cities. True for now, but planners need to think about the future. What people put up with now is not what they will put up with as they get richer and have choices. Delhi does not yet have a public transport network that those with a choice of private, motorized transport would opt to use. The figures that we quote on fuel efficiency for buses in Asia NOW are not those that will exist with the kind of network needed to get wealthier citizens on the bus. And by the way I’m not talking about rich citizens, I’m talking about ones who can afford motorcycles that run on less than 1 rupee a kilometre.

To get motorcyclists and car users to switch in future, or at least stay on the bus, even WITH very strong demand management measures and low fares, we'll need to increase frequency, add A/C in some cases, bring down the 'crush factor' and widen geographical scope, all of which will inevitably result in more energy consumed per passenger. It's hard to disagree with this line of thinking without adopting a line of ‘one standard of public transport comfort for 'the West' and one for the developing world’.

This should not be construed as an argument AGAINST public transport, particularly buses, after all the more of us that use them the better, and there will always be a need for those who cannot cycle or walk, but it IS an argument for Beijing to re-discover leg power, put greater emphasis on travel demand management, and control urban sprawl. If the world is to face its greatest challenge, that of averting catastrophic climate change, we have no choice.
The bicycle is the perfect transducer to match man's metabolic energy to the impedance of locomotion. Equipped with this tool, man outstrips the efficiency of not only all machines but all other animals as well.
-Ivan Illich, Energy and Equity, 1974


- Simon Bishop is working as a transport and environment consultant in Delhi, where he lives with his family. In India he has worked on bus and cycling projects like the Delhi BRT and helped set up the Global Transport Knowledge Partnership. Before coming to India two years ago Simon worked in London as a planner on demand management and travel marketing schemes, receiving an award from the Mayor for "London's Most Innovative Transport Project". He authored 'The Sky's the Limit' - Policies for Sustainable Aviation' while working as a policy adviser in the Institute for Public Policy Research.

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