Interview with Dan Chatman: Integrating Pre-Existing Public Transportation with Bus Rapid Transit in Developing Cities

By Christina Olsen

Christina Olsen is Program Director at Meeting of the Minds and has been working with the organization for more than 2 years. For the past 15 years, Christina Olsen has provided research, advisory services, project management, planning, and general management to a wide range of sustainability organizations and projects around the world. She holds a master’s degree in Sustainability and Environmental Management from Harvard and a BA in Environmental Studies – with a joint major in Anthropology – from the University of Victoria.

This interview series is made possible by the Volvo Research and Educational Foundations. Each month we feature a leading thinker from VREF’s Future Urban Transport program.

Meeting of the Minds took a few moments to talk with Dan Chatman on the integration of paratransit services with Bus Rapid Transit around the world. Dr. Chatman studies travel behavior and the built environment; residential and workplace location choice; “smart growth” and municipal fiscal decision making; and the connections between public transportation, immigration and the economic growth of cities. His research relies heavily on original data collection, including surveys, focus groups and interviews. Before joining UC Berkeley’s Department of City and Regional Planning, Chatman was an assistant professor of urban planning and policy at the Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers University and director of the Alan M. Voorhees Transportation Center at Rutgers University. His previous experience includes work as a planner and consultant in the Bay Area, and three years with the Peace Corps in Botswana.

What kind of research are you doing with VREF’s support?

We are looking at Bus Rapid Transit (BRT), which is publicly-run new public transit service that runs along high-volume corridors with service characteristics that make it faster than ordinary buses, but is usually much cheaper than passenger rail service. Specifically, we are studying issues around bringing in BRT while integrating pre-existing transportation services that are privately provided in many cities around the world. These services include minibuses run by private drivers who stop at multiple and flexible pick-up locations along their routes. These bus services take different forms around the world; they’re called “colectivos” in parts of Latin America, “matatus” in Kenya, and “kombis” in South Africa. This kind of privately-provided public transit is often referred to overall as “paratransit,” although in the US, paratransit refers to specialized services for the elderly and people with disabilities. Also in the US, public transit is almost exclusively run by public agencies; any privately operated services are usually done under a very tight contract. This not the case elsewhere in the world, especially in Latin America and Africa where our work is focused.

There are several good reasons to implement Bus Rapid Transit. It overcomes safety issues with private operators who may be unscrupulous, involved in organized crime, not paying their drivers very much, or running vehicles that are unsafe or poorly maintained. Over-competition and drivers easily joining private service consortiums can also increase the number of vehicles clogging up roads, leading to more congestion. These problems have been used as justifications for bringing in BRT.

BRT is presumed to be an improvement to existing public transportation. However, it involves big changes – both institutionally and in the way service is implemented – and requires big investment. Also, high quality service tends to be provided along a limited number of radial axis trunk lines, which requires additional feeder services to get to and from the stations. The switch-over from privately provided transit services to a centrally provided system is definitely beneficial to some people but could be problematic for others.

It sounds as though the benefits and challenges of Bus Rapid Transit aren’t always straight forward. How are you finding out what makes a BRT system successful?

We’re studying what is actually happening in places where BRT has been implemented. We’re looking at the before and after situation for people, the issues, the improvements, the problems, how BRT was rolled out, and how it is structured in terms of services and coverage. The big question that hasn’t been looked at before is to better understand the experiences of users so that pre-existing services can be integrated into the new system without increasing wait times or travel distances too much.

In many cities, existing privately-provided public transportation services have been told they had to shut down or be restructured because they would compete with the new BRT line. That means users no longer have a “one seat” ride—they can no longer get all the way to their destination without transferring.

What cities have you looked at regarding BRT implementation?

We are looking at five cities: Capetown, South Africa; Baranquilla, Columbia; Quito, Ecudaor; Jakarta, Indonesia; and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.

We’re focusing on second-tier cities, not the big cities of four million or more that are able to stage pretty good BRT, typically along with underground rail. Smaller cities, especially those in developing countries, just don’t have the same resources so they struggle to provide quality public transportation service. This is where BRT has a potential advantage because it is cheaper than rail, or at least it should be. But cities need very strong leadership and the right political moment to allow large swathes of public roads to be set aside to make Bus Rapid Transit competitive and beneficial. That transition is fiscally cheaper than developing either an underground or above-ground elevated public transportation system. But politically it’s very difficult to do and we don’t have a formula for solving that problem anywhere.

Are you seeing any trends or patterns emerging between BRT systems?

We’ve found there are actually more similarities than there are differences in the way that BRT has been implemented. This is partly because cities have similar issues, but it is partly because they are applying the BRT concept without customizing it to their needs. So far we think there are three main lessons learned, which have to do with how the systems are geographically structured to meet existing transport flows; how pre-existing operators are integrated with the new BRT service; and how the systems compete with the push to automobility in developing cities.

BRT is typically set up in terms of trunk and feeder lines in which a BRT line runs in and out of some center of activity, with other lines running out to residential centers. The planning process tends to focus on which corridors to choose and then how to get people to stations on those trunk lines.

In Baranquilla, they want to expand but it’s hard to make money to cover costs. Similarly, in Capetown, they are running one main line that serves an apartheid-era township on the outskirts of the metropolitan area. Phase 2 is currently more of an express bus. Again funding is an issue. These things can take time to work out. Quito started 30 to 40 years ago and they now have three different BRT lines. It happens to be a long narrow city so in a way it’s perfectly set up for BRT because it is already a corridor. Geography to some extent dictates whether a BRT system works well or not.

Another big difference between cities implementing BRT is in the nature of the relationship between existing operators and agencies trying to newly provide public transportation. There is a lot of variance on how powerful the operator consortia are. Some of them have political power and that changes the equation when it comes to figuring out how to regulate and what types of deals to offer to existing paratransit or private transportation operators to get them to participate with the new BRT or keep their services in some way. One response is to bring in some existing minivan drivers to drive new vehicles on the new BRT lines and pay out the rest to retire their vehicles.

In case of Capetown, all three operators were bought out for large amounts of money when negotiating the contract. In Baranquilla the consortia wasn’t as established and there was a reduction in service because there weren’t big payouts. There has been a lot of research done on payment contracts and they play a role in whether resulting services can provide similar service than the previous one.

The physical and institutional structure of the system sounds critical for success. Can you explain the other challenge of automobility?

Every transit investment in the world is pushing against the tide of “automobility”, which is the use of the automobile as the major means of transport.

Recently, there has been a huge boom in motorcycle ownership across Latin America. This is largely because motorcycle prices have come down, whether they’re being manufactured in Latin America or bought cheaply from Asia. With a motorcycle, you can get anywhere cheap and fast, so unless you’re right on a trunk line, there’s no reason to use BRT. The same thing is happening to some extent in Capetown, although there it’s strictly about auto ownership. This is the case pretty much everywhere else around the world too.

In Ecuador, there is a huge subsidy for petrol which makes it ridiculously cheap to drive. Even Quito’s well developed public transportation isn’t as fast as automobiles and taxis for most trips, and partly because auto use is so cheap, transit fares can’t be charged anywhere near what the system costs. That creates a negative spiral in which the system can’t be maintained and may eventually fall apart. Without high gas taxes, the cost of automobility is artificially low and public transit starts off at a deficit.

Another problem in Quito, Barranquilla, Capetown, and elsewhere is land use. Regulations promoting low-density new developments that require a lot of parking mean there isn’t sufficient population density to retain an ongoing market for public transportation. Significant reform is needed on the land use regulation side of the equation.

Are there any lessons from your case studies that other cities could learn from?

All these cities are learning at the same time. Frankly, BRT has been sold as a cure-all to many places but more cities have become aware of having to be much more strategic with how they bring in pre-existing operators when creating BRT plans. For example, Jakarta had a lot of competition and not enough planning on their lines, so it was a terrible system. They are now remedying that by not making decisions without the input of paratransit operators.

BRT is really just one piece of a larger transportation network. There is so much that is specific to each individual metropolitan area, but everything comes down to various kinds of resources: especially human capital and time. There will be less of those in cities struggling with other issues, rather than those that are strongly connected with the global economy and have the funding to attract people with better education and more experiences.

So much is context-specific but there are some basics: you have to involve users and residents of neighborhoods in the planning processes so that the systems put in place are serving people well.

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