Saturday, 26 September 2009

Pricing public transit: Drawing lessons from Bangkok

Yasmin Chowdhury
I first visited Bangkok in 1994, 1 got around the city mostly by bus. The buses were slow, the streets congested, and I soon learned that I could only make one plan for the morning and one for the afternoon, as it might take a couple of hours to move about.

Then the city started to build their sky train. I waited with great anticipation for its completion. It seemed to require a lot more time and a lot more money. As a matter of fact, the project two years' more time and three times the cost that were initially anticipated, and the fares are admittedly quite high. However, it was, after all, finally built, though never finished. (I saw an article in a Thai newspaper about how people got very upset that the planned line to their area had never been built; meanwhile, the pilings leading to the now domestic-only airport have been converted into advertising posts.)

To be quite honest, I love the sky train. Sure, the cement structure looming overhead is ugly. Sure, most of the stations lack escalators, making them inaccessible to those in wheelchairs, and exceedingly difficult for those lugging heavy bags or luggage. True, the two lines only cover a very limited portion of Bangkok and the service is expensive, too. But despite all the hassles, the trains are often packed. The stations are congested and I sometimes have to shove around the crowd to reach my train. But at least I can see a little of the city while I travel, and I can now get around to the stops on the line quickly, allowing myself to visit far more places in a day.

Though the sky train certainly makes moving around the city much easier (if you can afford it), it obviously hasn't alleviated the congestion, as the government then opened a very limited subway system. The first time I tried to ride it, about a year after it opened, it was closed for two weeks due to an accident. I finally rode it a couple of years after that, and discovered that it cost about US$0.50 to ride what it would take me 10 minutes to walk That seemed outrageous, and I don't love riding up and down long escalators and travelling in tunnels. Since the Metro doesn't seem to go much beyond the sky train, I stick to the sky train.

But now, after spending billions of dollars on those mass transit systems, and despite having an existing extensive bus system, and more roads than most Asian cities of their level of economic development have, the government is now planning bus rapid transit -a bit like a street-level trolley, but with buses instead of trams. Of course, that too is delayed and the cost is a fraction of that for the sky train and Metro.

A more careful look at those costs reveals something interesting and of considerable relevance as Dhaka plans its public transit system. According to various Web sites, the sky train, which opened in 1999, cost about US $1.5 billion for 24 kilometres. That amounts to US$62.5 million per kilometre. Of course, things were cheaper back then.

Construction of the Metro began back in 1996, but it wasn't finished until 2004. According to Wikipedia, "The project suffered multiple delays not only because of the 1997 economic crisis, but also due to challenging civil engineering works of constructing massive underground structures deep in the water-logged soil upon which the city is built." Interesting.

As for cost, the Metro costs a mere US$ 2.75 billion for 21 km, or US$130.95 million per kilometre-just over twice that of the sky train. Apparently burrowing underground, dealing with flooding issues, providing ventilation, and so on is much more expensive than building it above our heads. Meanwhile, again quoting Wikipedia, "ridership has settled down to around 180,000 riders daily - considerably lower than projections of over 400,000, despite fares being slashed in half from 12-38 baht to 10-15 baht per trip.

As of 2006, fares range between, 14-36 baht per trip." With an exchange rate as I write at 32 baht to one US dollar, that's a mighty high fare.

Meanwhile, the anticipated cost for the BRT is 33.4 million for 36 kilometres. Admittedly, anticipated costs are often far less than actual costs, but still, at US$0.93 million per kilometre, that's a bargain compared to the Metro or the sky train, even more so when considering it's being built last when prices are highest. At 67 times less than the sky train and 141 times less than the Metro, even with significant cost increases, it will still be far more affordable than its public transit predecessors.

Of course, operational costs are another issue. Buses require fuel, trains electricity. Buses tend to require more maintenance, tires wear down frequently, and buses have to be replaced far more often than trains. While it is cheaper to build a BRT system initially, the higher operational costs might mean that, in the long term, a tram system would be more affordable-tram meaning street-level light rail, not something up in the sky or underground-which greatly multiplies the costs.

Which is all to say, I'm all for public transit. So, apparently, are Thais. The last time I checked, hotels and housing advertise their proximity to the various public transit options. Apparently, people are sick and tired of sitting in cars stuck in traffic jams. In public transit, you can sit back and read a book while you ride, look out the window (preferably not at tunnels), eavesdrop on your neighbour's conversation, and otherwise amuse yourself without risking crashing into someone, once the traffic moves again.

But when considering spending millions or billions on public transit, it would make sense to invest it wisely, in a system that will be the most extensive and least expensive, and thus offer the best value for the money. At 141 times per kilometre less to build BRT than Metro, we could both have a far more extensive system, meeting far more needs of the people, and lower fares. Sounds like a bargain to me!
This article also published: Dhaka Rickshak Pro-people Transport Plan All Newspapers on one click

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