Saturday, 26 September 2009

Surface mass transit system would be better for Dhaka than underground railways

Yasmin Chowdhury
The recent decision to build a Metro (underground rail) system in Dhaka has met with a range of responses. On one side is the "halleluyah" response-at last, government is taking public transit seriously, with plans to invest serious funds (at least $3.2 billion US dollars) into making life easier for the masses.

On the other side rises the practical question: how feasible is the plan, how much will eventually get built, will it actually function, and might not a different form of public transit-say, a tram or trolley, or Bus Rapid Transit-achieve similar benefits for about a hundred times less money per kilometer?

On the bright side, traveling in cities with a Metro is a far different experience from traveling in those without one. Where I grew up, there is no developed system for public transit, and it is virtually impossible to get around without a car. Since I let my driver's license expire about a decade ago, I feel like a child when I visit, reliant on adults to take me places. Meanwhile, when I visit big modern cities, like Boston, Washington D.C., Chicago, New York City, or San Francisco, or any number of European cities, I can easily move around on my own.

But while the independent mobility is a blessing, with it comes a significant downside. When traveling underground, we fail to experience the city we are in. Living in Boston and frequently traveling by subway, I had many of the stops memorised, and could easily get around underground-but I had no idea what was over my head. When I finally got into the habit of walking through the city following the subway lines but above ground, I realied that only now was I gaining a perspective of where buildings, monuments, and important parts of the city are in relation to each other-not in terms of a subway map, but in terms of actual physical layout. In the process, I realised how little I had actually understood, all those years of living there, about the true layout of Boston-or of what is to be found in various neighborhoods that I had ever only passed under. The parts of the city I knew best were those I walked in, or where the subway emerged into a street-level trolley, and there was a sense of connection between the passengers and the street life out our windows.

When traveling underground, we are unaware-and thus often unconcerned-about the situation at ground level. Passing under a slum, we don't pause to reflect on the lives of the people there, and whether something couldn't be done to make it better, or on why trash is thrown here and there, or how desolate some of the streets looktbut we do notice those things when traveling on the surface, and there is the possibility that from noticing, we will go on to change it.

This has a direct practical side as well for business owners; when traveling at ground level, we can see shops and other amenities. Oh, that's where I can buy that-or oh, that looks like a pleasant restaurant! And knowing where it is and how to access it, there is the possibility of going back someday. This is both a far more amusing way to pass the time when traveling then in looking at tunnel walls, but also is good for the businesses we pass.

Then of course there are the practical matters. I remember seeing a map of the subway system in Washington, D.C. which showed various "planned" routes. I remember seeing the same map year after year, and being surprised that they were never built. Short on funds? Similarly, I read in the newspaper in Bangkok that the sky train was supposed to extend far beyond the existing network.

That hasn't happened, and the sky train itself took many years to build in part, I hear, due to corruption. Meanwhile, the new Metro in Bangkok doesn't go much beyond the sky train. What then are the chances that Dhaka will succeed in building all it plans? If the existing plans prove unaffordable, as the price of materials continues to rise, how much will a very limited system do to reduce traffic congestion or make traveling easier?

Meanwhile, building a subway system requires building a lot of tunnels. The funny thing about tunnels is, they have to be accessed from the street. This involves a lot of big holes, and while those holes are in place, streets are closed down. So congestion will be significantly worse for the years during which the Metro system is built.

There is also the issue of crowding on the subway. I was in New York City recently, and given the intense street-level congestion, when going too far to walk, I tried the subway. It was certainly better than being stuck in traffic, but of course I had no idea where I was, and I couldn't decipher the thick New Yorker accent of the conductor. On one trip, the train was so packed that I couldn't see out the windows to read the names of the stops. This made arriving at my destination a bit of a challenge, and left me as clueless as ever about the geography of Manhattan.

The sky train is often packed in Bangkok, with barely room to stand. Thais are polite, and I have never had a man grab me. Unfortunately, I can't say that for my experience of riding in crowded subways in Boston, and I have heard horror stories about the system in Mexico, which apparently had to provide separate carriages for women to prevent sexual harassment on the packed trains.

Then there are those lovely escalators down to the stations. Where there are hills, or where the system must go under high rise buildings, stations must be built far below ground. Some of those escalators seem to go on forever. Stepping onto those moving stairs with the ground so far below as to seem to belong almost to another planet always makes my head spin. I was relieved, on a recent trip to D.C., to discover that a Bangladeshi colleague had the same experience, only worse. He insisted on taking the lift. Of course the lifts are intended mostly for the disabled, those with small children, or those with luggage, so one sometimes must wait a long time for it. Between long lines for lifts and the crowded situations of the trains, it sometimes feels as if we have simply shifted a portion of our traffic congestion below ground.

Speaking of traffic congestion, it helps to remember that people need to be able to get to and from the public transit stops. Getting from one stop to another in little time is a great convenience, but the benefits of that convenience are rapidly diminished when it is difficult to get from public transit to one's actual destination. I made a mistake in Bangkok once and got off at the wrong subway stop. As I came up to the street, I realised that where I needed to go was on the other side of a highway, with no provision for crossing. I could either go back underground, pay again, then wait for another train to come along to take me just one more stop, or I could risk my life running across the highway. Needless to say, I ran.

In cities with broken sidewalks, and sidewalks blocked by parked cars, and barbed wire and cement medians to prevent people from crossing the street, getting to and from public transit becomes a daunting challenge.

Anyone in their right mind would choose to drive instead, if they had the option, thus defeating in large part the point of the public transit in the first place: to woo people away from their cars. That is, public transit doesn't exist in a vacuum-it is part of the city, and it is meant to connect places not just along the tracks, but throughout the city. If people can't easily get to the stops on foot, or on rickshaw, then there is little point in building the system in the first place.

Then there is that lovely dream of the uncongested streets of Dhaka, once our Metro system is built. How many large, crowded cities with crowded Metros have streets free of traffic jams? Let's face it, moving through a city-even at a good pace-underground just isn't that pleasant an experience. Subway stations are often hot and smelly. Homeless people tend to use them as urinals, and there are always those aggressive people who insist on smoking despite all the signs. If subways freed up the streets, then all the passengers who could afford a car or taxi would go back to riding in one.

I remember once being late for the airport in Boston and figuring that rather than go all that way below ground, and change trains twice, and move at the snail's pace the Boston subway often goes at-it is the oldest subway system in the US and thus the least modern-I would take a taxi. Of course it took even longer, thanks to all the traffic, and I missed my plane.

Yet Boston's subway system is far more extensive than Dhaka's is likely ever to be, and it is easy to walk in Boston, and there is a good bus system to complement the subway, and the population is a fraction of Dhaka's. So why are there still traffic jams, when the Metro is supposed to eliminate them?

I'm sure the decision was made in good faith. Perhaps the planners involved have not spent much time in the major cities of the world, and experienced both their subways and the traffic situation above ground. Perhaps they feel that people enjoy being below ground, or that the city is best experienced as little as possible-that is, either underground, or safely insulated in a steel box. No doubt they consider the expenditure of a mere few billion dollars quite reasonable, pocket change really. Perhaps they are too busy to read the Strategic Transport Plan which was meant to map out the best transport plan for the future, and which found that a Metro would offer no significant improvements over surface public transit, and thus there is no justification to build it.

Even allowing that a few billion dollars is a minor sum which should involve little thought or planning before expending, I would still suggest that when Dhaka's city planners make their final decision about an efficient, fast, affordable, high quality system of public transit, they should be careful not to miss the boat. It's a lot more expensive and more technically difficult to build and operate an underground system than a surface one.

We would get a far more extensive system, with far lower fares or less government subsidy, if we built a surface rather than an underground system. The system could be built a lot faster than a Metro, and with a lot less disruption of traffic during its construction. That issue of fares is important-around the world, public transit tends to be expensive, and yet still highly subsidised by government. The more expensive the system is to build and maintain, the higher the fares and the subsidies, and the less that will eventually get built.

People could see their city out the windows while riding, gaining both a sense of perspective and of knowledge of what is happening around them. A less expensive system could be started quickly, and gradually expanded.

Ensuring that people can walk around the city would not only make the public transit system viable, but would help reduce congestion by shifting some short distance trips to walking. The money to fix our footpaths, and the political will to ban car parking on them, should not be more difficult to find than the billions planned for the Metro.

Public transit is definitely the way to go-but not all public transit was created equal, and leaping onto the wrong train won't help us reach our final destination.
This article also published
  1. The Daily Star & Star Magazine Forum Going Underground
  2. The Dail New Nation Thoughts on metro
  3. The Financial Express Surface mass transit system would be better for Dhaka than underground railways Dhaka Rickshak Pro-people Transport Plan All Newspapers on one click

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