This article by Prashanta Khanal was published on The Kathmandu Post on July 29, 2012
Recently, a Korean company was selected to carry out a feasibility study of the much-hyped metro train project in Kathmandu Valley. Around Rs. 70 million is being spent to carry out a study of 75 km of underground and elevated track.
Metro trains are popular options and carry a large volume of passengers at a time, but they are expensive to build and operate. This is why cities in developing countries are unable or reluctant to invest in a metro system.
Most of the metro systems around the world are highly subsidised by the government. If the operational costs weren’t subsidised, a majority of the urban population couldn’t afford to ride the metro.
There is an absolute need to improve the public transport system in Kathmandu Valley with higher capacity vehicles and cleaner technology. Existing public transport systems are inefficient, unreliable and unsafe. These are often more concerned with profits than providing services to the commuters.
More people are opting for private vehicles because of the poor public transport services. There has been a dramatic increase in the ownership of private vehicles, largely motorbikes, which has resulted in more traffic chaos, air pollution and road fatalities.
However, the development of a Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system has shown efficient and high quality service comparable to the metro system at a fraction of the cost. Many cities around the world, mostly in developing countries, are adopting BRT systems to meet the increasing transport demands of an urban population in a cost-effective way.
BRT: Think Train, Ride Bus
Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system is a bus-based transit system with exclusive right-of-way lanes. These dedicated lanes greatly increase the vehicle speed and swiftly move the passengers, thus making it competitive with car travel.
It combines the best features of the rail system’s high flexibility with cost advantages of the road transit system. Passengers are provided with comfortable stations, higher capacity buses, real time information system and customer-friendly services. The other features are a pre-board fare collection system, rapid boarding and alighting, and cleaner vehicle technology.
Unlike the metro system, BRT system is typically self-financing due to its lower operational cost.
The BRT system costs 10 to 100 times less than the metro system. The typical cost of BRT system is USD 0.5 to 15 million per km, whereas metro costs USD 50 to 320 million per km.
The example of Bangkok shows that a city can be built with 7 km of underground metro system in USD 1 billion, whereas in the same cost, a city can build 426 km of BRT system. That is, the cost for building a few km of metro train can build BRT system throughout the city.
Many cities around the world are now adopting BRT over metro. Over 120 cities are now operating BRT systems or have dedicated lanes for buses, and many other cities are under construction or planned largely in India and China. Guangzhou, China and Ahmedabad, India have some of the best BRT systems in the world and have been given Sustainable Transport awards for their contribution to sustainable urban mobility.
BRT system can efficiently transfer a large volume of passengers—up to 45,000 passengers per hour per direction, a similar capacity to the metro system. A well-planned BRT often serves more passengers than the rail system. The BRT system in Bogota, Columbia (TransMilenio) moves more passengers per kph than 90 percent of rail systems in the world at a similar speed.
In Medellin, another Colombian city, an elevated and surface rail system built at a cost of USD 2900 million moves 340,000 passengers per day and has operational losses. On the other hand, TransMilenio’s first phase cost USD 250 million, moves nearly 800,000 passengers daily and makes a profit.
Unlike BRT, metro system often serves a limited area of the city and is not flexible. For the cost of a metro system that moves 10 percent of the population at best, the high Bus Rapid Transit system can solve the city population’s transport needs.
Planning and execution time of BRT are relatively shorter. Thus, it helps cities to solve the immediate urban transport needs supporting the future transport demand. A BRT system can be planned and built in less than three years, whereas the planning and execution time for metro system is relatively high—three to four years for planning and over five years for construction.
Bus routes and shelters are more flexible, allowing easier expansion and adjustments, unlike the rail system. The maintenance and adjustment costs of the rail system are extremely expensive and time consuming. Also, the lower average bus lifetime gives flexibility of timely fleet modernisation to more environmentally friendly and high capacity of buses.
Urban rail system has also bad experiences around the world. The light rail transit (LRT) system in Kuala Lampur, Malaysia, which was supposed to be a cost-effective transport system for the city, went bankrupt after few years of operation with over a billion USD of debt. This left Malaysian taxpayers bearing the debt while private developers and suppliers made a huge profit.
The rail transit in Manila drains huge amounts of money from government coffers as operational subsidies. With the same amount that Manila spends for a year in operational subsidies, it could build an entire BRT network and make a profit.
It is high time that we revolutionised our urban transport system. Kathmandu has huge potential to introduce BRT system in major truck routes with cleaner vehicle technology—preferably a trolley bus system.
Many of the roads are now being widened to easily accommodate dedicated bus lanes and provide space for other road users.
Enrique Penolosa, the former mayor of Bogota, once said, “Underground trains: It is nicer to go on the surface, with sunlight, looking at a city. Those who say underground metros are wonderful have not had to take one every day to work.”
Considering the economic and geological condition of Kathmandu Valley, metro train is not a wise choice. Rather, we should seek an affordable and efficient transit system like BRT.
Khanal is associated with Clean Energy Nepal and Nepalese Youth for Climate Action