Q&A with Dario Hidalgo, Part 1: Modernizing Public Transportation
Optibus BRT station in Leon, Mexico. Photo by CTS-México.

Optibus BRT station in Leon, Mexico. Photo by CTS-México.

This interview is part of a bi-weekly series with sustainable transportation advocates, planners, engineers, journalists, sociologists, and other experts working to shed light on best practices and solutions from across the globe. We welcome your suggestions for future Q&As.

A new report, “Modernizing Public Transportation,” presents the first comprehensive review of major bus improvements in 13 Latin America and Asia cities. Released by EMBARQ (the producer of this blog), the report synthesizes the challenges faced by transport system decision-makers in three key areas: planning, implementation and operations. In order to assist urban transportation planners and agencies, the study provides recommendations for avoiding or mitigating similar difficulties when introducing bus reforms in cities in the developing world.

The report finds that the transit improvements in 13 cities resulted in a variety of improved conditions. These include reductions in air pollutants, greenhouse gas emissions, noise and traffic accidents, as well as increased efficiency by bus rapid transit (BRT) corridors compared with traditional bus services. Corridors in the selected bus systems exhibit very high usage levels (up to 45,000 passengers per hour in each direction), with comparatively low capital investments (less than $12.5 million per kilometer) and small operational subsidies.

“Modern buses are a key component of public transportation which has a major impact on the quality of life—including the environment, air pollution and public health—for millions of people,” EMBARQ Senior Transport Engineer Dario Hidalgo said in a press release. “Increasingly, these cities are upgrading or even transforming their public transport systems to better serve the needs of their populations and the environment.”

The report confirms that BRT can be implemented quickly and provide high-capacity transportation for urban residents. In Part 1 of this Q&A, we talk to Hidalgo about why he chose to conduct this research and what he learned about the importance of bus systems, especially in Latin America. Tomorrow, we’ll present Part 2 of the interview, in which Hidalgo goes one step further to explain why modern transportation—especially BRT—matters for other cities around the world.

Hidalgo offers a few key take-aways:

  • City leaders needed to be realistic regarding timetables and not simply cater to their political ambitions;
  • BRT routes should be fully integrated into the rest of  a city’s public transport system;
  • Projects faced extensive challenges in accommodating regular city traffic;
  • Where BRT services were new, public information and user information is critically important;
  • The quality of information to make decisions must be extensive and cities should use experiences in other cities as a reference; and,
  • For decision making, developers should seek approval from high-level leaders, maintain community involvement and pay careful attention to regulatory issues.

What is the most important finding in the report?

The most important contribution is the recognition of all these systems in their respective cities, especially in saving travel time and formalizing transit provisions and reducing greenhouse gas emissions.  All of these BRT systems went through a set of contracts from public sector to the private sector to reach the implementation state.  We also found that these cities had problems in planning, implementation and operations. We were able to make some recommendations for the improvement of these processes in different cities.

How did you choose the cities?

We selected cities that completed significant transit reform in the last 10 years. We added Curitiba because it is an iconic city in the urban planning world.  Curitiba’s BRT system is from the early 1970s, but the city is an important reference. We were not able to include all the cities that have done improvements so we just selected some of the relevant projects.

The cities you studied covered a wide range of urban populations, from half a million to nearly 20 million people. What were the differences in findings based on population and density?

There was a big diversity in the cities in terms of covering the needs of diverse communities. The systems grew in complexity as the cities grew, but there were commonalities as well. The most interesting fact was that all the systems were rushed in implementation. The systems were commissioned before they were complete so the city leaders could show results within political windows. Rushing implementation resulted in similar problems for the different cities: the infrastructure was incomplete and there were issues like limited training for bus drivers.

Despite initial problems, the bus systems proved to be very resilient. Even the catastrophic implementation of Transantiago was solved over time.

You say that initially there were problems due to the speed of implementation or a general lack of execution. Was a lot of money lost? Did the systems lose credibility?

In the case where systems faced large difficulties, there was need to put money into things that were not planned. For example, Mexico City had to replace pavement and overhaul all the stations. Santiago required sums to cover operational deficits. All these things could have been avoided if the systems were more carefully planned.

Problems in implementation do cause problems in credibility.  Nevertheless the issues were solved relatively fast and the systems proved popular because they are fast and convenient.

What other sorts of concerns with BRT did you find in your work?

The most important concern from the user end is the high occupancy of the different bus systems. There is a need to really understand the acceptable occupancy of transit systems in developing countries. Engineers accept the levels that users do not. In survey after survey, the main complaint is occupancy levels. It is the same in Asia and Latin America.

In general, BRT systems need to look more closely at the user end of the spectrum. That’s not easy because it comes at cost. System design is done by experts to the detriment of user requirements.

Another concern is user fares. User fares are set as low as possible and not necessarily in relation in the system costs; the fare and the subsidy need to be technically defined.   Plus, there’s a need for policy in Latin America to define the level of subsidy, which does not necessarily mean covering all the costs with the user fare. Subsidies to cover financial losses are not good subsidies. This was the main discussion at last week’s International Conference for Sustainable Transport held in Mexico City—how this is a concern that needs further study.

How was the study received when you presented it in Mexico City?

We received really good comments. The deputy minister of transport for Chile, Gloria Hutt, really praised the study as an important understanding to bus reform in our cities.  She said that cities need to recognize that bus systems are complex systems that need careful and complex and analysis. It is important to look at specific systems in detail.

Why is BRT so common in Latin America as opposed to other regions of the world?

This is because the first city that implemented full BRT was Curitiba. It is the cradle of the BRT concept. The second reason is that all the cities face very big financial contrasts to implement higher cost transit so they need to be very creative. In Latin America this is certainly the case.

Given that the concept of BRT has been more accepted in Latin American cities because of the high usage of transit, it has been easier to allocate the limited roadways to buses.

And what about Bogota’s TransMilenio system— it was one of the oldest BRTs you studied. How is the system faring 10 years later?

Bogota really made a difference in the way cities look at transit because the system is a very high-capacity system (integrated feeder services, 1,190 articulated buses and 1.6 million passengers per day). After 10 years, the system is showing a lot of success in carrying large numbers of people along its only 84-kilometer network.

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GET THE FULL REPORT: The main report, including the executive summary, is available for download here. The study’s first two case studies—profiling Leon and Guadalajara, Mexico—will be available by the end of October. The remaining seven case studies will be published by the end of November, including Bogota and Pereira, Colombia; Curitiba, Brazil; Guayaquil and Quito, Ecuador; Mexico City, Mexico; and Santiago, Chile. The other cities covered in the report are Sao Paulo, Brazil; Beijing, China; Ahmedabad, India; and Jakarta, Indonesia.

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