“A good public transport system must be easy and convenient to use, fast, safe, clean and affordable”

Rachel Kyte

Rachel Kyte joined the World Bank in September 2011 as vice-president of sustainable development. She oversees the Bank’s global work in agriculture, the environment, infrastructure, urban development and social development. Kyte talks to Global about the barriers to creating and maintaining sus­tainable public transport systems in the developing world, and the need to balance affordability for passengers with long-term eco­nomic viability of services. She stresses the importance of choos­ing the right transport system, and believes that there is little value in a city opting for a high-cost system if a smaller, less expensive one could do the job.

Global: How important are good public transport systems to urban and social development?

Rachel Kyte: Good public transport systems are an essential part of safe, clean and affordable transport for development. From a social perspective, public transport is often the only means of transport for the poor. Without it, they would be able to look at work opportunities only within walking distance of their homes, so public transport improves their livelihood opportunities. It also gives them greater access to education, health care and recreation. For senior citizens, people with disabilities and children, public transport is also their main means of mobility.

From an urban mobility perspective, public transport is far more efficient than personal motor vehicles in terms of the road space it uses up and the energy it consumes. For example, a bus carrying 40 passengers uses only 2.5 times more road space than a car carrying only 1 or 2 people. And the same bus consumes only about 3 times as much fuel as a car. Public transport is thus important for improv­ing sustainable mobility in urban areas, and we consider it the right approach to encourage low-carbon growth in cities.

What are the key elements of a sustainable public transport system? Can you provide examples of countries or cities that are leading the way in this area?

A good public transport system must be easy and convenient to use, fast, safe, clean and affordable. Seoul, Singapore and Hong Kong are known for their excellent transport systems. Smaller cit­ies like Lyon in France and Curitiba in Brazil also have very good systems. More recently, León in Mexico, Pereira in Colombia, La­gos in Nigeria and Ahmedabad in India have developed good sys­tems. Many more are in the offing.

A key feature is that they integrate multiple technologies, such as metro rail, light rail, Bus Rapid Transit and basic bus services. A common ticket or fare card serves all the systems, making it easy for passengers to transfer from one mode to the other. Passenger information systems enable users to know when the next service is due and to understand the routes easily, and high frequency of service reduces the hassle of a long wait for the next bus or train.

What are the main barriers to sustainable public transport in developing countries? How do these problems differ from region to region?

An important barrier is the historical industry structure. Many coun­tries in Africa (Ghana, Nigeria, South Africa), Latin America (Co­lombia, Peru) and Asia (Philippines, Indonesia) have bus systems that are owned and operated by a large number of small operators. Meanwhile, other countries in Asia (India, China), North America (USA, Canada) and Europe (France) have a single publicly owned entity that provides all transport services. Experience shows that nei­ther of these is the best for ensuring a good public transport system.

Having a large number of small operators allows for low-cost services, but the quality is poor due to severe competition. Other disadvantages include dangerous driving practices, pollution and a tendency to have too much service on profitable routes and virtual­ly no service on non-profitable routes. Meanwhile, single publicly owned entities may offer higher quality of service but costs tend to be high and the quantity of service is often inadequate.

There is increasing recognition that the best industry structure falls somewhere between the two. Having a single public entity that plans the network and determines the quality of service, with a small number of private operators providing services under struc­tured contracts, allows a balancing of public good needs with the operational efficiency of the private sector. However, the historical industry structures make it difficult to undertake reforms.

Another barrier is the financial sustainability of mass transit sys­tems, especially metro rail. These cost a lot to build as well as to operate, and so the operating costs are not recovered through fares. It is essential to look at additional revenue sources, beyond fares, to sustain such systems.

The social image of public transport is another barrier. In devel­oping country cities, as income levels go up, people like to demon­strate their enhanced income status by shifting from public modes to personal motor vehicles. The public transport system is seen as the only option for people who cannot afford their own vehicle. As a result, people tend to look down on someone who is using public transport. Getting the image of public transport right is a challenge.

How does the challenge of providing rural public transport differ from the urban context? How important is it to ensure that rural and urban systems are integrated, and how can this be achieved?

In rural areas, the challenge is in providing connectivity to urban mar­kets for rural produce. Public transport is not needed to meet travel needs within each village. Such connectivity to urban centres, or between one village and another, need not be run at very high frequency – a few serv­ices a day are usually enough. The challenge, however, is to be able to do it at an affordable price. In urban areas, the challenge is that there are competing modes, like personal vehicles, which are unsustainable. In getting people to choose public transport over personal vehicles there are stringent quality parameters that need to be met. These relate to con­venience and reliability, which are not as stringent for rural-urban con­nectivity or even for connecting one rural area to another.

What specifically is the World Bank doing to promote the development of sustainable public transport systems within member countries?

The primary contribution of the World Bank has been in providing funds for urban transport projects. Between 1999 and 2011, the World Bank supported over 80 urban transport projects in different parts of the world, with commitments amounting to about $10.5 billion. These projects are delivering results. For instance, in Bogotá, Colombia, each day close to 1.4 million passengers – approximately 27 percent of the city’s public transport demand – benefit from the TransMilenio bus rapid transit system, supported by the World Bank. According to data from 2009, riding TransMilenio results in average time saving of 32 percent (20 minutes) per trip in comparison to the traditional bus system – more than 10 hours a month for the average rider. Trans­Milenio has been able to abate 0.25 metric tonnes of CO2 emissions a year. The programme also has decreased accident rates by 90 percent in the corridors where the system operates, scrapped more than 2,100 old buses and reduced noise levels by 3-10 decibels.

The World Bank also contributes to capacity development and knowledge-sharing to facilitate the design and implementation of sustainable projects. We have found that urban transport is com­plex and requires an appreciation, at leadership levels, of its mul­tiple dimensions. Mere building of facilities is not enough and a more comprehensive approach is needed. Our Leaders in Urban Transport Planning programme seeks to develop capacity among senior policy-makers and planners in cities, provincial govern­ments and national governments, so they can adopt a more holistic view of transport planning within a city.

As living standards increase, the demand for transportation also rises. In developing countries and emerging economies, the solution seems to be to increase on-road transport – private cars, buses and other shared motor vehicles. How can we encourage the development of low-polluting mass transit systems like the Metro Rail in Kolkata and the Gautrain in Johannesburg? And given that many developing countries have only a small budget for transportation, how can these expensive initiatives be financed? How can costs be minimised for passengers?

First and foremost, if budgets for transportation are small, it is im­portant for cities to choose a system that meets their needs. There is no point in a city choosing a high-cost system if a smaller, less expensive system could do the job. Expensive systems can be a big drain on the public budget, not only for construction costs but also for the annual operating costs.

With regard to financing, the capital costs can be supported with loans, provided there is some contribution from the promoters – typically governments. The challenge is in the operations phase, when not only do the operating costs have to be met but the debt service has to be covered. Further, it is usually difficult to balance cost recovery with affordability. Public transport is often the only mode of transport available to the poor, so fares have to be low; but low fares mean that costs are not recovered.

Fortunately, several innovative methods of financing have emerged, of which the commercial exploitation of land resources owned by public transport agencies seems the most promising.

Does the World Bank support well-managed but exclusively state-run public transport systems, or is the policy preference for those systems with a strong element of private ownership and/or management?

The World Bank supports good management of transport systems, regardless of whether the agency is public or private. The impor­tant point is good and professional management. There are sev­eral well-managed public agencies that the bank has supported. For instance, we are supporting a metro rail project in Kunming, China, which will be built and operated by a government entity. We are also supporting a performance enhancement project, through the use of IT systems, in Mysore, India, where the operator is a government agency. Proposals for supporting the Cairo Transport Authority, which operates bus services in Cairo, are under discus­sion. Nonetheless, our experience has been that systems where a public agency is involved in planning and regulation, with services contracted to private operators under well-defined contracts, work best. Therefore, we would recommend such arrangements wher­ever the existing arrangement is not working well.

About the author:

Rachel Kyte is Vice-President of Sustainable Development at the World Bank


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