Last chance for the bus rapid transit solution
In July 2012, my Inclusive Mobility Project Team at the Ateneo School of Government brought a number of mayors, including then Mayor Del de Guzman of Marikina, officials from the Metropolitan Manila Development Authority including then Chair Francis Tolentino, officials from the Department of Transportation and Communications, the Department of Public Works and Highways, and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) on a study tour of the Guangzhou Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) in China. The tour was taken in partnership with the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy, the US-based NGO that convinced the Guangzhou mayor to adopt the BRT.
Guangzhou is a huge industrial city of 13 million people, comparable to Metro Manila. In the extensive briefings, we were shown before and after pictures. Before, Zhongshan Avenue—where they constructed the BRT—looked like a Quezon Avenue perennially choked with cars. After the BRT was constructed, the lanes for the BRT going both ways and the center island where the stations were now occupied half of the avenue.
We looked at the BRT from various angles. We went up to tall buildings to look at the BRT below, appreciating how, systemically, the buses moved in a straight line. In stations, the BRT lanes become two lanes, so the buses taking in or disgorging passengers can be overtaken by those who are done. The stations are also long—accommodating several buses, almost like the MRT and LRT stations.
We traveled extensively on the BRT, experiencing how to get to the center-island stations using pedestrian overpasses as well as underpasses that were connected to major malls and commercial buildings. We learned how to obtain the ticket cards, and board and alight from the buses. The experience was actually no different from taking the MRT and LRT. Some buses were articulated or interconnected, and the inside of the buses were like the train coaches — a lot of standing space, and the doors opened toward the center island where the stations were.
We also went to the bus depots and to the central computerized control station where total communication with all the buses was made possible, and CCTV cameras along the stations and route gave real-time information.
Our study team was extremely impressed, and looked forward to getting a similar system in the Philippines. The Guangzhou Bus Rapid Transit has gone on to be one of the best examples of a successful BRT. It now has a daily ridership of one million passengers. There are 26 stations over the 22.5-km distance.
Most cities looking to solve traffic congestion are considering BRT first. A BRT costs 4-10 times less than subways and elevated trains. It is a simpler system that can be up and running within five years.
Which is why the Philippines has, over the past decade, drawn up several BRT projects — the 12.3-km Manila BRT Line 1 from Quezon Memorial Circle in Quezon City to España Boulevard in Manila; the 48.6-km BRT Line 2 along Edsa traversing Ayala Avenue in Makati to the World Trade Center, from Ortigas to Bonifacio Global City and Pasay City’s Ninoy Aquino International Airport; and the 13-km Cebu BRT Phase 1 from the Bulacao BRT Terminal, Fuente Circle, to the Ayala Center Cebu.
But a BRT is counterintuitive. In the case of Guangzhou, the BRT occupied as much as 24 meters of the existing avenue. In an avenue that is already congested, that sounds crazy. And the inability by key decision-makers to comprehend that the BRT works best in congested roadways will kill the idea.
This is exactly what is happening to the BRT in the Philippines. Despite the hopes and meticulous preparations for the Philippine BRTs, Transportation Secretary Art Tugade now tells us he does not think the BRT will work on busy roads. He thinks it will work only in areas like New Clark City that are not congested. To Tugade, the BRT “would only worsen our already congested roads.” In a recent forum, he argued, “Can you dedicate one more lane in a place where there are only three lanes? Can you dedicate a lane in a system like Edsa, where you have six lanes but are already overcrowded?” For this reason, he said he has not been inclined to approve a BRT system in Edsa and Cebu.
But the BRT solution has been successfully applied to cities all over the world, because there are ways of implementing the solution to fit conditions on the ground. At the moment, the BRT in the Philippines appears dead in the water, until the transportation secretary grows a metropolitan imagination and vision. I can now understand why Sen. Grace Poe is infuriated with the man.
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