In urbanised Asia Pacific, mass transit is the new focus

By Amit Roy Choudhury

How Asian city officials can pick the right urban transport systems, as urbanisation reaches a tipping point.

Tricycles in Laoag, Philippines. Image: Bernard Spragg - Public Domain

This year marks the tipping point for urbanisation in the Asia Pacific region. From 2018, more than 50% of the region’s population would be living in urban areas, rather than in the rural countryside.

This has profound implications for governments across the region as the pace of urbanisation is only going to increase. By 2050, two thirds of the region’s population will live in cities and there is no historical precedent for an urban transition on such a massive scale.

This mass migration to urban sprawls is posing a unique set of challenges for urban planners and officials. One of the most challenging among them is how to design transport systems for cities that are high capacity, relatively cheap (in accordance to the economic condition of the population) and environmentally safe.

Designing mass transit

Typically, urban mass transit systems are complex, expensive and take a long time to set up.

Gerald Ollivier, World Bank’s Singapore Transport Cluster Leader, notes that city leaders must determine very early on how much they can afford to spend on urban mobility, how they are going to mobilise the resources required to build and operate a transport system, and who is going to bear the cost.

Ke Fang, Manager, Investment Operations, AIIB (Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank), feels that while cities need to look at financial viability of projects, they also need to look at the broader picture which includes economic viability, when deciding on a particular system for mass transit. There is an important distinction between financial and economic viability as the later also takes into account whether the project brings about desirable socio-economic benefits to the city, even if the project itself may not directly pay for itself.

Both Fang and Ollivier note that in designing a transportation system, city planners need to look at a combination of public transport, non-motorised transport, traffic management systems, and travel demand management measures (such as parking and road pricing) while planning for transport development.

“The most successful transport systems are the ones that combine a broad range of mobility options into an integrated network, with an emphasis on greener options like mass transit combined with walking or biking. Such systems allow passengers to transition seamlessly from one option to another based on their specific needs and emphasise access, convenience, affordability, and quality of services,” Ollivier notes.

Planning for the long haul

A good example of the kind of long-term planning required to develop a high quality and viable mass transit network would be Singapore’s transportation network.

Way back in the 1970s, Singapore’s person-to-car ownership was still 1:16, but transport planners knew then that car ownership would increase dramatically with economic growth, and to keep building more roads was not the answer, due to the city state’s acute land shortage.
Singapore MRT station. Image: Ahmed Riyazi Mohamed - CC BY-ND 2.0

After much deliberation and planning the Singapore government gave the approval for a MRT (mass rapid transit) system in May 1982. The MRT was perceived to be much more than a transport investment, and was viewed in its wider economic perspective in terms of gaining foreign investors’ confidence, the multiplier and spin-off effects such as added value to adjacent real estate and in promoting economic and social activities.

Similar to what Singapore did several decades ago, most city planners today are looking at combination of different systems for their transportation needs.

Asia’s urban hubs

Take the case of Surabaya, Indonesia’s second largest city with a population of around 3.5 million.

Irvan Wahyu Drajad, the city’s Department of Transportation Head, says that planners are looking at a combination of transit systems supported by trunk line and feeder services.

Because this is mass transportation, the backbone is aligned in two directions, south and north and west to east. However, connecting the people to their residences will be done by feeder bus services and tram. “In Surabaya, we not only focus on mobility, but also on land-use planning for transportation,” Drajad adds.

Interestingly, Surabaya had a few years ago announced that it would build a monorail system. However, subsequently it abandoned the plan and has decided to go with a LRT (light rail transit) system.

Explaining the switch, Drajad says that the city planners found the monorail system to be too expensive and that is why they decided not to pursue it. “We are starting with tram first. We are also building park-and-ride. We hope that the tram service will start to operate from next year, and LRT will be done after this,” Drajad adds.
“In Surabaya, we not only focus on mobility, but also on land-use planning for transportation.”
While Surabaya found monorail too expensive and went with an LRT system, Davao City, on the southern Philippine island of Mindanao with a population of 1.6 million people has found that a monorail system is better suited for their needs.

Ivan Cortez, Davao’s Head of City Planning and Development Office feels that a monorail is a more suitable, given the projected passenger per hour per direction growth over the next five years along the busiest route in the city from Ulas to the CBD (central business district) on to the airport.

Davao City is also implementing a “highly-prioritised” bus system which will complement the monorail network.

Making the right choice

The two different choices made by Surabaya and Davao highlight differing viewpoints with regards to an LRT system versus a monorail system.

Interestingly, monorail systems which run on a single elevated track have been around since the early 1900s when it was first introduced in Germany. However, due to several reasons, including relatively slow speed, high cost of construction and space constraints, monorails have never become mainstream, relegated to fringe services such as the famous Disneyland monorail, Singapore’s Sentosa monorail and various airport mass transport services, for example at Changi Airport. Globally there is less than 1,000 km worth of operational monorail tracks.

Recently with city planners frantically looking to augment urban transportation systems there has been renewed interest in monorail systems.

According to the Global Monorail System Market 2017-2021 by Absolute Reports, the global and regional Monorail Systems market was valued at US$4.78 billion in 2017 and will grow to US$5.63 billion by the end of 2023. The compound annual growth rate for the market is estimated to be 2.77% till 2023.

Monorail system costs vary widely depending on the location as well as route. The Mumbai monorail cost US$27 million per kilometre, while the Dubai monorail cost came in at a whopping US$73 million per kilometre.
One of the strongest arguments against monorail vis a vis LRT is the capacity as well as safety due to the fact that monorails run on a single track.

Passenger safety and transport efficiency

When compared to the kind of civil works required to set up a monorail system, its passenger load capacity of around 20-50 passengers per car does not justify the investment, notes Jean-Marc Pagliero, Alstom’s Solutions Director for Autonomous Shuttle Systems, Products and Innovations.

“The other big issue is evacuation of people [from the cars] when there is an event,” Pagliero adds. Due to the single track there is no space for passengers to walk out of cars in case the system breaks down. He notes that if monorail cars are made bigger, to carry around 1,000 passengers, like MRT systems, then it would be impossible to carry out an evacuation.

The other drawback of a monorail system, according to him, is the turnaround time for the trains. In a metro system (either MRT or LRT), what is important is how fast one can turn around the train at the end of the line, he adds. In MRT systems, trains are turned around every 90-95 seconds, but with monorail it is a much more complex process which takes far more time.

When there is space available, Paglierio believes that LRT is a far better alternative in terms of cost and services, for transport capacity up to 10-12,000 passengers per hour per direction (pphpd). Meanwhile, for heavier use with over 10,000 pphpd, a metro on a viaduct could provide safer and more efficient service for the same cost range.

However, as World Bank’s Ollivier says there is no one-size-fits-all solution when it comes to designing urban transport systems. “Rather than setting their sights on one specific transport mode, planners need to examine the needs of their citizens and capacity of their city to develop a vision and deliver complete systems that will fit into the local context,” he notes.

Amit Roy Choudhury is a senior technology journalist who writes a weekly piece for GovInsider.

This article was produced in partnership with Alstom.