Before you build a metro, read this

By Nurfilzah Rohaidi

Tips from a transport specialist for developing cities that want sustainable public transport.

Image: Pexels

Bangkok’s sky train system is an instantly recognisable feature of the city. It certainly beats sitting in traffic a dozen metres below.

And it’s a model that developing cities in the region look towards. “When you go and talk to people in say, Vientiane or Phnom Penh, and you ask them what do you want your city to be like in five, ten or 20 years, they basically describe Bangkok,” says Geoffrey Kurgan, Transport Specialist at the World Bank.

But Bangkok’s approach to transport may not be a good model for developing cities in Southeast Asia to follow, Kurgan notes. Instead, cities should prioritise pedestrians and cyclists, and make roads safer for them, he tells GovInsider.

Think long-term

 Bangkok’s answer to rampant traffic congestion was to build the overhead BTS train system, and it similarly addressed a lack of pedestrian space with an extensive network of elevated walkways.

But the reality, Kurgan says, is that the BTS was an expensive solution that did not really solve the city’s congestion. Bangkok “did not necessarily address things at the street level, which is more sustainable and a lot cheaper than having to build a BTS”, he explains.

Developing cities across Southeast Asia often assume that there will be “enormous traffic volumes” in the future. But this may not be the case. “Huge percentages of the population are still not going to have the disposable income to buy cars 20 years down the road; they're still going to be relying on the transport network,” Kurgan says.

Instead of designing transport systems to favour cars, countries should prioritise pedestrians and cyclists, and convert motorcyclists to public transport users, he says. The first step is to plan thoroughly for a future transport system, and take the route that makes most sense financially. They should “tackle the problem [of traffic congestion] now, before it grows out of hand”.

Often, cities that lack funding try to build one-off train lines, pedestrian bridges or other infrastructure, but these do not work if they are not part of a holistic, long-term plan, Kurgan warns. “In fact, they might lead to bigger road safety problems”. When people have to go up and down stairs, for instance, and go out of their way to use systems that are not user-friendly - think of a parent with a pram, or a person in a wheelchair - they start to take risks and “cross the road where they shouldn’t”.

Cities “need to take a step back, take a snapshot of the city, and understand where people live, work and play”, and then plan how to connect these different places, Kurgan says. “The next step is to translate those plans into things that are realistic.”

Nevertheless, he says, metro or sky train systems are still valid solutions when mobility demands exceed the capacity of bus and bus rapid transit systems. The World Bank finances metros in large cities in China, those which have essentially outgrown their other public transport systems, he points out.

Share crash data with others

Meanwhile, the Philippines has turned to traffic data to reduce car crashes. The central government uses a platform built by the World Bank that maps the location of crashes, road speeds, and analyse where crashes are occurring. Data is anonymised, so officials do not have access to the names of crash victims.
“We can know if it was raining, or if there were flooding conditions on the day and at the time that a crash occurred.”
Other relevant information, such as weather, are added into the mix via an API that pulls from databases around the world. “We can know if it was raining, or if there were flooding conditions on the day and at the time that a crash occurred.”

The challenge was that the Philippines traffic police had “incomplete” data on car crashes, and a few factors are responsible for this - the police may not actually be called to the scene of all incidents, for one. And often, if victims eventually die in the hospital, the healthcare staff do not communicate this to the police, Kurgan explains. “Sometimes a person gets injured, but it's not updated to fatality.”

This fragmented way of working is echoed throughout many parts of Asia: agencies and systems do not work effectively together, in an area that sorely needs multi-faceted collaboration. “You’ve got the traffic police, you've got the engineers, you've got the health system that are involved,” Kurgan remarks.

The data platform will “facilitate this inter-agency dialogue”, says Kurgan. The platform now gets data from the Philippines traffic police, which can reveal if car crashes are being caused by the way the roads are designed, for instance, he says. If engineers have access to these kinds of data and analyses, they can implement interventions where they are needed most, whether at intersections or along rural road networks, he adds.

Share data with citizens

In Brazil, São Paulo is using a version of the platform as a citizen engagement tool: sharing anonymised versions of crash data with the public so that anyone, from academics to citizens, can see how safe their streets are, says Kurgan. “They can look at the data and see where there are hazardous areas.”

Citizens are more informed, and “that pushes individual citizens or organizations to put pressure on governments to do more in terms of improving enforcement; in terms of investing resources into improving infrastructure”, he explains.

Cities can be characterised by their distinctive metro systems - London’s Tube and New York’s subway come to mind. But emerging cities today face very different challenges, and metros may not always be the way forward.

Kurgan was speaking on the sidelines of the AWS Public Sector Summit, held in Washington, DC on 20-21 June 2018.