Metro is not the wayBus rapid transit systems are more economical, easily constructed, and can run profitably.
Both the federal government and the Kathmandu Metropolitan City have opted for metro rail and monorail as efficient and effective options for the future of public transportation. As many scholars have pointed out, and facts have proven, the metro rail system comes with a hefty price tag, in terms of both infrastructure and operational cost. The repelling nature of public transportation in developing cities have encouraged the city officials to innovate and adopt bus rapid transit (BRT) technology. The term BRT here is used to describe a mass rapid transit system where buses are operated on its own right-of-way, have closed stations for passenger boarding, and use state of the art transit technology. In light of some sections still preferring metro rail as an option for Kathmandu Valley, it is important to compare between metro rail and bus rapid transit and reiterate why BRT is more appropriate for the Valley and other cities of Nepal.
Costs of building and operation
The cases from other cities which have implemented BRT and metro rail have suggested that the capital cost of metro rail is much higher than that of BRT. According to Bus Rapid Transit Planning Guide, 2007, a BRT system will typically cost four to 20 times less than a light rail transit system and 10 to 100 times less than a metro system to be specific. Building and running metro rail service is highly capital intensive whereas the overall costs of BRT are too attractive to be ignored. Transport analyst L Wright showed that the range of construction cost of BRT lines varies from $500,000 to $5.3 million per kilometre, while that of metro rail range from $40.9 million to $350 million. Moreover, the cost of constructing the metro line is generally overrun by its completion, while the actually predicted passenger number usually decreases. Additionally, the operation cost of the metro line is costlier than BRT and it needs a high number of passengers to cover its extraordinary expenditure.
The construction of bus rapid transit infrastructure is not very different from regular roadway construction. The complexity involved here is just of information technology. Metro rail construction demands a high level of technological advancements because of its complexity—from tunnel boring to elevated lines. In a city like Kathmandu, which is made of black soft soil, it could be much challenging practically to drill underground and make a metro line in terms of technology and related cost.
The time duration for planning, design and implementation of the bus rapid transit system is lower than metro line. If the political will is strong, a BRT corridor in the valley it can be completed within four years—including the planning, design and construction phase. Isn’t it perfect for the mayor of the metropolitan city who has a term of just five years to plan and implement such a dream project? There are examples, such as the BRT of Bogota which was completed within three years while, ironically, the metro line that was planned in the same city since the 1950s has not yet been completed.
Generally, it is believed that the heavy rail system is naturally the solution to the traditional bus system. But bus rapid transit systems, such as Bogota’s transmilenio, have proved that they can compete. Many cases show that its simplicity and flexibility permitted BRT lines to be built in cities with a population of over 200,000 to megacities with a population of over 10 million. In metro rail, all the coaches of the train run every time and could not be added or reduced according to passenger flow. But BRT fleets could be added and reduced comfortably as per the need. The use of passenger information system (PIS) and intelligent transport system (ITS) enable operators to calculate passenger and use a varied fleet.
Covering many bases
Bus rapid transit can virtually cover the entire city. The same cannot be said in the case of metro rail due to costs and other factors. In a city like Kathmandu, which doesn’t have a proper land use policy and where people reside in all direction and areas, building one or two metro line could only cover a fraction of the population but the cost of that should be shared by all. According to a report prepared by a consortium of Korean and Nepali firms, the cost of constructing proposed 77 km metro line in Kathmandu valley is approximately 3.3 billion dollars (around 43 million per KM) at the rate of 2017 and these lines will only cover limited areas of the city. If that amount is devoted to building the BRT line, the total corridors will be more than 650 km at the average cost of 5 million dollars per KM.
Public transport systems around the world seldom work without government subsidies. There are only a few metro systems which are a profitable venture. But there are many examples of BRT which operates on its own without subsidies—or at least with very little subsidies. The infrastructure of the transmilenio system of Bogota was constructed by the government, and the buses and the management are run by the private sector. Most of the bus operators company are profitable.
In the end, selecting the appropriate choice for mass rapid transit determines the pace and distribution of economic growth. In a city like Kathmandu, where two-thirds of the total inhabitants are not permanent residents, this fact should be taken into consideration while making a decision. Metro rail is suitable for those cities where inhabitants reside along the prescribed direction in dense residential areas where making a few metro lines could benefit a larger portion of the population. To invest a larger share of the total budget for the benefit of a small portion of the population may prove calamitous. Kathmandu Metropolitan City, in coordination with other municipalities of the valley, should immediately begin to plan for a bus rapid transit in some corridors such as the Suryabinayak-Koteshwor-Maitighar and the Koteshwor-Kalanki routes. It looks not only viable but also the best possible option for the overhauling of public transportation in the towns of our nation.
Timalsina is a student of anthropology (Mphil) and works as a consultant at NRA. He tweets at @lonelybidur.