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Better bus systems improve cities

By 2020 transport will account for more than half the world’s oil demand, and will generate nearly a quarter of the world’s energy-related CO2 emissions. According to projections in this book from the International Energy Agency, a sister organisation of the OECD, the rate of increase in transportation oil use is expected to be three times higher in developing countries than in the OECD, though the latter will still account for the lion’s share of emissions.

Cities worldwide face enormous transport problems as populations grow and vehicle ownership rises too, generating gridlock, sprawl, heavy oil consumption and persistent air pollution. The authors argue that better systems, like Bus Rapid Transit, incorporating new system design and modern technologies, can help save some of the oil, as well as help urban transportation to work better.

Compared to cities dominated by small private vehicles, those with well-designed bus systems have much less traffic congestion, lower pollutant and CO2 emissions, and offer better mobility for residents. How to get people to use buses is a challenge. Discouraging car use with penalising taxes or higher parking fees might work, but to coax drivers out of their cars, public transport has to be worth it. Dedicated bus lanes have already been successfully introduced in cities such as London and Sydney. There are costs of course, like policing, but the reward is higher mobility. Add on services that inform waiting passengers when buses will arrive, “smart card” ticketing systems to allow easier transfers between routes and metro systems, and buses can become more attractive.

But technicalities like this are only part of the problem. Cities that spread out, like Los Angeles or Sao Paolo, present a different challenge to high density urban centres like New York or Paris. Yet, real opportunities lie in developing countries. Latin American cities, such as Curitiba and Bogota, that have developed BRT systems, report much lower traffic congestion, and bus operators that even make a profit.

Making progress will be hard, though. Many will argue that owning a car is an insurance against the risk of strikes. It is also a form of personal space. On the other hand can societies give no choice but to own a car? What this report shows is that not investing in public transit is unsustainable.

©OECD Observer No 233, August 2002