Sunday, 28 December 2014

On Taichung's BRT System

After having had a late Christmas dinner last night (the 25th is a normal working day in Taiwan), I didn't feel like waking up early this morning and taking the new bike out for a drive. Instead I've stayed home playing with the dogs. Today's weather has been dull and overcast anyway.

One concurrent news story which caught my attention this week is the new mayor of Taichung's criticism of the unfinished BRT public transport system, which was bequeathed him by the previous mayor. The story has been featured in the Apple Daily twice this week, though it only seems to have made the Taipei Times today. The new mayor, Lin Chia-lung (林佳龍) has called it a "fraud" and has said he wants recommendations as to whether it should be torn down within the next three months. A facebook commenter to the Taipei Times article linked above echos the new mayor's criticism, but believes that it should be rebuilt entirely.

The story is interesting because, with the recent emergence of Uber, the idea of a fancy bus system just seems so obviously stupid. But is it?

The essential problem with buses is that they do not scale well. Hiring a bus or minibus to take a small group of people from A to B on a one-off basis, e.g. children on a school trip to a museum, makes perfect sense, but instantiating an entire fleet of buses along pre-planned routes which only tangentially coincide with passengers' starting points and destinations is grossly inefficient. Not only do passengers need to walk from their starting point to the nearest bus stop, and from their subsequent bus stop to their actual destination, but between those two points they have to patiently endure frequent stops and delays for other passengers to embark and disembark and these may take place among the most tortuous, indirect and time-consuming route.

As I understand it (reading the wikipedia entry), a BRT system is an attempt to minimize some of those (and other) problems by having dedicated bus-lanes, the removal of red-lights for those lanes at intersections and various other measures.

But it strikes me as obvious that, if the Taichung city government genuinely wanted to improve public transport, they could have done so for a fraction of the cost of the BRT system* by simply subsidizing the use of Uber-taxis and minibuses. Uber is a smart phone application for independent taxi drivers that makes intelligent use of the web and of satellite tracking data to dynamically match the supply of taxis to the demand for them, thus eliminating a lot of waiting time for the customers and also eliminating the need for a coordinating office acting as middle-man between the taxi driver and the customers. A fleet of Uber-taxis and mini-buses that were cheap enough to be affordable to the range of people who tend to use public transport would surely be far cheaper to set up and run than a BRT system, even if they were heavily subsidized in some way (e.g. by special passes).

Subsidizing a network of Uber-taxis and mini-buses  is not what I think the Taichung city government should have done mind you, only that it appears to be a much easier, better and cheaper option than an extremely complicated BRT system requiring major infrastructure renovation.

So why did the Taichung city government embark on this project to begin with?

From the wikipedia entries it seems that they decided on a BRT system in 2007, which was two years before the release of the Uber application. So at the time that the contracts were awarded, they were presumably unaware of the alternative. That being said, I doubt the city government would have gone for subsidizing Uber-using taxis even if they had been aware of the possibility. Why? The usual reasons... the chance to waste "public" money by awarding big contracts to their mates in select industries, and to pontificate in giant election posters about how they are "investing" in the city's future and so on.

So in short because politicians tend to be Star Trek-type, "make-it-so" tossers.

However, reading between the lines of what he has said this week it seems that Lin Chia-lung. the current mayor of Taichung, now has the chance to cancel the entire project. In the meantime he has ordered a review of the project to be completed in the next three months. Presumably he wants to weigh up his options as regards cancelling the entire project, or ordering alterations to the plan. But it may also be the case that he had already decided the BRT system was a bad idea before he was elected, and is now only buying time to work out how to minimize the political fallout of cancelling the project.

*(NT$4 billion so far with another NT$20 billion to come.)

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