Travel is fast, on the roadway that has no cars.
When Charles Dickens wrote about them in the 19th century, horse-carriages were still new. Dickens marvelled at how fast these carriages could go, covering upto twenty miles in a single hour.
In 2018, if a bus could move that fast in central London, then the passengers riding it would marvel too.
About two years ago, a government study found that England’s traffic speeds had become really slow. The average speed in the capital city, London, was 14.8 miles, or about 24 kilometres, per hour. In the busiest roads of central London, things were even worse: buses there were travelling at 6.1 km/h, barely faster than walking.
Across England, the average speed on the fastest roads was 38.0 km/h. While that’s an improvement, it’s not much better than the horse-carriages of two-hundred years ago.
Of course, it’s not just an English problem. Traffic has been slowing down in large cities around the world. Los Angeles drivers spend an average of 100 hours per year stuck in traffic, according to one analysis. Bengaluru traffic, meanwhile, moves at the crawling speed of 17.2 km/h: half the speed of a falling raindrop.
Why are vehicles moving around so slowly? Has engine technology come to a standstill, or is everyone very scared of causing an accident? Actually, the answer is quite different.
The reason people are going more slowly is that more people want to go fast.
The idea behind highways is to let everyone move fast. That’s possible only because everyone is moving in the same direction.
On a highway, there’s no need to worry about which road a person’s going to take. There’s no slowing down for the car in front to take a turn, or waiting around till vehicles pass at the crossroads. You just go straight on, at the same speed — and so does everyone else.
Inside a city, things are different. Some people want to go one way, and some people want to go another. Cars stop at the side of the road to make a quick purchase. Others try to go around it. Sometimes, that takes them to the opposite lane, where they block up the oncoming traffic.
Then, there are the crossroads, where one set of vehicles has to sit and wait while the other set goes across, and there are always a few which don’t go straight but take a turn to the left or right.
All this means that traffic has to constantly stop, wait, slow down, or adjust direction, and never gets the space to actually reach its maximum speed. When more cars come onto the road, there are more reasons to stop moving, and even less road-space to move into.
Of course, that’s not what people think when they buy a new car. They think, “If I buy a car, then I can go faster.”
So, the amount of traffic in cities is growing every day.
Curitiba, capital of Paraná state in Brazil, was growing like any other city. By 1960, it had 361,000 people. The population had tripled in just twenty years, and the place was beginning to feel crowded.
The city authorities began plans to revamp the city, to make it more able to handle so many people. Roads were to be widened, so that there was more space for cars. The city centre would also me made more friendly to cars, discouraging people from walking and blocking the roads.
Meanwhile, a light-rail metro system would be built as well. That would help long-distance travellers to get around faster, and it would also be a much faster alternative to the slow, unwieldy buses. A good metro system would encourage people to use it instead of cars, so that would clear the roads and make them faster too.
However, as with all good things, the metro system came with a price. In this case, the price would be millions of dollars and many decades of waiting.
That’s when Curitiba got a new mayor. And with him came a strange new idea. Instead of a fast metro system, he wanted people to use what they considered the most inefficient, slow, and unreliable form of transport: the town bus.
As a general rule, if traffic is a problem then buses will be slow. That’s because buses have to go trough traffic too.
Buses are larger than cars, so they’re a bit more unwieldy. They need a bit more space to drive through, and can’t squeeze into tiny gaps in the traffic like an autorickshaw or scooter can. neither can they speed up or slow down quite as fast as a car.
What’s more, buses have stops. When you’re driving in a car, you can just take the shortest (or rather, the quickest) route from Point A to Point B. But buses don’t have just you, they have a lot of other people as well — and many of those people will want to go to different places. So any bus will stop at several places along the way.
Buses often take a slightly longer routes, which also make buses more prone to slowdowns and traffic-jams. They do that so they can reach more of the places people want to travel to — and in some cases, because some roads are marked “cars-only” so cars can travel fast without all the buses slowing them down and blocking the way.
With all these things stacked against buses, people were a bit mystified as to how they would solve Curitiba’s transport problems.
But they soon found out.
Jaime Lerner was no ordinary mayor. He was also an architect. And the moment he became mayor, he began to redesign the architecture of the city.
When Lerner was first appointed mayor, Brazil was under military rule. The military chose Lerner because they thought he’d be obedient and easy to control. As it turned out, he was quite the opposite.
The first thing he did on becoming mayor was to abandon all the city’s development plans and make his own. Instead of widening the roads, the city centre would be made into a car-free, walking-friendly zone. The many seasonal arroyos (canals), planned to be turned into concrete drains, were instead dammed and their floodwaters used to make green parks for people to visit. The parks didn’t even have lawnmowers to cut grass: they used sheep.
And, the fast-but-expensive metro system was replaced with something that, eventually, turned out to be fifty times cheaper.
The idea was simple: instead of a railway-line reserved for trans, make a road that works like a railway-line reserved for trains. And, since trans can’t go on roads, use buses instead.
The new scheme didn’t cost much either. All that had to be done was to mark of some of the roads as “Buses Only”. The new “bus lanes”, in the middle of the road, were free from the traffic of other vehicles. That meant buses could move faster, and also time themselves to be more regular and reliable. No more long waits for buses that were caught in traffic-jams kilometres away!
And what about the cars, who now had even less space to drive in than before? Well — since the buses were more reliable, it encouraged more people to use them. That meant less people were driving, so the ordinary roads became less congested too.
Instead of car-only lanes that encouraged even more cars that blocked the roads, bus-lanes encouraged more people to uses buses so the car-traffic actually went down.
After the revamped bus system started, a survey showed that car usage had dropped, and about 28% of the passengers were people who used to travel only by car.
But the improvement didn’t stop there. After a while, Jaime Lerner realised that buses were getting slowed down while waiting for all the passengers to buy tickets. So he made a system where people buy tickets at the bus-stop, before getting onto the bus — just like in a metro system.
To do this, new bus-stops had to be fitted with special gates and counters. So they were turned into “bus-stations” — and very fancy stations they were, too.
Today, Curitiba’s Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system has become a model for similar systems all over the world. BRT networks have been set up in various places, ranging from Adelaide to Ahmedabad, from Bogotá to Guangzhou, New York and Kabul.
In some places, the BRTs are doing very well. In others, the project didn’t quite work out — like in Delhi where taxi and car drivers protested strongly against their roads being taken away, and the initial test stretch was too slow for people to see the benefits.
Meanwhile, Curitiba itself has grows even larger. With over 2 million people travelling in its buses every day, they’re starting to feel very crowded. The city has new mayors now, and a few years ago announced a plan to replace one BRT line with a traditional rail-based metro system.
But among similar-sized cities, and despite all the new passengers, Curitiba’s buses are still among the fastest in the world.
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