By Paolo von Schirach
April 29, 2013
WASHINGTON – Recently The Economist had a story pointing out that the humble automobile is experiencing some kind of a technological rebirth. There are new fuel efficiencies and new technologies that will transform our use of the car. Soom enough, (look at Google’s experimentations), cars will drive themselves, so that drivers will rest while the vehicle will take them safely to their destination. And new on board sensors and other gadgets will help avoid collisions. They will identity obstacles, and they will help all cars to optimize the use of existing roads.
Cars are bad tools
All this sounds wonderful. Except that it isn’t. The issue is not to optimize the use of cars. The issue is to finally recognize that the private automobile is a really bad tool to secure transportation in large, modern metropolitan areas. Indeed, even if we could stipulate extra clean, noiseless cars that are guided by advanced robotics, the problem is that there are simply too many of them on a finite road surface. That’s right: congestion is the real problem. And while congestion can be improved, it cannot be eliminated. Finite road space, more and more cars. You cannot fix this.
Rediscover the bus
Therefore, the only sensible way to allow people to get around safely and conveniently in large metropolitan areas is to create seamless network of buses travelling at high speed on dedicated bus lanes. These networks, parts of a Bus Rapid Transit system, will work essentially just like underground trains. But the major advantage of BRTs is affordability. Digging tunnels for underground rail takes years and it is prohibitively expensive. Creating dedicated surface lanes for the exclusive use of modern buses is not cheap, but it is infinitely cheaper than digging tunnels.
So, imagine the finished product. Lots of buses, running on time, as they will not be stuck in traffic. Covered bus stations that will allow quick and easy transfers. Affordable tickets. By the way, this is not a dream. The city of Curitiba in Brazil experimented with this BRT concept for decades. And they have created the template from which the whole world can learn.
So, if there are indeed all these advantages, why are we not busy creating BRT systems? It is mostly lack of political will. In order to have viable BRTs, municipalities would have to outlaw private cars from cities, or at least from very large portions of major metropolitan areas–this is an essential prerequisite in order to create the space for dedicated, buses-only lanes. And this can be really complicated.
Give up the car?
The general public is so attached to the idea of the use of private cars that it will insist on using them, even when it is obvious that this transportation mode has produced diminishing returns. You tell me what good will car do to you when you are stuck in endless congestion, sometimes for hours, every day.
Still, as the car is a symbol of personal achievement, a status symbol and what not, the politicians do not want to tell people that they should forget about it and use instead the much more cost effective and much more convenient bus. Because of this inability to force a real rethinking on what may work best in large metro areas, millions of people, like idiots, every day are stuck in traffic, simply because everybody else around them did the same thing: they got into their cars, (most of the time one person per vehicle), with the most mistaken belief that this is the only way to go to work.