Cut Down Oil Demand By Deploying Bus Rapid Transit Systems In Large Cities Around The World The private car is a horrible solution for getting around in large metropolitan areas. Modern buses using dedicated lanes would be a lot more efficient

WASHINGTON – Our oil conundrum will not come to an end until we find viable alternative fuels and/or we figure out intelligent, cost-efficient ways for getting around in large cities that do not rely on the private automobile.

Old technology

It is just incredible that with all the innovation and progress we have made in so may different sectors, when it comes to personal mobility, we are still stuck with a technology invented more than 100 years ago. Yes, our cars are better and safer than the Ford Model T; but not so different. The fundamental component, an internal combustion engine fueled by oil-derived gasoline, has not changed that much.

So, we can build a large mobile lab and safely parachute it on Mars, but we cannot invent something that can replace our ancient gasoline-fueled internal combustion engine?

Of course, many are trying. But we are still far from a dramatic breakthrough.

Two types of solutions

That said, I see at least two ways in which we can diminish reliance on the private car and therefore on costly oil.

The first one would rely on the deployment of Bus Rapid Transit systems, (BRTs). This is mostly about intelligent –albeit disruptive– policy changes, and not so much about new technologies.

The second one has to do with the efforts by Elon Musk, Tesla’s CEO, (and possibly others), to mass produce dramatically cheaper and more powerful batteries for electric cars.

Bus Rapid Transit systems

The concept of Bus Rapid Transit is not at all new. Therefore these systems have the benefit of various experimentation and tinkering that produced viable models that could be followed by policy-makers in most large and generally congested metropolitan ares around the world. It all started many years ago in Curitiba, Brazil. And now you can find variations of this early “prototype” from Helsinki, to Utrecht, from Istanbul to Stockholm.

The justification for adopting BRT systems is obvious. From New York to Maputo, from London to Cairo, there are just too many people who use cars for getting around, and too little road space to accommodate everybody. Hence congestion; very often epic congestion that causes the loss of millions of work hours, not to mention stress and air pollution.

You can cut this the way you want, but there is no way around it. Large cities, plus millions of cars on the road equal congestion. Sure, you can make some improvements at the margin, (congestion charges, punitive parking fees in city centers, and more), but unless you find a viable and cost-effective mass transit alternative, people will still rely on their cars to get around.

A viable mass transit alternative to the car

Well, the fact is that BRT systems are indeed the affordable –and proven– mass transit alternative. BRTs provide the advantages of underground trains, minus the prohibitive costs of digging tunnels underneath modern cities. In essence, this is the promise of Bus Rapid Transit systems. BRTs are essentially an “above ground subway”, relying on modern buses crisscrossing cities using dedicated bus lanes.

This way the humble bus is no longer stuck in traffic. The humble bus will take you anywhere at the speed of an underground train. Modern bus interconnections will allow passengers to change buses within covered, comfortable stations, just like in a subway.

The huge snag is that, in order to create dedicated bus lanes, one would have to exclude private cars traffic from most areas.

Political problems

And here is where a sensible, totally workable mass transit alternative to the private car becomes a political problem. Telling people that they can longer use their cars looks way too complicated. And therefore most policy-makers are not on board. And those who may be tempted to seriously try BRT solutions are afraid of the resistance that would come from the driving public.

Indeed, most people look at driving their cars wherever they please as a birthright. Not to mention the symbolic significance of owning a car. In most societies when you can afford to buy a car, you have made into the middle class. Going by bus is for the poor.

And yet the advantages of BRT systems are obvious. In theory, cars are about cost-effective, efficient personal mobility. However, when you are stuck in traffic for hours, where is the efficiency of the car? Whereas a well designed bus network relying on dedicated bus lanes ensures that you will reach your destination quickly and in comfort.

Educate the public

Well, all these advantages notwithstanding, we are still not implementing BRT solutions fast enough. The challenge for policy-makers is to convince the general public that, by renouncing the “right” to drive around large cities with their own cars, they would actually gain.

Indeed, they would get places much faster, paying an affordable fare and using comfortable buses. On top of that, there would be also be a dramatic air quality improvement. No cars means cleaner air. In many cities, especially in the United States, it would make sense to use modern buses running on much cleaner, low emission Liquefied Natural Gas, as opposed to dirty and more expensive diesel.

People moving around fast

If you can dream for a moment that we are in a new world in which in most large metropolitan areas, from Beijing to Los Angeles, to Tokyo and Manila, people use BRT systems instead of their own cars, you can also see that in this new world the private car will still be used; but mostly for trips and as transportation in rural areas. This BRT revolution would automatically translate into a drastic diminution of gasoline consumption. Hence falling demand for oil.

New car technologies?

As for the residual but still not insignificant use of the private car, we have to hope in the inventiveness and ingenuity of Elon Musk and others like him. Musk is already planning the construction of a brand new factory that will mass produce batteries for electric cars. He claims that with his battery technology, plus the advantages of large-scale production, tomorrow’s electric cars will have more range and will cost much less.

May be he is right, may be he is not. Still, at some point, someone will come up with viable, cost-effective, electric cars, (or may be something different, based on other alternative technologies), that will make the internal combustion engine finally a thing of the past.

BRT systems can be deployed now

All in all, as we review our opportunities, it should be obvious that the implementation of BRT systems, the low tech alternative, would bring about immediate quality of life improvements.

People could move around cities without being stuck in traffic. Millions of work hours would not be lost. The air of most cities would be much cleaner.

New car technologies will be most welcome. But it may take a long time before Tesla or others will come up with decisive breakthroughs.

BRT systems can be implemented today.

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