Pricing public transit: learning from Bangkok
Pricing public transit: learning from Bangkok
When I first visited Bangkok in 1994, I got around the city mostly by bus. The buses were slow, the streets congested, and I soon learned that I could only make one plan for the morning and one for the afternoon, as it might take a couple hours to move about.
Then the city started to build their skytrain. I waited with great anticipation for its completion. It seemed to require a lot more time and a lot more money (OK, just two years of delay and three times over budget) than originally anticipated, and the fares are admittedly quite high, but it was finally built—if never finished. (I saw an article in a Thai newspaper about people very upset that the planned line to their area had never been built; meanwhile, the pilings leading to the now domestic-only airport have been converted into advertising posts.)
To be quite honest, I love the skytrain. Sure, the cement structure looming overhead is ugly. Sure, most of the stations lack escalators, making them inaccessible to those in wheelchairs, and exceedingly difficult for those lugging heavy bags or luggage. Sure, the two lines only cover a very limited portion of Bangkok. Sure, it’s expensive. Sure, despite all the hassles, the trains are often packed. Sure, the stations are congested and I sometimes have to push through people to reach my train. But at least I can see a little of the city while I travel, and I can now get around to the stops on the line quickly, allowing myself to visit far more places in a day.
Though the skytrain certainly makes moving around the city much easier (if you can afford it), it obviously didn’t alleviate the congestion, as the government then opened a very limited subway system. The first time I tried to ride it, about a year after it opened, it was closed for two weeks due to an accident. I finally rode it a couple years after that, and discovered that it cost about US$0.50 to ride what it would take me ten minutes to walk. That seemed outrageous, and I don’t love riding up and down long escalators and traveling in tunnels. Since the Metro doesn’t seem to go much beyond the skytrain, I stick to the skytrain.
But now, after spending billions of dollars on those mass transit systems, and despite having an existing extensive bus system, and more roads than most Asian cities of their level of economic development, the government is now planning bus rapid transit—a bit like a street-level trolley, but with buses instead of trams. Of course, that too is delayed—but the cost is a fraction of that for the skytrain and Metro.
A more careful look at those costs reveals something interesting and of considerable relevance as Dhaka plans its public transit system. According to various Web sites, the skytrain, which opened in 1999, cost about US$1.5 billion for 24 kilometers. That amounts to US$62.5 million per kilometer. Of course, things were cheaper back then.
Construction of the Metro began back in 1996, but it wasn’t finished until 2004. According to Wikipedia, “The project suffered multiple delays not only because of the 1997 economic crisis, but also due to challenging civil engineering works of constructing massive underground structures deep in the water-logged soil upon which the city is built.” Interesting. Fortunately we don’t have those troubles in Dhaka (ahem!).
As for cost, the Metro cost a mere US$ 2.75 billion for 21 km, or US$130.95 million per kilometer—just over twice that of the skytrain. Apparently burrowing underground, dealing with flooding issues, providing ventilation, and so on is much more expensive than building above our heads. Meanwhile, again quoting Wikipedia, “ridership has settled down to around 180,000 riders daily — considerably lower than projections of over 400,000, despite fares being slashed in half from 12-38 baht to 10-15 baht per trip. As of 2006, fares range between 14-36 baht per trip.” With an exchange rate as I write of 32 baht to one US dollar, that’s a mighty high fare. Good thing Bangladeshis are wealthier than Thais (??).
Meanwhile, the anticipated cost for the BRT is 33.4 million for 36 kilometers. Admittedly, anticipated costs are often far less than actual costs, but still, at US$0.93 million per kilometer, that’s a bargain compared to the Metro or the skytrain—even more so when considering it’s being built last, when prices are highest. At 67 times less than the skytrain and 141 times less than the Metro, even with significant cost increases, it will still be far more affordable than its public transit predecessors.
Of course, operational costs are another issue. Buses require fuel, trains electricity. Buses tend to require more maintenance, tires wear down frequently, and buses have to be replaced far more often than trains. While it is cheaper to build a BRT system initially, the higher operational costs might mean that, in the long term, a tram system would be more affordable—tram meaning street-level light rail, not something up in the sky or underground, which greatly multiplies the costs.
Which is all to say, I’m all for public transit. So, apparently, are Thais: last I checked, hotels and housing advertise their proximity to the various public transit options. Apparently people are sick and tired of sitting in cars stuck in traffic jams. In public transit, you can sit back and read a book while you ride, look out the window (preferably not at tunnels), eavesdrop on your neighbor’s conversation, and otherwise amuse yourself without risking crashing into someone once the traffic moves again.
But when considering spending millions or billions on public transit, it would make sense to invest it wisely, in a system that will be the most extensive and least expensive, and thus offer the best value for the money. At 141 times per kilometer less to build BRT than Metro, we could both have a far more extensive system, meeting far more people’s needs, and lower fares. Sounds like a bargain to me!
Syed Siful Alam Shovan