Dr Jean-Paul Thull
4 August 2005
Interest in Christchurch's existing rail corridors is continuing to grow, and Environment Canterbury is starting to make progress with plans and cost estimates for a light rail system (The Press, August 4 2005).
While support for the concept of light rail is strong, there is an additional transport component that must be considered alongside any light rail (LR) proposal I am referring to Bus Rapid Transit (BRT).
Familiar to millions of Americans, Europeans and Asians, BRT bears little resemblance to our buses that belch diesel smoke and compete for space with other road-users.
They are sleek and stylish, with a wow factor that entices people aboard. They are longer, with articulated bodies, and have interiors like Light Rail carriages offering far more space and comfort than a conventional bus. More importantly, they do not share the road with other motor vehicles. They run in dedicated individual lanes, separated from other traffic and are thus not stuck in congestion. Usually BRT lanes are two traffic lanes in the middle of a transport corridor with some kind of separation.
Some BRTs use a guided track system such as steel tracks or raised concrete channels, to reduce swinging movements and give greater comfort. The UK city of Leeds and the French city of Nancy run their BRT using a mechanical track guidance system. In Rouen, the BRT Iribus has a computerized optical guidance system that can steer itself by the painted white strips on the road to optimise the route. Some of the BRT vehicles are equipped to operate as buses (self-powered on roads), as a streetcar (powered by overhead cables on roads) or as a guided rail vehicles using either power source on a guided pathway.
In a city like Christchurch, an efficient and reliable BRT system could provide a regular and quick connection between suburban malls and the Central Business District (CBD). Adding park-and-ride (P&R) facilities alongside the malls will encourage commuters to leave their car and transfer to the BRT to complete their journey in a shorter time overall. Returning via the supermarket and food stores at the mall, they might choose to pick up groceries on the way home. There are benefits for consumers, retailers and the road freight systems which feed much of the business sector.
By designing the transport system as a whole, BRT could provide quick transfer connections between the CBD, the proposed LR transfer stations and the existing conventional bus system.
As a first stage, Christchurch could consider introducing three BRT system, integrated with LR and an expanded central city shuttle service: from Church Corner via Riccarton Mall and Hagley Park to Eastgate, and terminating at Ferrymead; from Northlands Mall to the CBD and the Hoyts Centre at Moorhouse Ave; and from New Brighton to the CBD, via The Palms.
Some inner city streets in Christchurch may not be wide enough to accommodate a central corridor between opposing lanes of traffic. However, on key routes a dedicated BRT lane could be achieved by removing a traffic lane or some on-street parking. It is also important to implement preferential treatment at traffic lights for BRT to have a time advantage over private motor vehicles. In some cities, such as Zurich, the lights are programmed to turn green each time a LR vehicle approaches, making for an uninterrupted run.
It will be a political challenge to integrate these lines with the current system, which has an excellent routing strategy, but the difficulties are not insurmountable. A key to success is the overall time-saving, compared with traveling by car, and the image of BRT vehicles. Experience overseas shows they must look appealing and be quicker than driving a car, including parking, to win popular support.
Once a BRT is in place, there will be a scope for further pedestrianisation in the central business district and, if a LR transfer station is sited in Moorhouse Ave, development of a complementary retail area.
BRT is a key element in good urban design. All public transport system services have to be frequent to work effectively and gain popular support. A BRT system will require increased residential densities along the city's transport corridors and in adjacent areas, which has been widely supported in the Greater Christchurch Urban Development Strategy process. There are numerous examples of BRT systems encouraging attractive terraced housing, with green spaces, along BRT corridors and in adjacent side streets. The margins between such medium-density housing could become greenways for pedestrians and cyclists, to improve overall mobility and safety in line with the New Zealand Transport Strategy.
The BRT in the Brazilian city of Curitiba is often cited as an exemplary system. However, many other cities have successfully implemented BRT, including Brisbane and Dakar in Senegal. Bogota copied the Curitiba experiment and achieved dramatic improvements in quality-of-life, by reducing congestion, air and noise pollution, and creating a vibrant city centre. The solution was a new fast, efficient, affordable and modern BRT the Transmilenio BRT system based on an ambitious vision. Strong leadership is essential. In Europe, a number of prominent people have become champions for public transport and driven the implementation or innovative systems within a decade.
Christchurch needs strong leadership and a focus on major changes, to make these systems a reality.
Dr Jean-Paul Thull is a lecturer in urban transport planning at Lincoln University and a transport planning consultant