Op-Ed: Priority for Public Transport in Tallinn

Priority for Public Transport in Tallinn (Probably the Best)

- Eric Britton, 06. september 2012 01:00

Op-Ed from today’s Estonian Times: http://goo.gl/7gkFJ (in Estonian)

Dear Editor

Since you were kind enough to quote me recently as an” international expert” on the topic of transport and cities, I would like to reply in a few words to the article you published on 7 August (which I have read in what appears to be a quite decent Google translation into English) under the title “Juhtkiri: Üksi bussirajast ei piisa”.

In your article you report on several of the points that were brought up in my public conferences in Tallinn in June the need for a more strategic approach to policy making and investment in the transport sector . I would like to complete those words with some more specific remarks and observations on the hotly contested issue of bus lanes in Tallinn and their place in the city’s overall new transportation strategy.

Democracy is by all evidence alive and kicking in Estonia

In the first place, I think it is a brilliant sign that democracy is alive and kicking in Estonia that there has been such vigorous public discussion of the bus lane projects and proposals of the city government. In reading through the comments on your article, as best I could via Google, I find that even the most vehement comments are useful and need to be taken into consideration.

It is not that public policy can be entirely shaped and led by what a certain number of citizens may have to say on a subject on any given day, but when they speak up it is our role as policy makers to listen and try to understand. Because sometimes, even behind the vehemence and even attacking language, there are points which we need to take into consideration.

Priority for Public Transport

Based on my limited knowledge of the city, this is a great time for Tallinn to start to develop a first class policy of building, extending and integrating priority lanes for public transport in all its forms (buses, trams, and taxis — and as best can be achieved safely, with two wheelers). There is no first class city just about anywhere in the world today in which priority lanes are not a critical part of their transport strategy. So we must understand that this is not a choice really.

It is worth pointing to that this transport approach has an international track record going back to the early seventies, and there has been enough experience in enough cities and different places with reserved lanes, that we know pretty well what works and what doesn’t.

Does this mean that there is not such a thing as a poorly conceived or poorly executed transit priority lane? Of course not, there have been plenty of them.

But what is handy about this particular form of transportation policy and practice is that it is highly flexible. It is not like having to dig up a metro and move it a couple of hundred meters, or even rerouting a tram line. So even if we do not get the routes or other details exactly right the first time around, their high flexibility permits us to fine tune and learn and adjust at low cost as we go along.

Thirty more buses for Tallinn

I have heard that some citizens are making the point that what Tallinn needs is not so much faster buses as more buses — citing the crowded conditions on many buses today. Now I am sure that is a valid point, but there is also a good answer to it.

If we can increase overall average speed of the existing 300 buses by say 10% — a figure that we often see when cities are successful with their reserved lanes — and manage the system well, it is (can be) the same thing as putting thirty more buses into public service.

What does that mean in terms of finance. If we bear in mind that a new city bus today costs on the order of € 200,000, that works out to an economy in terms of millions of Euros. Now a potential saving that large should attract your attention.

Complexity and interactions

The final point I would like to make has to do with the highly complex and highly interdependent nature of about everything that happens, or that you might wish to have happen, in the area of transport in cities. And the bus lane controversy in Tallinn points this up in capital letters.

Success of the program is not going to depend only on splashing some paint onto the street and hoping for the best. There is a lot more to it than that.

We need to understand and take into account the complex dynamics of the city’s whole transportation system. More space for public transport is going to lead to better transit services but also, inevitably, mean less space for cars. And if we are going to allow taxis and perhaps bicycles onto those lanes, this needs to be taken into account as well, And this also has to be understood and managed. Equally, if you have a policy which is not enforced you are laying the base for failure. Which is why you need a carefully worked out mobility and land use strategy that takes into account all of these many and often very subtle interdependencies.

The bottom line: You cannot really — believe me! — have an effective mobility strategy for your city without giving high attention to priority lanes for public transport. That will not be enough all by itself of course but it can constitute a great building block in Tallinn’s future world level New Mobility System.

And how do we want it? Why don’t we just say, Probably the Best.

Eric Britton
EcoPlan International
Lyon and Los Angeles

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