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BRT expert sweet-talking Penang into installing bus system?

LETTER | It was reported that Yoga Adiwinarto, country director of the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy (ITDP) in Jakarta had recommended the Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system for Penang in a presentation organised by Think City yesterday.

The ITDP specialises in BRT and their institutional mission is to promote the bus system around the world in that their “specific area of expertise is the bus rapid transit (BRT) and we work to spread knowledge about BRT and provide high-level technical assistance to cities pursuing BRT projects in the US and abroad.”

Urban planning expert, Diego Silva Ardila has observed that think-tanks like ITDP "have focused on BRT systems as the only plausible solution for urban transport in the developing world, and have not seriously and rigorously analysed the possibilities that rail-based systems have [...]"

Ardila further noted that "the think-tanks and their claims have been deemed biased by the fact that they represented the interests of funding sources and donors of these think-tanks, mostly foundations of companies related to a certain level with the automobile and oil industry."

Matteo Rizzo, development studies expert in the University of London, calls the ITDP and similar institutions the “BRT evangelical society” for their fervency in recommending the BRT for developing countries. It is an established fact among field experts that ITDP’s sole option for public transport is the BRT.

In his presentation yesterday, Yoga reportedly hailed the BRT as the “best system to graduate to larger rail systems”. Yoga mentioned if I recall correctly, that the installation of the BRT took lesser time and Penang needed such a system to address immediate traffic needs before moving on to constructing a rail-based system like the Light Rail Transit (LRT).

His remark that the BRT should be an intermediary system before graduating to LRT sounded odd as he disagreed with such a graduation process in Jakarta. Yoga is reported to prefer to expand the TransJakarta BRT system rather than supporting the LRT plan.

His preference was in contrast to Jakarta's deputy governor-in-charge of transportation, Sutanto Soehodho, a professor of transport modelling with a doctorate from the University of Tokyo, who thought that the city required an LRT.

On ITDP, the deputy governor said that, “They have been monitoring our TransJakarta buses for 10 years and they are not getting better. The number of passengers is even declining.”

This had me wondering that if after the installation of the BRT, will Yoga really support graduation to an LRT? After all, he is the head of an institution with the mission to evangelise BRT to the world and his past record shows that he disagreed with such a plan. Was he merely sweet-talking the audience into supporting the BRT?

Besides, I do not remember an instance when Yoga highlighted the limitations and weaknesses of the BRT compared to other public transport systems.

Each public transport system has merits and weaknesses. One weakness of the BRT is that it is accident-prone. TransJakarta, even with its dedicated lanes, has seen increasing road accidents. Here is the data from 2015 to 2018.

In four years, there were 134 percent and 233 percent increase of BRT-related accidents and deaths respectively. A public transport system like the LRT plan for Penang will not have such risks. And none of these was highlighted in Yoga’s presentation.

Such silence over BRT’s weaknesses is not surprising to researchers like Matteo Rizzo who wrote that, “the narrative of BRT as a ‘win–win’ intervention to solve the public transport crisis in developing countries obscures the many tensions associated with their implementation.”

Rizzo further postulated that, “Such a narrative stems from research sponsored by international finance, its NGO brokers and BRT vehicle manufacturers and is functional to their interests in opening up public transport markets in developing countries.” (Matteo Rizzo, Taken For A Ride, Oxford University Press, 170)

Perhaps the ITDP should consider changing their name to “Institute for BRT and Development Policy” in order not to give the wrong impression to the public that they are public transport experts when their expertise is solely the BRT system?

Now that we have heard from BRT expert, it will be good if we can also hear from experts of other modes. Hopefully, Think City will consider having sessions on other types of public transport.

The views expressed here are those of the author/contributor and do not necessarily represent the views of Malaysiakini.