PUBLIC transport in urban centres can only be successful if it provides an attractive alternative to the private car which is easy to use, offers value for money and is reliable. While many cities recognise this, there are too many others which have failed to do so.
"If you don't have very reliable public transport people will continue to rely on the car," says Mr Alain Flausch, secretary general of the International Association of Public Transport (UITP). As he points out, failure to develop efficient transport networks condemns cities to years of worsening road congestion and pollution making them increasingly unattractive places to work and live and damaging their competitiveness.
Flausch cites his home town of Brussels as an example of what can happen if public transport does not meet expectations: "80% of employers are thinking of moving out of Brussels because of congestion in the city centre."
Flausch says one of the problems is that only a handful of politicians are willing to take the bold decisions needed to get people out of their cars. "Decision makers are rarely brave and they need to look long-term, but the timing is often wrong for politicians as it can take up to 10 years to complete a major rail project, while they are usually in office for much less than this."
In 2009 the UITP launched its PTx2 initiative to double the use of public transport by 2025. Flausch says he will present a progress report in Milan and he wants to use the UITP congress to show cities which have not yet taken the first step what can be achieved. While there have been some notable successes - Sweden has adopted the PTx2 slogan nationally - the rate of increase in usage has been slow during the first six years.
Flausch says this was expected and he is confident it will improve. PTx2 was launched just after the financial crisis, which has made it difficult to raise funding. When governments are faced with making spending cuts, priority tends to go to areas such as health and education rather than transport.
In developing countries, where there is a desperate need for good public transport in rapidly expanding cities, the challenge is finding skilled people able to plan and implement major projects rather than funding, as Flausch explains. "The World Bank says that about half of the money allocated to public transport is not spent because there are insufficient good-quality projects to invest in. Cities often know how to build roads but lack the skills to implement public transport schemes. The UITP is providing a lot of training to develop skills such as project planning and management."
Flausch also believes a lot could be done to reduce the capital cost of implementing projects. "Engineers are used to building things in a certain way and tend to be very cautious, for example by doubling safety margins, but we don't need infrastructure to last for 200 years, so we should build lighter and cheaper.
"We should not try to duplicate what we do in developed countries in developing countries," Flausch continues. "It is great that France has invested so much in light rail but it costs a fortune: €25m/km. An alternative is bus rapid transit which is much faster and cheaper to implement than light rail, and can be converted to rail in the future if the traffic warrants it."
Another issue of concern to Flausch is achieving the right balance between the fares charged for public transport and the amount of subsidy provided to operators. "The UITP believes operators should increase fares every year," Flausch says. He is highly critical of the Ile-de-France's decision earlier this year to eliminate travel zones in the Paris area which will cost around €450m a year. "This means people will pay the same to travel 1km as for 50km, which is stupid. It would be much better to use the money to invest in new trains for example."
Finally, Flausch wants to see operators pay far more attention to the needs of their passengers rather than simply running their services. "Many operators are still run by engineers, but if you mix this with marketing and human resources skills, it is possible to change the attitude of the organisation," Flausch explains.
"Operators have to attract customers and make a living out of them. It is a cultural thing, but you can't change behaviour over a weekend. It takes ages to build a good reputation, but only one bad experience to ruin it."
Many of these topics will be discussed during the UITP congress in Milan and IRJ editors will be there to report on it.