Taking the Bus
Urban Crossroads #34

I usually prefer to avoid making comparisons between Amman and cities of the developed post-industrial world. I believe it is unfair to compare Amman with cities that have access to material and human resources unavailable to us, and that also have strong and long traditions of governmental and non-governmental urban institutions acting as guardians of various aspects of public life in the city, including physical upkeep, issues of civic mindedness, and cultural activities.

Every now and then, however, one finds it difficult to resist the temptation of making such comparisons. In my case, the urge for making the comparison has been brought about by the fact that I am spending this term as a visiting faculty at an urban university in the United States. I specifically would like to address the issue of movement of the city. Since I am visiting for only for a few months, it is both difficult and expensive to obtain a car. In fact, there is no reason for me to obtain a car even though I live at a considerable distance from the university, and it would take me about an hour to walk to it from where I live. I rely on public transportation, and have the option of taking two bus lines or a bus line and a subway line to get to the university. I usually leave in the mornings and return in the evenings, i.e. during rush time. At most times, the bus and subway train are completely packed, and one has to stand for the duration of the trip without any space to move. The commute, however, proceeds smoothly. The bus and the subway trains pass at regular and closely spaced time intervals. Although they show marks of wear and tear, they nonetheless are clean and generally well-maintained. The commuters, almost without exception, are polite and orderly. None of them smoke, and nobody pushes or shoves. Most of the commuters either bring something to read while they commute or listen to music through ear-speakers.

Even if I had a car, I would not want to use it. The bus and subway service is regular, and parking in any case is difficult to find, and what is available often is expensive. I am pleased to be free of any dependence on a car, and do not have to worry about its expenses, whether related to gas, maintenance, insurance, or parking. In contrast, I almost without exception never step outside my house in Amman without a car. For many of us in Amman, the dependence on the car has become as complete as it is for people in the United States living in distant suburbs.

I also do a great deal of walking here, even when it is cold. I often take public transportation for half the way when returning from work, and walk the rest of the way as a form of exercising. The walk is pleasant and the sidewalks actually are made for walking. Whenever you cross a street at a pedestrian crossroad, vehicles stop for you.

I am fully aware that there are considerable limitations to what we might be able to do in Amman in terms of providing urban services. It would be prohibitively expensive, for example, to build a subway or light-rail network in the city. However, we can do a great deal to upgrade the city's bus system. We should make more buses available for public transportation. The buses should be clean and well-maintained, should serve much of the city, and should run at regular and well-space intervals.

Concerning public bus systems, we do not even have to look at the post-industrial world for models. The Brazilian city of Curitiba has developed a remarkable public bus system, and public transit officials from all over the world flock to Curitiba to study it and learn from it. Curitiba is a city that has grown from about 150,000 inhabitants during the 1950s to about 1.6 million today. It has to face problems prevalent in many developing-world cities, including those related to poverty, squatter settlements, and illiteracy. However, under the visionary leadership of its former mayor, Jamie Lerner, the officials and residents of the city have come together to improve the quality of life in it. The experience of Curitiba is truly extraordinary, and should be the subject of a separate article. However, today I would like to touch briefly upon the development of its public bus system. I unfortunately have not had the chance to visit Curitiba, and the information I am providing is based on what I have read about the city.

Planners in Curitiba early on rejected the option of creating a system of expressways that scars the city. Instead, they decided that the city's existing street network can be made to work well enough. They also were well aware that the options of building a subway or light-rail system would be prohibitively expensive. Instead, they decided to develop the city's bus system into a very high-quality one that moves as fast and efficiently as subway systems in many cities in the world.

A good number of the city's street lanes and even whole streets were devoted to public buses. Buses in Curitiba also get priority at traffic lights, so the lights are made to stay green a few seconds later or turn green a few seconds earlier when buses pass.

Bus stops along the major thoroughfares are located at the relatively distant intervals of three kilometers to minimize the number of stops they need to make along a given route. Also, considerable effort has been made to speed up the process of getting people off and on buses. Attractive steel and acrylic bus stops were specially designed (by Lerner himself, who is an architect by profession) along busy routes. These tube-like bus stops take passengers up to the level of the bus door directly. The bus fare is paid at the turnstile located at the end of the bus-stop tube rather than at the bus itself, thus further speeding the process of boarding the bus. This system allows people at bus stops to get on and off the bus at the phenomenal rate of 8 persons per second, which is four times the conventional rate. Moreover, special three-decker buses that accommodate about 270 people have been incorporated in the city's bus system, thus increasing the number of people it can handle.

Although Curitiba has relatively high levels of car ownership, its 1,900 buses, which make about 14,000 trips daily, handle over 75% of travel in the city, the highest rate for a bus system anywhere in the world. The cost of developing this system has amounted to one percent of the cost of installing a subway system. Remarkably, the system requires no governmental subsidy whatsoever, and even makes a profit. Clearly, this is an experience that we in Amman should be looking at more closely.

Mohammad al-Asad

February 17, 2005