Transportation Innovation and Reform: The Path to Social Sustainability

As wise and balanced a summary as you will find of the fine art of dialogue and engagement when it comes to the hard job of developing and integrating new transport arrangements into a space as varied and in many ways contradictory and conflicted as a  21st century city, in any part of the world.  Bravo! With kind thanks to Christopher Zegras of MIT’s Department of Urban Studies and Planning, one of the conveners of this event, for sharing this with our readers. (You may also wish to check out the short note of conclusion of the editor.)

Event Wrap Up: Transantiago and Metrobús
– How to achieve social sustainability? –

Profoundly reforming an urban transportation system is as complicated as trying to rebuild a house with the residents inside. Despite all the shortcomings accompanying the status quo of many urban transportation systems today, both the transportation operators and the users have adapted to the market conditions within which they operate, such that any change must proceed with caution.

In other words, grand plans to improve public transportation in our cities must search for a balance between the technically desirable and the politically feasible.

Putting all the emphasis on only one side (e.g., the technical) can derail reform, or weaken it to the point where the desired results are not realized. Although certainly not the only ones, two critical aspects to consider in the search for this balance are: the way in which reformers approach negotiations with existing operators; and the way in which they communicate with, and open up to the participation of civil society, more generally. Both aspects influence not only the feasibility of implementing reform but also the sustainability of the system once reformed.

In this context, our Centre of Excellence, together with the Institute of Sociology of the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile and MIT’s Department of Urban Studies and Planning convened a diverse group of academics, authorities, operators, and members of civil society to discuss and share lessons from the implementation of Transantiago, in the Chilean capital, and Metrobús, in the Mexican capital. The event took place on Thursday, 31 May at the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile, in Santiago, and was inaugurated by the Chilean Minster of Transportation and Telecommunications, Pedro Pablo Errázuriz.

The design of the event aimed to focus on discussions rather than formal presentations. In the morning, authorities and operators from both cities spoke at a roundtable moderated by Professor Christopher Zegras, from MIT. Private sector participants included: Jesús Padilla, President of Corredor Insurgentes (the principal private operator of the Metrobús system), and Simón Dosque and Hector Moya (Managers of Transantiago’s Buses Vule y Subus Chile, respectively). Authorities included Jorge Rocha, Director of Planning and Evaluation of Metrobús, and Carolina Simonetti, from the General Coordination of Transantiago.

Among the noteworthy conclusions from the discussion:

  • Success apparently hinges upon moving from a scheme of confrontation (authorities versus entrepreneurs) towards one of collaboration and trust.
  • The inclusion of existing operators in the BRT systems is, perhaps, necessary, but implies a complicated process (building consensus within the operators’ organizations themselves and the negotiation of contract terms) that undoubtedly increases project costs.
  • These types of projects provide an opportunity to move from an association-based system (of gremios) towards a business-based system. This transition can be painful and generate losers, but it likely reduces negative externalities (accidents, congestion, pollution) and, perhaps, improves service levels for the user.
  • The agreements generated with operators for the initial stages of the project should be flexible enough to be adjusted to the changing conditions during implementation.
  • It is crucial to strengthen the parties involved (authorities and the private sector) that are committed to successful reform. Within both groups there are heterogeneous interests which the opposition can take advantage of to sabotage the process. In the case of authorities, it is important to avoid, as much as possible, an institutional design within which decision-making remains subdivided among multiple sub-units, as such a scheme fragments vision and responsibilities.

In the afternoon, Professor Manuel Tironi (Instituto de Sociología, PUC) moderated a dialogue titled “How to increase and improve citizen participation in the design and implementation of integrated BRT systems?” Marco Priego (EMBARQ, Mexico) and Sofia Lopez (Ciudad Viva, Santiago) participated as members of NGOs that have emphasized the need to modify certain aspects of the transportation systems in their respective cities.

To provide the perspective of the authorities on these topics, the participants included Jorge Rocha on behalf of Metrobús and Germán Correa, ex-General Coordinator of the project that eventually became Transantiago. Among the conclusions from the roundtable:

  • Citizen participation should be included, in a sustained manner, in all project stages.
  • To speak of “citizen participation” in the abstract is not useful. We should specify the types of participation being considered and desired and clearly distinguish citizen participation (as an interactive political process) from simple marketing and information provision.
  • There is a lack of specialists with experience in organizing citizen participation that can strengthen urban transportation system projects and improve prospects for success.
  • Knowing citizens’ actual preferences is necessary to better approximate their behavior (e.g., in models); but such knowledge is insufficient for integrating citizens into the processes of design and implementation. We should also (a) better know their daily non-discursive activities and (b) enable them to participate more directly in decision-making.
  • The success of citizen participation (and systems better-aligned with users) depends on recognizing the diversity of users and user profiles.
  • We should take advantage of the possibilities for real-time interaction with users/citizens enabled by new communication technologies.

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This workshop was made possible thanks the support of the MIT International Science and Technology Initiatives (MISTI). The material discussed will be analyzed more deeply and serve to further strengthen the research of one of the research groups that participate in the Centre of Excellence ALC-BRT.

Download the full program of the Workshop (in Spanish).

Presentations (in Spanish) by:

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Editor’s note:

Thanks to all those behind this fine project in Santiago for taking the time and trouble to summarise so well what many of us have concluded over the years, especially when it comes to projects that are pushed too hard, too fast, and too blindly to achieve the kinds of broad acceptance that is needed if our transportation reforms are to succeed and endure.

An earlier posting in World Streets last year, “Outreach for success: Local Actors & Implementation Partners”, which you can pick up at, offers a handy “partners” checklist which we have developed over the last two decades as a kind of survival kit to guide our work with innovative projects and programs in cities.  This checklist  identifies close to one hundred types of organizations, groups and programs who are the partners — or if you get it wrong the adversaries — of your new project or initiative, pretty much wherever you may find yourself on this planet.

The days of authoritarian projects pushed without full citizen involvement and support are coming to an end, and if not yet as fast as we would like to see, nonetheless on the way out. At least in our legitimately democratic societies and cities. And for the rest, well the most useful thing that we can do for them will be to provide great and democratic examples showing that the path to excellence lies through equity and inclusiveness.

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