Urban Transport and the Development of Mass Rapid Transit (MRT)

By Darius Tirtosuharto



A rapid changing global economy has effected the development of metropolitan cities, which often serve as the center for governments as well as major corporations. Metropolitan cities have become more concentrated and are often supported by thriving suburban areas in its periphery. In order to continue to function and maintain its efficiencies, cities have been forced to improve their infrastructure despite the cost, including transportation.

Urban transport issues become more complicated when public funds are involved as the major source of financing, such as through taxes or through municipal bonds. In addition, cities also face the challenge of providing and managing a reliable urban transport system that is also highly utilized by its citizens, specifically mass transit. Mass Transit systems are often developed as a key solution to support the rapid growth and to solve the many urban transport problems that arise in major metropolitan cities.

Mass Transit, which is also called Mass Transportation, or Public Transportation is defined as a transportation system, usually public but sometimes privately owned and operated, which is designed to move large numbers of people in various types of vehicles, along fixed and non-fixed routes in cities, suburbs, and larger metropolitan areas. This definition refers to a broad type of public transportation modes that include buses, trains, ferries and paratransits.

This study focuses on one type of urban mass transit system, which uses underground or elevated trains [syn: rapid transit], namely a Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) system. MRTs comprise of a spectrum of modes of urban public transport that use specific fixed-track or exclusive and separated use of a potentially common-user road track (such as metros, suburban railways, light rail transit and busway).

The MRT System
The development of an MRT system as a mass transit mode was driven by its assumed efficiency and effectiveness to resolve urban transit problems. Based on a study by the Transportation Research Board (1985), MRT systems have much higher transport capacity compared to automobiles or buses on the freeway. 

Table 1. Capacity of Urban Transportation Modes

                                            Vehicle per hour          Passengers per hour
Automobiles on freeway            2,000                                3,000
Bus                                             1,400                              70,000
Subway (MRT)                              400                              80,000 
Source: Highway Capacity Manual: Special Report. Transportation Research Board. 1985. Cities On The Move. World Bank. 2002. P.109.

Buses have the lowest efficiency level compared to the subway (MRT) and surprisingly automobiles have the highest efficiency since it is the most comfortable travel mode. This fact indicates the main reason why the number of automobiles keeps rising.

Unlike most road-based transportation systems that use gasoline - although some have started to use electric power (hybrid system) - MRT systems are also considered to be an effective way to reduce air pollution. This is because like most MRT systems, except the busway, it uses electric power. Other environmental benefits of the MRT include less land and energy consumption, less noise pollution, less waste contamination and less urban sprawl.

The indirect benefits of the MRT system can be categorized as economic and/or social benefits. Both are considered to be the most influential factors that support the development of an MRT system. The World Bank Urban Transport Strategy Review in 2002 indicates that an MRT system can contribute to the urban development of a city by improving the economic efficiency of a city, through reduced travel costs and maintaining a high level of economic agglomeration activities. In addition, there is also social benefit of an MRT system. According to the World Bank, which reviewed the impact of an MRT system on urban poverty, the MRT system becomes the major mode of transport for the poor. Politicians, to win votes from their constituencies often highlight this social aspect of the MRT system.

Despite all the positive acclaims on the benefits of developing an MRT system, there are also several issues that surface. In the same review by the World Bank, it is mentioned that the costs of MRT are often underestimated and passenger flows overestimated. Excessive debt from financing an MRT system can damage the local economy and place additional financial burden on taxpayers.


Non-Policy Factors that Influence MRT Utilization Rate
Besides urban transport policies, there are also non-policy factors that influence MRT utilization. These non-policy factors should be taken into consideration since it actually represents the physical aspect of an MRT system, such as the engineering design, management and pricing and physical network planning of an MRT system. These non-policy factors may also indirectly affect traffic volume. Brief analyses of these non-policy factors are as follows:

Engineering Design
The physical engineering aspects of an MRT system can limit the utilization of an MRT system, this includes: technology, length of rail/route, vertical segregation (e.g., tunnel, elevated), spacing between stops, maximum passenger capacity and average operating speed. The engineering design of an MRT system is mostly related to the efficiency of an MRT operation, safety or security and comfort issue.
From a safety or security standpoint, buses and automobiles share an equal probability of road accident. The MRT constitutes a higher safety or security percentage since it has a specific fixed-track or exclusive and separated use of a potentially common-user road track.

Management and Pricing
A poorly managed MRT system will be prone to operational issues, particularly since the management of an MRT system requires effective coordination among its constituencies as well as requiring strong political support. Mismanagement can result in a deep crisis over financial and/or labor. In the case of labor disputes, it can result in labor strikes that will effect MRT utilization.

Button (1977) acknowledges “…because of their very nature, regular public transport services need a high utilization rate if they are to fully pay their way..”. The problems are not always the decline in demand for public transport, but can also be high operational costs. These high costs eliminate the potential profit of mass transit industries, however on the other hand Cervero (1990) states “…profitability exists when a transit agency generates revenues sufficient to cover its direct operating costs…”. Therefore, the pricing methods should be examined to keep financial loss at a minimum and to find a way of subsidizing the deficit.

Table 2. Operating Expense Ratios

                                                    Heavy Rail             Light Rail             Bus*
Per revenue vehicle-hour             $152.29                $150.29           $76.50
Per revenue vehicle-mile                 6.96                     11.02                6.42
Per passenger trip                           1.61                      1.63                 1.61
Per passenger mile                          0.33                      0.44                 0.47
* For the 20 largest systems in average weekday passengers.
Source: Transit Profiles: Agencies in Urbanized Areas Exceeding 200,000 Population. Federal Transit Administration. 1993.

From an expense standpoint, buses are more favorable since it has the lowest operating expense compared to other mass transits. However, heavy rail is the lowest in cost from a per passenger mile basis, since it is more efficient in capacity.

Pricing is the essential factor that can influence MRT utilization and it is important to ensure that there is fare coordination to maintain the attractiveness of the MRT system and to assess its impacts on those with low income.

Physical Network Planning
Another key factor that can influence MRT utilization is the interaction between the MRT system, land use planning, urban fabric, and population density. Lyle C Fitch (1964) stated that urban transportation is one of the most influential factors that determine urban life and structure. For an MRT system to be efficient, it is important that there is a seamless integration between the MRT system, its physical network planning and other existing transport systems.

Physical network planning also involves population and employment density. Planning of residential, mixed-use and Central Business District (CBD) zones are one of many key factors to develop a successful MRT system. Cities with an MRT system should have large populations and high density. This is proven by the success of MRT systems in heavily populated and dense cities such as New York, Paris, London, Tokyo and Hong Kong.

Looking at the urban fabric, the main issue is related to density, particularly on how to serve a residential neighborhood located at the periphery of an urban core. Urban sprawl that created edge cities in the suburbs made core cities less dense. The low-density city core is not an ideal situation for MRT systems as it forces more people to walk pass the comfort zone. It also creates traffic congestion as people commute daily from the suburbs to core cities. In order for a MRT system to be highly utilized, the management of urban growth inundated by new traffic generators must be consistent with transportation policy. Transfers between transportation modes must also be considered when designing an MRT system. This mobility issue supports the existence of paratransits that allow people to connect from their originating point to their final destination without any interruption. Mobility issues are also one of the main reasons why people often feel that it is more convenient to walk or travel by car. These gaps are one of the weaknesses of the rapid transit system.

Costs and Choices in Developing a Utilized MRT System
Several major issues must be considered prior to developing an MRT system, such as the high initial development cost, substantial operating deficits and the inflexible nature of the investment, often times lead to fear of early obsolescence. Development costs, are the direct costs that are invested to cover the study, planning and construction of an MRT system. Operational costs are the cost to operate and manage a MRT system, which occasionally become a major burden since the expected utilization of MRT cannot be achieved.

Costs are directly linked to pricing policies, which sometimes favor automobile riders rather than mass transit riders. The analogy for this argument is that people who are driving cars without paying additional charges are actually receiving a subsidy that could be given to the transit riders. John F. Kain and John R. Meyer mention an extreme example of this in their research about transportation and poverty, which proposes a solution to improve urban transportation services for the poor by making public transit free. Although they recognize that a fully subsidized urban transport is not efficient since most of the people riding public transit are not poor. Those who do not have equal access to the MRT system - also known as the transportation-disadvantaged - are often times discouraged to use it. This social cost issue acknowledges that the evaluation of the broad range of social factors expressed in monetary terms will always be relatively less significant than a small number of other cost benefit calculations. In the book titled “Policy and Planning as Public Choice”, David Lewis stated “…good public decisions are “rational” in that total benefits to society will exceed total societal costs…”. This can be determined by cost benefit analysis to find the pareto optimum level of choice.


Button, K.J. 1977. The Economics of Urban Transport.
Cervero, Robert. 1990. “Profiling Profitable Bus Routes”. Transportation Quarterly Vol. 44, No 2

The writter is a PhD student in Public Policy at the George Mason University and a liaison officer for the Institute of National Capacity Studies in Washington DC.