A Smart Metro ?

The Metro Express (ME) project is under way at express speed! Ground is being cleared and people are receiving letters to evacuate places. At the same time, as expected there are mounting opposition, reluctance and debates against it. Sometimes the reactions cause such projects to be aborted, like the Heritage City project. Many people are voicing out concerns about the financial and economic viability of the project and its impact on the environment. Such projects and the concerns they represent (including questions raised here) ought to have been discussed in a conference with all interested persons invited to make their points. The fact is that very often such projects are derailed and miss their targets due to hidden motivations (and egos!). The Terre-Rouge-Verdun road was completed just before the last general elections to impress people. Haste has brought waste and people are depressed! The Metro Express project could also suffer the same fate if the same mistakes are repeated. It is true that a project such as the ME is required for the long term, especially if we expect high growth in the population. It has been delayed by the previous governments (like the reform in the education sector), but it needs to be well implemented and it requires people’s goodwill to succeed. Now that the shot has been fired, there are still some ways in which it can be improved. We need to avoid the “bon marché/vite fait/coûte cher” trap. Furthermore the ME should be part of a bigger project, that of transforming the public transport system for the coming 50 years, hence the need think smartly to articulate our vision and national strategy. We need a Smart Metro in a smart network and for that, some smart changes are needed.
True that people are impatient to see the promised second “economic miracle” and the clock is ticking before the next general elections, which could be due for 2020. In order to give the economy an adrenaline boost, or to produce the Keynesian effect, heavy hope is being pinned on the massive investments to stimulate the economy. The ME is hoped to transform the country into a vast field of works (“chantier”) which will give rise to a multiple of other projects, opportunities, generate jobs …, hence the appearance of a high level of activities, mushrooming of structures, noise and dust everywhere – that buzz like it was happening during the first “economic miracle”! in the 80s when new roads were being built. The question of timing has a big impact on the methods. It is only now (2 years late) that the Ministry of Infrastructure is talking with the employees of transport industry and an impact assessment on the bus transport companies and geo-physical studies of soils will start! In such a project “change management” is an important factor. The fears and resistances are likely to increase...and they will be amplified because of the contracted timeline. “To every action there is an equal and opposite reaction” – and the shorter delays imply greater actions and hence greater resistances. However, what is the urgency to complete the project before 2020? Firstly, a little flexibility to extend the completion of the project beyond 2020 will dissociate it from the timing of the next general elections/ political agenda, and much of the project planning will be eased, resistances better managed down and unnecessary tensions will be diffused! It will be a smart move for a huge difference.
Secondly, based on what has transpired in the media, even before completion of the impact assessment on bus transport companies, 200 new buses (and that too high floor buses in all kinds of shapes and conditions?) will be redeployed across new lines within the cities to act as feeder lines to the ME and there will be a bus each 5 minutes! Now most of the inner roads of the cities are narrow with sharp turns, and buses will cause havoc in the inner cities. We experience this every day in the main roads of villages. So based on current conditions, with the addition of 200 buses on the roads, plus the bus stops/shelters, will the traffic congestion (and accidents) increase or decrease in the cities? We will know, hopefully on time, at the end of the impact assessment about to start...And how should the current conditions have to change to avoid the pitfalls? There can be few ways to change the current conditions: one way would be to limit access of cars to the inner cities by abolishing the “duty-free” cars, increasing significantly road taxes and parking fees and implementing heavy road tolls (péage)! An alternative way would be to avoid using buses for the feeder lines and to use vans instead (more on that follows). For the moment think how smartly school-vans and passenger vans which transport workers perform their roles on our roads. And consider for once replacing these vans by buses...
Thirdly, based on presentation made on the ME project, it seems that the authorities expect 20% of the current bus travellers and 10% of car travellers to opt for the ME! Why is the emphasis on bus travellers instead of car travellers? Shouldn’t it be the opposite? Otherwise it will be as if we are replacing buses by expensive wagons – which will be not smart at all!
More aggressive traffic control
Finally, by how much will the ME reduce the original problem, that is, traffic congestion causing travel delays and stress, air pollution and excessive fuel consumption? That’s the smart question.... Let’s assume an overall reduction of 40%-50%! We will be back to square-one by year 2040/2050 (sooner with high population growth) if there is no transformation in our methods. Just the ME alone is NOT sufficient!! That is why we need to rethink our national public transportation strategy. So let’s return to the root causes. The main root cause has been the unregulated and over-protected public transport sector, and archaic thinking. Traffic congestion is not just a question of larger feeding roads. Larger roads just bring more cars at the entrance, hence more congestion. Traffic congestion depends naturally on the numbers of vehicles, and then on the rate of absorption of the infrastructures for these vehicles, which in turn, depends on the rate of parking of the vehicles (which is the cause of problem at Grand Bassin and Ebène!) and by the intake speed.  Intake speed is slow at the entrance of Port-Louis because the main incoming and outgoing traffics intersect each other (i.e. traffic intersections at the Place d’Armes and along M2 Trunk Road). Other factors like lane-changing on A1 street (in front of Government House) and stopping for pedestrians crossings (e.g. on A1, Intendance & Pope Hennessy streets) considerably slow down the intake speed. There are also too many secondary traffic crossing each other, for example, at the Gare Du Nord and Quay street. These same factors would also affect the proposed feeder buses of the Metro Express! More aggressive traffic control (e.g. no lane changing), total re-routing of the traffic flows with flyovers (Dream Bridge) and ring-road and a vast new gallery of underground pedestrian tunnels linking Gare Du Nord, Place d’Armes, Cathedral Square up to Chaussée Street & Caudan, would have allowed smooth traffic flow on the surface and safe walks with shopping experience underground! Also, there could have been car parking lots at Riche Terre, Montebello and Trianon with a system of shuttles/coach service to fret people to and from Port-Louis and Ebene. The traditional bus industry could have reengineered itself by offering a system of “deluxe coach service”. Vans are smaller, quick to fill, more comfortable and move fluidly in the traffic. With different service types/pricing to serve specific clientele and regions (e.g. Port-Louis, Ebène or the parking lots), people would have left their cars behind with joy. These measures would change the concept of Port Louis completely (and still be valid with or without Metro projects at 25% of the costs!). What we really need is more imagination, deep rethinking and some tough changes (e.g. shift system for civil servants like traffic controllers/engineers to regulate traffic, analyse the issues live from 6.00 am to 7.00 pm across the island and implement corrective actions fast) – for a complete transformation in the way we think, work and live smartly.