Nearly two years since the first line of Beijing's bus rapid transit (BRT) system began operation, the rapid passenger transport system is contributing to the reduction of the city's severely congested roads and associated air pollution for which the city is infamous.
Described as "so furry you can stroke it" by guide books, the city's pollution had begun to restrain the healthy development of the city and to pose a challenge to the environmental undertakings of the Olympic Games, to be held in the city next year.
With the capacity to reduce the space occupation of each individual car driver to one-twentieth of the space one would occupy using the BRT, the system emerged as a necessary option for Beijing to reduce emissions from traffic, and particularly the soaring number of private vehicles.
By the end of 2006 vehicle ownership in Beijing exceeded 2,9-million and total vehicle volume is estimated to reach 3,5-million during the Olympics next year.
The system, which took a mere 16 months to implement from conception to completion, was launched in 2003 when daily trips in the city had reached nearly 21-million. By this time, Beijing's gridlocked traffic crawled at an average speed of less than 12 km/h on trunk roads during rush hour.
It offered a cost-effective solution to city traffic, supplementing the rail network at one tenth of the cost of a rail system to construct.
The BRT line, the first of 18 lines spanning 322 km that the city plans to construct, currently has the capacity to transport about 140 000 people daily along the 17-km north-south line.
A second and third BRT line will be completed in time for the Olympics.
The speed at which the system was brought into existence and the efficiency with which it operates, could serve as a lesson to South Africa, which is in the process of launching BRT systems in all major cities ahead of the 2010 FIFA World Cup.
Beijing's No 1 Line BRT runs at a speed of 26 km/h, stopping at 50-second intervals. Median lanes are dedicated to the service with bridges and walkways providing access to the central island stations.
The BRT system, which is global positioning system-controlled and takes right-of-way priority over normal traffic, runs between 5:00 and 23:00 after which it shuts down for maintenance.
The system is operated from a central intelligent transport system control room, which manages signal priority, fare collection, platform safety and electronic information. Maintenance and towing vehicles are situated at the central station. Additional lines will be managed from the same centre.
The 90 articulated buses running the route incorporate Chinese-made bus bodies and low emission Euro III diesel engines with low-floor axle technology buses from international driveline and chassis technology supplier ZF.
While Johannesburg's Rea Vaya BRT system will use high-floor buses and raised, enclosed central platforms, in part for controlled access and security reasons, in contrast, Beijing's low-floor buses are level with its open, pavement platform stations.
Beijing BRT operator Beijing's BRT company vice-president Wang Zhen Tao, proposes that the low-floor buses offer significant advantages over high-floor buses for BRT by reducing boarding and alighting speed and bus-stop staying time. Speaking at a press conference in Beijing, he commented that the average stopping time at each bus stop is reduced by more than ten seconds, saving about three minutes of staying time at bus stops for each trip and contributing to operational capacity, punctuality and reliability.
ZF representatives agreed, noting that, while full low-floor buses may cost more than high-floor buses, these expenses are offset by alleviating the need for raised platform infrastructure and its associated costs.
Full low-floor bus technology is also advantageous when implementing a BRT system as it alleviates the need for time-consuming platform construction, which can interfere with traffic flow.
Company representatives add that low-floor buses are flexible, serving all types of bus stops.
The Beijing Public Transport Corporation is applying ZF's technology to the BRT system. In addition to low-floor axle technology, the buses incorporate ZF's steering systems and six-speed Ecomat transmissions.
- Laura Tyrer was a guest of ZF South Africa in Beijing.