Sustainability Through Exchange

Tamás Mátrai spoke to David Vitezy, CEO of Budapest’s transport authority BKK, about consequences of the global financial crisis, the smart city and what Budapest has learned from London, Milan and Paris.

What are the main transport challenges and trends in Budapest today?
Thanks to the constant effort to make public transport more attractive, following the worldwide financial crisis in 2008, personal motorized traffic is decreasing. People are searching for more sustainable mobility modes such as public transport and other non-motorized transport. The number of cyclists has continuously increased in the last 10 years.

The main vision of Budapest is to become a more liveable city – transport must give support to reach this goal by completing missing elements of the existing networks, removing system bottlenecks, providing reliable and competitive public transport services with modernized fleet, real-time passenger information, reallocating public space to serve the changing needs, especially in the city centre.

As CEO of BKK, what are your priorities?
BKK has a dual responsibility: we must operate our existing transport networks at higher standards and, secondly, deliver efficient development projects to improve our services. The main priorities are to improve rail-bound public transport services (e.g. refurbishment of tram lines), complete the missing links in our PT system and renew the deteriorated rolling stock (e.g. new bus management model, tram and trolley bus procurement).

And what do the people of Budapest expect?
The people of Budapest and its agglomeration expect an accessible, fast, reliable and convenient transport system – BKK, as the transport authority of Budapest, must provide a sustainable mobility mix to serve this need, with increased share of sustainable mobility modes such as public transport, walking and cycling that give a real alternative to personal motorized transport. Our services in the city must be well-connected to other mobility services in the region, as the boundaries of the functional city are no longer the same as the institutional boundaries – we are open for regional partnership and co-operation.

Are citizens responsive to sustainable urban transport policies?
Yes, people generally understand and act towards sustainable urban mobility, which can be seen by the increase in PT ridership. Before the worldwide financial crisis in 2008, Budapest followed the general way of motorization, families bought their second and third cars, the national highway network has been extended, shopping malls that can only be reached by car have been built all around the M0 ring road, which also has been completed around the city. After the crisis, people are tending to be more careful with their financial decisions that also have an effect on their daily mobility.

On the other hand, with the help and powerful campaigns of NGO’s and civil movements such as Critical Mass, young people found a new tool of their personal freedom and mobility: the bicycle. These two trends gives us, the integrated transport management body, a unique chance to make steps forward to better services that can receive the expected public response. To give an example: Budapest will launch its public bike scheme “MOL-bubi” in spring 2014 expecting more and more people using their own bicycles as well the ones in the system.

How do you conciliate the expectations for better cycling, walking and public transport, and the hope to have more fluid car traffic?
Finding the right balance between public and personal transport services, also creating the optimal share of public space for mobility and other urban activities has never been easy. BKK as an integrated transport authority has clear responsibilities, stronger control over service providers and operators within a public service obligation contractual framework that can lead to success.

Car traffic, in general, was the answer to all mobility challenges in the 1970s and that has led to a car-focused infrastructure and mobility habits up to now. We must change that by engaging more and more people to use more sustainable modes – that needs actions towards a less car-focused infrastructure and better public transport services.

Budapest citizens will remember the 150 new buses, which started to operate recently and they will recognize the effort for real-time information provision as well. Several measures were introduced in favour of cyclists and pedestrians and the replacement of the paper-based ticketing system is also on its way. These developments are all part of our legacy.

What role should transport technology play in enabling Budapest to become a smart city?
Our recent developments regarding active travel demand management, real-time information provision, restricted traffic zones and the MOL-bubi public bike scheme can all help Budapest to achieve its goal of becoming a more liveable city. Technology changes quickly, but we try to introduce the most innovative solutions for our networks (such as contactless bank cards for our new e-ticketing system), trying to skip the internal steps that proved to be outdated.

The recently introduced AVL system is helping Budapest to become “smarter” by reducing response time for incidents and providing higher levels of public transport services. We are also experiencing an increase in the public usage of smart phones and tablets and therefore we are opening for that way as well, developing mobile applications for the provision of real-time information. BKK is involved as a partner in four European research and development projects to keep up with current trends of innovation and to learn about best practices and adoptable know-how.

What does a ‘smart city’ mean for you?
To me a “smart city” means a complex urban environment, where all different stakeholders act together in co-operation towards creating a more liveable city, using the available new technologies effectively. Although the “smart city” concept does not only apply for transportation, we can speak about it in the mobility context that also covers a lot of different measures: a “smart city” should not only invest in better infrastructure, it needs to manage all available resources in an intelligent way, in order to achieve sustainable economic development and daily operation. A “smart city” should be efficient and needs to focus on innovation as well.

In planning your activities are you getting inspiration from other cities?
As with many other developed cities in Europe, Budapest is involved in several exchange activities with the help of international networks such as Polis. The concept of BKK itself has been inspired by Transport for London. During the preparation works of a possible congestion charging scheme for Budapest, we incorporated several ideas from experiences of Milan. The concept of our public bike scheme MOL-bubi was heavily influenced by other existing systems such as the ones in Paris and London. BKK is always open to learn from other cities experiences, and tries to consider the best practices around Europe. ICT and open data are two fields that interest us but also intermodal interchanges or Sustainable Urban Mobility Plans are topics for which we have already started the knowledge exchange and we are keen to continue work this way.

Tamás Mátrai is project manager at BKK