Bukit Panjang LRT



Luminus via Tractus by Steven Dale


Rendering of the under-construction Blue Light Rail line in Lagos, Nigeria. Image via Nairaland.com.

Remember: Light Rail Transit (LRT) isn’t always Light Rail Transit. And that goes for all forms of public transportation.

Anyone recall our CPT / ART debate?

While we may like to pretend we work and live in a scientific field, the world of city-building and transit is anything but scientific.After all, there’s no official taxonomy of public transit technologies and I doubt we’ll see one anytime soon. (Note: While Vukan Vuchic’s Urban Transit textbooks have helped a lot in resolving this issue, even he admits to the slipperiness of transit vehicle definitions.)

Maybe we need a more defined definition of Light Rail Transit (Luminus via Tractus perhaps?), but until that time comes it’s important for everyone understand that the definition of a public transit technology isn’t arbitrary and objective – it’s subjective and as much about marketing as it is about anything else.

Consider the under-construction Blue LRT line in Lagos, Nigeria.

This system has confused more than a few people as all estimates of ridership suggest something far more robust than LRT (Yonah Freemark hints at this confusion in a post from a couple years back). From a technology perspective it’s virtually impossible to imagine any single LRT system carrying half a million riders per day (as this Lagos State Government document suggests), yet all the imagery (see above for example) and reports (see previous link for example) categorically reinforce the idea that Lagos’ first urban rail line is to be LRT in nature.

But it’s not. And we know that because of this:

Last week Railways Africa reported that Lagos state governor Babatunde Fashola has visited Toronto, Canada and is prepared to purchase a fleet of 15-year-old decommissioned subway cars in order to service the “light rail project.” The subway cars in question look like this:

"Light" Rail. Image by flickr user Loozrboy.

This is Heavy Rail Transit (HRT). Or Subway Transit. Or Metro Transit. Or Whatever You Want To Call It Transit (WYWTCIT) – but it’s clearly not Light Rail. There’s obviously a disconnect here between one person’s definition of Light Rail and another people’s definition.

That’s not to suggest nefarious doings or shenanigans on the part of anyone. It’s just to point out that when you read statistics about any given transportation technology, it’s important to consider the lens with which those statistics are being viewed through.

Calling Heavy Rail “light” doesn’t make it weigh any less.

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Smart Glass On The Bukit Panjang LRT

I was more than a little impressed by the speed with which Gondola Project readers were able to identify the system I pointed out in this past weekend’s post.

Sure enough, as Mattias pointed out, the system in question was the Bukit Panjang LRT in Singapore. This wasn’t a system I’d ever heard of or ever planned on visiting. Instead, I just happened to stumble across it while visiting a few of Singapore’s transit amenities during a 14 hour stop over there.

Now let’s get this out of the way right off the bat: The Bukit Panjang isn’t an LRT. Not even close. The 8 km long elevated system uses Bombardier’s Innovia APM 100 technology, is fully-automated and has 100 person vehicles spaced at roughly 5 minute headways.

It’s clearly an Automated People Mover or Automated Guideway Transit system. But given that I’ve already ranted and raved about nomenclature issues enough already, I’ll save that topic for another time.

The system itself has been plagued by problems and is in danger of becoming a legendary transit white elephant. But what really caught my eye were those windows:

Before. . .

. . . and after.

As you can see in the short video below, the windows are equipped with smart glass technologies. This allows the windows to switch instantaneously between opaque and transparent modes:

This has certain clear (sorry) advantages. The BPLRT travels through high density, residential highrise neighbourhoods. As the system is elevated, concerns exist for those apartment dwellers whose privacy could be compromised by riders of the BPLRT. The smart glass idea solves that problem . . . sort of.

The strange thing is that while the sides of the vehicles are smart glass equipped, the front and rear windows of the vehicles are not. You can still see into apartments from these areas. Given that the front and rear areas are such prime seating areas, I suspect some people’s privacy will be compromised by curious eight year olds peeping into whatever apartments they can.

Spiderman knows what you wear to sleep at night.

I also think there’s a kind of Ostrich Effect going on here. Let me explain:

The story goes that ostriches hide their head in the sand to avoid predators. Because the ostrich cannot see it’s predators, the ostrich assumes it is safe from its predator. Hilarity and nature channel violence ensues. The story is obviously pure myth but endures as a fantastic metaphor for the consequences of the ignorance that arises from only viewing the world from your own, first person vantage point.

Isn’t the BPLRT acting in the same way?

Sure riders cannot see into the apartments, but apartment dwellers can still see the vehicles. Even if you can’t see the riders, it’s still a little disconcerting, no? I’m not sure this actually alleviates the concerns of apartment dwellers. But at the same time, I don’t know. I’m torn on this one and would love to hear what Gondola Project readers have to say about this issue.

Nevertheless, it’s an innovative technique that is remarkably rare in the world. I can’t think of any transit system that’s ever employed the idea. But then again, I didn’t know about the BPLRT until three days ago. As I’ve said before, you don’t know what you don’t know.

Whether it works as planned or not isn’t the point. At least Singapore’s transit agencies are trying things. They’re thinking, experimenting and challenging established norms. They should be congratulated for that.

As for how this applies to gondolas and cable cars . . . I’ll leave that to the commenters. I’m sure Gondola Project readers will have fun arguing and discussing that one for a long time to come.

Note: Travel, ridiculous time zone changes and conference lectures have meant I’m behind on my posts (again). Really very sorry and I’m trying to catch up. Please, stay tuned.

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