Vitézy: I take full responsibility
While some argue that public transport in Budapest is expensive and disappointing, others claim that many promising changes have happened since the foundation of the Budapest Transport Authority, BKK. We talked with one of the most divisive personalities among Budapest’s leaders, BKK CEO Dávid Vitézy.
Q: The Center for Budapest Transport (BKK) was established in 2010, however, many people still don’t understand the difference between the transport company BKV and the BKK. What are the main tasks of the latter, and why do we need a transport authority?
A: Fully integrated transport authority only works in a few places around the world: London, Singapore, Dubai, New York and in some smaller towns. These cities have begun to deal with the issue that personal traffic and public transport are in fierce competition. The fact that people like to drive to work or anywhere else is in conflict with the city’s economic, environmental and sustainability objectives. And only a decision-making body placed above the competing sectors, which can make clear decisions on a professional basis and that is able to watch out for the entire city’s interests, to prioritize and to allocate development resources, could manage the situation.
At the fall of socialism in Hungary, the share of public transport was 87% in Budapest. In 22 years, it fell to 55%. This is still a very good rate by international standards, but in order to regulate the transport system of Budapest we had to intervene, and there was a need for an integrated transport authority.
The leadership of a city must be aware that many times it’s not lack of money but lack of space that is the problem. On the same street, built in the 19th century, there’s not enough place for a wider pavement, parking, a bicycle lane, some terrace area for the bars and cafés, and a line of trees. It’s just not working. A single centralized authority has to make decisions and prioritizes among the many possibilities.
I’ll give you two examples where you can feel the advantage of this kind of approach. One is the traffic lights at Nagykörút. From the 1970s onwards, a green wave system was configured to the traffic lights to serve motoring comfort, despite the fact that only 2,500 people travel by car in one hour in one direction, unlike the 8,000 other people, who travel by tram. Recently this was changed to give the tram a green wave. That way, the journey time of tram No. 4-6 was reduced by two minutes, so we are able to “turn round” the trams faster and achieve higher capacity utilization. We were able to increase capacity by 7%, without any more electricity usage, or more Combino trams on Nagykörút. Of course, this system is a little more uncomfortable for the motorists, but the interests of the whole city have prevailed.
Another example is the issue of development. Formerly the management of Budapest was not able to make a large amount of resources available for development. Since the creation of BKK, more than HUF 100 billion in non-refundable EU development funds could be involved. All organizations around the EU recognize that our transport projects are well prepared, much more professional than previous ones, and much more in line with the EU standards. Obviously, in order to pull in such a huge amount of money since BKK’s establishment, it was necessary to have the support of the government and the determination of the Mayor's Office, but it can also be stated that it could not be so without creating BKK.
Q: A huge battle is going on in the mass media and on Internet forums about the very necessity for the BKK. One side talks about burning subway trains and buses and huge time delays, the other says that very good progress has been achieved since 2010 in the public transport of Budapest. Who is right?
A: I think both sides are right: there are still buses catching fire accidentally, but at the same time a lot of improvements have been made since 2010. Let me outline the problem. There are 1,500 buses in Budapest today. In Western Europe, buses are replaced with new ones every seven or eight years. We are not Western Europe, so let’s say we should change our whole bus fleet over every 12 years. That still means 125 new buses every year. In comparison, the last time a tender was called for new buses was in 2004. Between 2006 and 2010 not a single new bus arrived in Budapest. When we took over the government, the average age of the buses was more than 17 years. To eliminate that gap in just a couple of years is impossible. We immediately started to import used buses from Western Europe as, given the position, this was the most viable choice. We would rather buy 100 eight-year-old low-floor buses from Frankfurt, which will serve very well for another six or seven years, than buy 20 new one or refurbish 100 20-year-old high-floor buses with highly polluting engines. We have received many critical reviews for this decision; I still take full responsibility for that.
As part of the new operating model, we separated BKV’s commissioning and service provision roles. In practice, this means that the tasks in which public good should be spent to maximize efficiency and to find the best of those choices available have been passed to BKK, and BKV as a supplier carries out the ordered services. That of course implies that BKV isn’t the only supplier who can provide such services. A good example for that approach is the arrival of 150 new low-floor buses from this spring, that are operated by VT Transman Ltd, partly owned by German state railways, and partly by Hungary’s Videoton Holding. The competitive situation in the market has already shown its benefits, as the vehicle outages rate at BKV went below 2% only with the appearance of VT Transman as a competitor.
Q: There is talk about the outsourcing of services in suburban towns, where rural transport company Volán could replace BKV and Hungarian railway company MÁV...
A: The HÉV commuter train services are not being discussed at present. We imagine them operated as a part of the underground network in the future, so preparatory work is under way in this direction. The current commuter transport negotiations you talk about would have no more meaning than whether a sticker of BKV or Volán might be adhered to a 23-year-old bus. The point, however, would be to plan the transport of Budapest at a regional level too. For Gödöllő, which you can reach via HÉV, Volán or MÁV, you shouldn’t have to buy three different types of travel pass. There are great examples of this philosophy in Central European capitals such as Bratislava and Prague. We are working in Budapest in order to create a similar system.
Q: What kinds of transportation development projects are currently in the hands of BKK?
A: Oh, there are many of them. On the one hand, non-EU funded transport development projects in Budapest, such as road and bridge reconstructions. Earlier a road reconstruction was about concrete and asphalt only. Period. Now we evaluate the real needs of people on roads and sidewalks and take them into account during reconstruction. We apply an integrated, holistic approach: we take into account the needs of the pedestrians, the users of public transport, the cyclists, the car drivers and whenever possible, the residents living in the neighborhood. This is of course more expensive in terms of time and money, but I think, this is the way public money should be spent.
Regarding EU projects, the greatest job of this year is the reconstruction of the Nos. 1 and 3 tramlines. Some parts of the lines were last refurbished in the ’80s, so this work is really urgent. Besides, the interconnecting tramlines of Buda are also a major project, connecting Buda in a north-south direction. We are building the track back from Batthyány tér to Margit híd and connect that line with Széll Kálmán tér, which will also be renovated as a part of this project. Also, the automatic vehicle location and real-time passenger information system FUTÁR is very important. At present, there is no vehicle tracking system in Budapest, we do not know where they are on the road. What we are building is a system based on GPS and advanced communications in order to monitor, and if necessary control, the transport system. This will have a positive impact on the punctuality of buses, trams and trolley buses.
In addition, if we had such a control system, we’d been able to give information to passengers. In order to do that, 263 pieces of information display and monitors built to withstand extreme external influences are now being installed in Budapest stops. It is also important to improve the foreign language information in Budapest, primarily with English signs and information monitors, but we are also planning to introduce more English-language audio passenger information on vehicles, as we did on tram No. 4-6.
In addition, it is worth mentioning BUBI, a public bike-sharing system. This is an additional service provided to public transport and works in several cities in the world. I used to say that it was invented for those who would bike, but have no bicycle. The launch is expected in the spring of 2014 with 75 stations and 1,000 bikes.
Q: The citizens of Budapest are eagerly waiting the start of services on the Metro M4, the subway that has been under construction since 2006. When will the project finally be handed over to the public?
A: The biggest development under the aegis of Budapest involving BKK is, indeed, the construction of Metro M4. This is a large and complex project. However, I do not want to conceal the fact that fundamentally we didn’t agree with the concept. Spending HUF 450 billion on a brand new downtown subway line, while network traffic bleeds from a thousand wounds is not wise. On subway lines M1 and M3, vehicles are 40 years old. Thirty-year-old trams and 23-year-old buses circulate on the roads, because in the last 15 years all the investment money was concentrated to build Metro M4.
In addition, throngs of mistakes have been made. As a result there are many contractor claims, which we try to settle with the largest contractors with the lead of Budapest Mayor István Tarlós. A total of 16 major contractors worked on the project that, pointing to each other and to Budapest City Hall, tries to account for additional costs. This in itself has raised costs by HUF 100 billion. We are working to fix these errors and complete the project by spring 2014. This is achievable: the risk is not technical, but legal.
Q: We have heard about the introduction of a new, automated fare collection system.
A: Yes, this area is utterly important. Ticket services are in the Stone Age with paper-based tickets and passes, non-functioning machines, etc. We called a tender for 300 new ticket vending machines, which accept coins, bills and credit cards too. These are already in line with our new project of a card-based electronic ticket system, based on London’s Oyster or similar systems in Hong Kong and Singapore. We are trying to introduce a whole new philosophy in ticket sales and control.
Q: When you were the spokesman for civil transport organization VEKE, you many times criticized BKV and transport organization in Budapest. Now you very often get criticism from the same place. How do you feel about it?
A: Criticism is a good thing if it’s based on facts. We criticized a lot, yes, but don’t forget, I was leader of a working group at VEKE that created the backbone of the night transport system in Budapest. That system is still functioning very well. But in this case, I think it’s more personal than professional. If someone criticizes me because of a personal grievance or for political beliefs, let them do it. I don’t care.
Q: You had some confrontations last year with Mayor István Tarlós.
A: I think the media exaggerated it. Transport in Budapest is a huge business with a budget of more than HUF 130 billion a year without the Metro M4 project. Of course we have professional discussions every now and then. But for the fact that I could be CEO of BKK despite my young age, I should be thankful for the trust of Mayor Tarlós. Also, the developments we have achieved in the last couple of years couldn’t have been accomplished without the good cooperation between the Mayor’s Office and BKK.
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