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Even in Oil-Rich Iran, Green Transit Ideas Are Catching On

Finding lessons in how green transit can survive and thrive in an unlikely place.

Tehran is not an obvious place for sustainable transportation ideas to thrive. Gas used to cost next to nothing—about 38 cents per gallon—until December, when the government quadrupled the price to about $1.50 per gallon for a monthly ration of about 16 gallons per car, and closer to $3.00 for any amount past that. With gas so cheap, it's no wonder people choose to drive rather than take the train or the bus. In Tehran, in 2008, just over a quarter of all trips were in private and shared taxis, and another 27 percent were in private cars, according to data from the city. Tehran has been designed for cars, too: freeways slice through the city, cutting off neighborhoods from each other.

But over the past few years, the city has been installing bike lanes, building new bus stations, and expanding its subway system. The city does has a compelling reason to lure people away from their cars. Eighty percent of Tehran’s air pollution can be traced to car emissions, according to the city.

In 2008, Tehranis were taking 8 percent of their trips on the newly created bus rapid-transit system. BRT systems speed up buses by creating dedicated bus lanes and streamlining payment. A team at Amirkabir University of Technology designed the first route with assistance, in part, from an 800-page BRT planning guide put together by the New York-based Institute for Transportation and Development Policy.

ITDP has helped cities around the world (like Guangzhou, China) implement BRT systems, and recently Walter Hook, who heads ITDP, traveled to Tehran to share information about transit system network design. Of the six BRT corridors in the city, the first constructed was “quite good,” Hook said, and would likely meet ITDP’s still-developing “silver standard” for BRT lines. At enclosed stations, passengers prepaid and boarded buses quickly (women in front, men in the back). “At level” boarding means that passengers don’t have to climb bus steps but can walk directly from a platform into the bus. Uniform red buses indicate clearly that they’re part of one system. The first line has been so popular that taxis that once staked out this route have lost business and gone elsewhere, Hook said.

Other BRT corridors were less impressive, though. Stations jutted into the bus lanes; bad design caused buses to back up at major intersections; buses on the same line came in various colors. Still, people are using the lines. One, in a less affluent area of town, has attracted middle class shoppers to the area to shop for cheaply priced goods. And while both Tehran University and the national government opposed the first BRT line, the system has been so successful that they dropped their opposition.

Beyond the BRT system, Tehran is rapidly expanding its subways and, in affluent areas, building malls on top of metro stations. In one district, the city is running a free bike-sharing program. The city began these projects even before gas prices jumped from ridiculously cheap to moderately affordable, but with the price hike, they could offer Tehranis a whole new way of looking at their city and deciding how to get around it.

Photo courtesy of the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy

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