Getting Trouble-Free from A to B: Using Yerevan’s Public Transport as a Tourist
Author: Taline Akkaya
In Yerevan, Armenia’s capital, about 43.8 % of the public transport relies on minibuses – small buses with limited space and insufficient safety precautions, which are a heritage from Soviet times (Yerevan Municipality, 2020). This number already indicates the importance of this device for the daily passenger transport. However, there remains a high degree of inefficiency in the public transport system, leading to consequences such as pollution, excessive traffic and disproportionate rise of car use, just to name a few. Except from these negative impacts, it is also an impediment to tourism efficiency because they can hardly use public transport devices. Information on how to use them are not openly available for everyone.
Tourism is one of the significantly rising economic sectors in Armenia. During the past eight years, the numbers of tourists coming to Armenia has more than doubled (Trading Economics, n.d.). The potential of turning the tourism branch into a more lucrative and professionalized business in Armenia is problematized by factors as simple as transportation. As this has been an ongoing problem for an extended time period, it is obvious that the solution to this problem requires governmental steps. This policy paper proposes the ideal strategy to deal with this problem, considering many different options.
2. Problem Description
2.1. Problem Background
The issue of Yerevan’s public transportation is not new to the Armenian society. Quite the opposite, as the transportation system is a heritage of Soviet times, ever since state independence it has been present. Due to a lack of fuel and air outages in the first years of Armenia’s independence the public transport system started in poor conditions. It was only in the late 90s and in the beginning of the new century that bigger reforms could be introduced that envisioned a major restructuring. Up until 2004, Yerevan’s public transport consisted of minibuses, buses, trolleybuses, the metro, tramways and ropeways. The two latter vehicles were removed in 2004. In 2012, a major attempt was implemented to make the transportation more efficient by optimizing the route network. Some years later, in 2016 the Armenian National Assembly decided to launch a project with the Asian Development Bank were a loan was granted to Armenia in order to improve the urban infrastructure. Repetitively, it has been tried to establish a new route network and to change the ticketing system because passengers currently simply pay 100 Dram cash for one drive, regardless of how long their actual drive is. The aforementioned attempts for reforms are just representing an abstract outlook of all the efforts and debates that have been ongoing in the past 20 years concerning public transport. However, the absence of successful results has led to frustration and descriptions that depict the transport in Yerevan as an “endless crisis” (Barseghyan, 2016). During the last pre-election campaign, public transport reforms and policies were also included in the party programs but, as the politician Tehmina Vardanyan phrased it, changes are taking “steps of a turtle” (Khulyan, 2019). Despite it being a recognized problem, it has been constantly falling short among the set of policy priorities. Throughout the past years deficiencies and lacking solutions have accumulated to such an extent that public transport is known to be third most common problem for residents of Yerevan (Barseghyan, 2016).
An additional crucial insight that the revision of the past actions show is that there has been increased attention on various aspects of the transportation system, like the reform of vehicles, bus lines, ticket system etc. but basic points like the information system have been highly neglected. Although these are the precondition for a smoothly working public transport system that is also open to tourists’ use. Transport deficiencies that lead to effects like congestion are harmful for tourism because tourists are highly dependent on transport for their trips. If information for public transport is not openly available, it leads to an increased use of taxis or rented cars, which subsequently raises the traffic density as well as congestions. In the end, all possible actors – residents, bus and car drivers as well as tourists – become dissatisfied (Zhang et al., 2019, p. 587).
2.2. Current Situation
In Armenia, the information on public transport relies for residents’ daily use predominantly on the word of mouth. If they are not sure how to get to a specific place, people either ask relatives and friends for information, other waiting passengers on the bus stop or bus drivers. Also, signs with all the bus stations are usually stick to the window so that people can look for their station before entering the transport vehicle. The descriptions are written in Armenian letters. There are no information sheets on the bus station that would indicate the direction or stations of the passing buses. The only information people can get at some bus stops in the city center are showing, the number of the different bus lines passing the bus stop. This might be sufficient for residents who are used to the daily use of public transport and know which bus lines to take. Contrarily, for tourists who do not speak Armenian or Russian this makes it very difficult, if not impossible, to use public transport. Moreover, the fact that there do not exist stop buttons inside of the buses but people have to shout out when they want the bus to stop, is a further inconvenience for tourists. They can neither be expected to simply know when they reach their intended location, nor to have the courage of speaking up, especially if they do not know the language.
Past attempts of tackling this issue have been minimal. It rather seems as if this is an entirely neglected problem despite its wide-ranging consequences and the comparative financial affordability of addressing it. Even today’s vast possibilities of providing information online have been missed out. There are some websites, as for instance the one of the non-governmental organization “Repat Armenia”, that have published all the public transport lines including their stops. Nevertheless, this information is again only available in Armenian (Repat Armenia, n.d.). Many people who have travelled in Armenia have published useful information on public transport on their personal blogs or in forums in order to help other tourists. Self-evidently, these privately-collected information are neither as detailed nor structured as it would be needed to give tourists a consistent understanding on the use of public transport.
Some years ago, an android developer called Robert Levonyan created an android application that is titled “A2B Transport App”. It has been so far the only app for Yerevan, or Armenia in general, that gives account on all the public transport routes with translations into several languages, such as most importantly English and Russian. Users can enter their starting point and destination and the app will show them, which buses to use and all the stops they are passing on the way. There is still a range of modifications that can and should be undertaken for the app but this has been one of the few cases were this problem was recognized and tried to be solved in a way that would benefit as many people as possible. It does not give any information on arrival or departure times of the public transport devices.
One of the major challenges that occur when dealing with this issue of tourist-friendly information on public transport is that a number of stakeholders are involved and need to cooperate for a successful solution-finding process. These include the Ministry of High-Tech Industry of the Republic of Armenia, the Ministry of Territorial and Infrastructure, the Yerevan municipality and tourism agencies. It might be also helpful for the development of digital solutions to consult an IT company. Of course, private agencies are driven by their economic interests whereas the government and its ministries need to act more goal-oriented.
3. Policy Options
There are multiple ways to tackle the issue of lacking tourist information and making public transport more tourist-friendly. One way to facilitate the use of public transport for tourists as much as possible is to introduce sightseeing buses. These buses are specifically adjusted to the needs and interests of tourists by following predetermined routes that cover the most touristic sightseeing places. The advantage is that tourists do not have to self-organize their own trips, they do not need to get accustomed to the entire public transportation system but can instead use these buses that take away all the organizational efforts for them. Also, it relieves the public transport of tourist masses that would otherwise use buses, metros and other public transport options. Sightseeing buses are spread all over the world and especially present in the capital cities of touristic countries. There have been productive attempts to idealize the sightseeing system. Zhang et al. (2019) for instance suggest how to improve the scheduling of sightseeing buses in the Chinese city of Dalian. They especially examined possibilities to enable transfers between buses or for self-drive tourists.
For Armenia, the seasonal opening of sightseeing buses would make more sense than to offer it for the entire year, as the busiest months are in summer from May to September. Despite the previously mentioned advantages of sightseeing buses and their special appeal concerning simplification of public transport information, it might not be the most favorable option for Armenia and Yerevan in particular. As the city is already struggling with an overload of cars and ensuing congestions, opening another public transport device would not serve the purpose of minimizing the traffic overload. Even if there were consequently less taxi drivers, because tourists would decide to take the bus, there would be also less tourist pedestrians. Furthermore, with the ongoing traffic congestions a sightseeing bus could hardly offer an enjoyable trip because it would risk to get stuck in the traffic, which is very depressing for tourists who want to use their limited time as efficiently as possible. It would be only possible to solve this congestion problem by opening a road section only for buses. This would be again connected to a vast organizational effort. Considering that the aim of this paper is to improve the tourist information on public transport, it does not represent the most feasible and efficient policy option.
Another opportunity of making transport information publicly available and at the same time most enjoyable for tourist is by establishing walking trails in the city. One of the most famous and successful walking trail systems exists in London and is called “Legible London”. It is a governmentally established city-wide self-help system that shows tourists where they are and how they need to walk to reach any of their desired places (OECD, 2016). It has the clear advantage of supporting tourists in their walking activities by guiding them with the signage system through the city. At the same time, it counteracts the excessive use and demand for public transport by incentivizing walking. Although this signage system is an efficient way of guiding tourists through a city, it usually exists in addition to comprehensible public transport. After all, especially in big cities, tourists like to have both options. This is all the more important considering that pensioners make up a considerable amount of tourists (Ginevičius, 2007).
This is why making the existing public transport possibilities more transparent might seem like the most efficient way. Firstly, in order to facilitate the use of public transport for tourists it is indispensable to provide information tables at every bus station. Printed forms indicating the buses that are passing a station, their direction and further stops would be a feasible measure to avoid confusion. The information sheets should be printed out in Armenian, English and Russian. The usual habit is to indicate all the stations that a bus passes in Armenian at one of the bus windows. It would be necessary to add there the stations in Latin letters to ensure that it is also readable for tourists.
It is no secret that digitalization has been penetrating all spheres of life. This is also true for tourism where Intelligent Transportation System (ITS) has taking hold. ITS is a “coupling of information and telecommunication technologies with transportation means and infrastructure to ensure greater efficiency in the mobility of people and goods” (Mrnjavac & Marsanic, 2007, p. 628). Since the middle of the 1990s, ITS has been successfully programmed and used. Up to today, it keeps being modified to serve various fields, including the tourism branch. Intelligent Transportation System is a wide term that implies many different fields concerning the transformation and improvement of transport. The one that is relevant for this research is “Advanced Travelers Information Systems”. It aims at providing real time traffic information. This shall help to make transport more efficient and to improve travelers’ ability of organizing their fastest way to any destination. This is done via electronic devices, transmitting information through the Internet and spreading it to publicly available devices, such as apps (Figueiredo et al., 2001).
Applying this to the public transport’s communication system means that intercommunication tools with and among the drivers need to be improved. Most of the drivers in Armenia occasionally verbally communicate with other drivers at busy bus stations or they might do a phone call. There is no systematized communication software that would ensure the drivers’ permanent accessibility, possible exchanges, advices about traffic problems or giving information about delays. In today’s world of technology, solving these problems by using smartphones is a feasible option of dealing with this issue, as smartphones are a widespread electronic device with advanced communication capacities and the possibility of locating people and objects. According to statistical measurements, in 2021 about 3.8 billion people will be in possession of a smartphone. This number makes up about half of the world population and underlines how reliable it is to count on smartphones for future communication systems (Engelbrecht et al., 2015; O’Dea, 2020). Mrnjavac and Marsanic (2007) describe in a research how Croatia systematically applied ITS in order to serve its tourism sector. Acknowledging that public transport deficiencies can be harmful to tourism, in Croatia it was invested into intelligent technologies and especially transport issues like parking problems could be solved subsequently.
Having considered different possibilities to improve the transparency of public transport information with special regard to tourist needs, it seems to be most lucrative to invest and plan a solution that uses ITS. This way, travel information on existing public transport devices can be made more transparent without raising the number of vehicles on the streets but at the same time enabling the mobility for travelers of all age.
4. Recommendations and Conclusion
This paper highlighted existing deficiencies in making public transport in Armenia transparent and comprehensible for tourists. It is a problem that has so far not received enough attention. Although the issue of public transport is a heated topic in the Armenian discourse, looking at this problem from the perspective of tourists has been neglected. In order to improve this, a cooperation of state and private actors is necessary. With the use of ITS mechanisms in the frame of advanced traveler information, public transport can become much more tourist-friendly.
In fact, the following steps are necessary to be undertaken.
- The Ministry of High-Tech Industry shall hire app developers who are in charge of creating a new online app for public transport. This could also be a project that is launched in cooperation with the founder of “A2B Public Transport”. However, the goal is to develop a more sophisticated application that constantly updates all the existing public transport lines. Furthermore, as for tourists timing is very important, it should include information on arrival times and transfer possibilities, if a direct drive can not lead to the final destination. These can be provided by developing an app for mobile phones that consists of two parts – one for the users and one for the bus drivers. The part for the public transport users will provide all the information requested, whereas on the driver part the location of the vehicle is constantly captured via GPS, as well as the estimated arrival time. This is of course not as ideal as having an actual schedule but, considering that the goal of this policy is the transparency of information, it will serve the purpose of information accessibility.
- Every public transport device should provide a public WiFi. This way, all the involved parties can use the app when they are on the route. The Ministry of High-Tech Industry needs to establish this cost-free WiFi for all the public transport devices.
- Use of the public transport app shall become mandatory for all the bus drivers in Yerevan. The Ministry of Territorial and Infrastructure shall collect in cooperation with the Yerevan municipality information on all the bus drivers, whether they are in possession of a smartphone with the necessary capacities for the public transport app or not. If so, they are requested to download the app and have it turned on as soon as they start their service. If not, they shall be provided with company mobiles. Officially, these mobiles are reserved for the use during labor time.
- A working group within the Ministry of Territorial and Infrastructure has to strictly monitor that the apps are used during working times by the bus drivers. Failures of following this regulation without reasonable explanations and proofs for inability to do so (technical problems, like internet deficiencies etc.) will be penalized with a warning for the first misconduct. The second misconduct and onwards already require a fine of 5.000 Dram each.
- The Yerevan Municipality Website shall add a section with information on existing public transport lines and their routes in different languages, including English, Russian and Armenian. The website shall include information on the mobile app and advertise its download.
- Travel and tourism agencies shall spread the information concerning the mobile app on their communication platform. They receive for this support a compensation.
As outlined in this paper, there are multiple ways of dealing with the lack of transparency on public transport information. Tackling this issue with the use and strengthening of digital options is the most efficient strategy. With the previously mentioned steps, great progresses can be already achieved to give tourists the possibility of understanding how they can use the public transports available in Yerevan. In the end, increasing tourists’ satisfaction and mobility will be beneficial for everyone and serve Armenia’s tourism branch.
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