Budapest’s public transport authority, Budapesti Közlekedési Vállalat (BKV), rolled out an expanded night-bus service in the fall of 2005. This has doubled overnight ridership while causing minimal impact to the authority’s overall budget. For this highly popular new service, riders can thank a citizens’ pressure group that appealed first to BKV’s leadership, and when that failed, to the City Assembly.
Budapest’s night-bus service has long provided a cost-effective transport option for night-time workers and weekend revellers in the Hungarian capital. But from the time of Hungary’s political changes, its routes and scheduling went unmodified for more than 15 years during a period of massive social and economic change. The routes that existed in 2005 were oversubscribed, and their concentration on the downtown core reflected residential patterns that were two decades out of date. Night-time routes were not synchronised with one another, offering longer-distance passengers few connection possibilities.
Meanwhile, BKV operated a lightly used night-bus service for its own employees. These almost-empty buses travelled the city throughout the night, a clear case of inefficiently allocated resources. The night-bus service needed a drastic overhaul, increasing service where it had become oversubscribed and introducing it to emerging residential areas outside the city centre. However, any improvements would have to adhere to a tight budget.
Városi és Elővárosi Közlekedési Egyesület (VEKE), a pressure group devoted to public transportation, first proposed the idea of revitalising the night-bus service to cover virtually the entire city. Connecting buses would wait for one another, giving passengers quick transfers. A 900 numbering system in line with international convention ('nine' sounding like 'night') would replace the old 'É bus' taxonomy ('É' being the first letter in the Hungarian word for 'night'). The transformation would be largely accomplished by redeploying BKV’s staff buses, ensuring a modest budget impact.
For months BKV, reluctant to change services at its employees’ expense, ignored VEKE’s suggestions. But VEKE, which has a permanent advisory role on the Public Operations Committee of the City Assembly — the body responsible for BKV's financing— was able to go over the transport authority’s heads. The Assembly agreed that the service needed changing, and successfully pressured BKV to address the issue. Although VEKE’s plan was not entirely adopted, its basic elements were left intact. An expanded, improved service was rolled out on 1 September 2005 and modified several months later. The Budapest night service now comprises 29 lines with 1 585 stops, as compared to the previous 19 lines with 752 stops.
The improved service has been wildly popular, having nearly doubled BKV’s overnight ridership. Weeknight traffic has jumped from 22-24 000 passengers per night to approximately 40 000. The weekend service (Friday and Saturday nights) has risen from 30-32 000 passengers per evening to about 56 000. On the busiest line, the 906, ridership on weekend nights can reach 1 000 passengers per hour and per route. The service continues to provide a safe, and now much less claustrophobic, mode of travel Budapest’s night revellers and it now serves many more of those city residents who start their work shifts at daybreak. It has also assured the continuation of a no-cost means of commuting for BKV’s night-time employees.
Insofar as BKV based some of the improvements on its careful study of the experience of Prague (Czech Republic), the improvements that BKV made could serve as a model for other cities. BKV’s experience shows how a transport authority can improve its services without breaking its budget. But perhaps the biggest lesson is how such changes can be driven by transport users. BKV acknowledges that the changes were motivated partly due to several requests from public transport users and it is clear that the dedicated lobbying of VEKE played a crucial role. One of the clear strengths of VEKE’s campaign was that the group had an established relationship with the City Assembly, and its proposal reflected a keen understanding not only of the service’s shortcomings but of a specific, inexpensive way these could be addressed.