I had the opportunity to meet with the General Director of Managua’s Transport Regulatory Agency (Instituto Regulador de Transporte del Municipio de Managua). He graciously shared a number of interesting facts about their work and gave me some great maps about land use, bus routes, and transit planning in the city.

In the Managua, there are approximately 800 local buses that run on 34 different routes, with 855,000 unlinked boardings daily. The agency’s ridership statistics come from BEA infrared passenger counters installed at the entrance and exit of each bus. Initially, convincing the bus owner cooperatives to allow the installation of these bars was difficult; the owners soon realized, however, that passenger counts would allow them to determine how much fare revenue the drivers were filching (it turned out to be an average of 40%).

A few years ago, President Daniel Ortega announced his Modernization Plan for Urban Transport in Managua. Since then, hundreds of buses amarillos (“yellow buses,” as Nicaraguans call the former school buses) have been replaced, mostly by new 28-seat Kurgansky Avtobusny Zavod (Kavz) buses donated by Russia. These buses, though they are more comfortable for passengers and less polluting for the environment, have had a number of “acclimitization” problems (including with bearings, lubrication, and brakes). Nonetheless, the agency is planning to order 250 additional 40-seat Kavz buses, as well as 300 more buses from Mexico, to arrive by March. I especially enjoyed in looking over a report of specifications and finite-element analysis of these new buses; it was a definite highlight to be sitting with Managua’s head transit planner (and an automotive engineer by training) discussing, in his words, “the design of the perfect bus.”

IRTRAMMA’s long term plans are also interesting. After replacing all of the old school buses, by June 2011, according to plans, they will start implementing a bus rapid transit system tentatively named Metrovia. The agency is in the process of analyzing ridership data from the onboard passenger counters, and they plan to consolidate the thirty-four currently operating routes into eighteen BRT trunk lines and feeders. The Director stressed that they were attempting to optimize these new routes by using a scientific, data-driven approach.

Overall, IRTRAMMA’s goal is to facilitate efficient, safe, comfortable, and economical transport service in Managua. Groups like the BRU in Los Angeles or TRU in Boston might find this last priority interesting; the director explicitly stated that affordability, “to favor the people with the fewest resources in society,” was at the top of his agency’s political agenda.

A couple of years ago, the government proposed raising the bus fare from 13¢ to 15¢, sparking disruptive student strikes that eventually convinced the government to forgo the fare increase. Maintaining affordability while modernizing the fleet and improving bus rights of way will, in the Director’s words, require a “step by step” implementation over a number of years. Aid from other countries will also help (more on that here).