Five years ago, Delhi government came up with a globally-tested solution to the capital’s transport woes. Bus Rapid Transport (BRT) system did not require constructing overhead tracks or underground tunnels. So the capital cost involved was low and a speedy rollout in sight.
The project, however, took off, uprooting hundreds of trees along one of the Capital’s most pleasant roads, and barricading a long signal-free stretch to New Delhi. Concrete dividers were placed to segregate bus lanes from cars and two-wheelers between Ambedkar Nagar and Moolchand flyover, leading to a number of road fatalities.
Buses got a clear passage but private vehicles on this busy road were squeezed into two lanes (from three) and waiting time at traffic intersections got excruciatingly long. For residents of colonies along the corridor, it was always an emotive issue. Last week, citing the same concerns, the high court commissioned a study to assess the “real” impact of BRT on the local traffic and allowed cars and three-wheelers to ply on bus lanes for now. This could well be the end of the R200-crore BRT experiment.
Did the government go wrong in implementing BRT in a city with too many private cars? Not really. Delhi’s transport congestion problem will only get worse in the absence of efficient public transport systems. Yes, BRT has crammed private vehicles for space while buses keep whistling by. But was not that the idea? That a fast, efficient and reliable service would make people switch to public transport?
So, was it a bad move to implement the plan along a stretch flanked by upmarket neighbourhoods where most residents solely rely on private vehicles? Well, there is hardly any stretch in Delhi that does not see heavy traffic. Besides, it made sense to have BRT where people rely more on private cars as any conversion would have lessened the burden on the roads.
Where the government went wrong was in prioritising the fundamentals. While it set out to build an ambitious BRT, nobody bothered about the quality of the service that the dedicated lanes were to provide. There is still no time-table for the buses. Erratic frequency often leads to overcrowding. Maintenance is poor and safety an issue. Even the new low-floor variants are turning out to be accident-prone, a bit like those demonic Bluelines of yore.
Still more shocking was the government’s total disregard for public consultation before rolling out such a crucial project. In many countries, it is a standard practice irrespective of the nature of governance. In the US, public information meetings are held for even road improvement projects; in the UK, the London Town Planning Act makes it mandatory for authorities to share and explain proposed plans to the community.
Granted, BRT is a sound, futuristic concept. But surely Delhi residents deserved an opportunity to decide if they really wanted a segregated corridor for buses or how they would like the project to roll out. The proud initiator of the Bhagidari (government partnership with citizens) movement, the Capital sees regular meetings between the residents and the authorities. But projects that directly affect the lives of millions rarely figure in the agenda. Most construction projects are not even part of legislative business. Even the MLAs are not briefed or consulted on such projects in the House.
Several proposals to build a third runway at London’s Heathrow airport were subject to public scrutiny. In 2010, the UK government duly dropped the plan. Here we squander R200 crore of taxpayers’ money and wait for the court to step in.