At the ConnectKaro conference in the capital in April, Delhi deputy chief minister Manish Sisodia called the city’s abandoned Bus Rapid Transit System (BRTS), an unplanned disaster. He also admitted that he had used it in other countries when he travelled abroad and found it very effective. Delhi’s system, he said, omitted people from the planning.
Presumably, he had motorists in mind when he referred to “people”. There were hardware and software problems at the launch, but none that couldn’t have been fixed. Soon after the pilot project was initiated in 2008, a Centre for Science and Environment survey found that 83% of all commuters supported it.
Perhaps the most incisive remarks in favour of the BRTS came from the Delhi high court, which dismissed a petition to scrap the system in 2012. “There being no scope to expand the width of the existing roads and the population of Delhi continuously being on the rise, we see no escape from the fact that the citizens of Delhi have to, one day or the other, use public transport,” the judges said.
“Cars, cars and cars and nothing else. And yet the roads are bursting at the seams,” they continued. “It could well be argued that when more than 50% of the road passengers travel by buses, it would be illogical and irrational to spend 98% of the grants under the JNNURM with the targeted beneficiary being cars.”
The debacle in Delhi has set the nationwide BRTS movement back by a decade or so, since the capital attracts so much political attention. Pune too has proved a failure. But Ahmedabad, Surat and Indore have shown that it is the way to go. Nearly 100 km of lanes will be reserved on arterial roads for buses in Ahmedabad, with 122,000 passengers using 250 buses and 150 bus stations daily. Maintaining ‘corridor exclusivity’ for buses is vital, else, as in Delhi, motorists believe that they are being unfairly penalised. In all, some nine cities are opting for the system.
If nothing else, the startling disclosure by the World Health Organization — that Delhi is the most polluted city in the world, having ousted Beijing from first place, and 13 of the 20 worst cities are in India — will force the authorities to take the bus. Vehicles, particularly those using diesel, are the major culprits. Once people’s health is taken into account, cars have to make way for buses. We have to move people rather than vehicles.
In their submission to the high court, the Delhi transport authorities demonstrated how Josep Broz Tito Marg, where the first 5.8-km stretch was reserved for buses, carried 141,228 passengers a day, while the parallel roads — Aurobindo Marg and Khel Gaon Marg — carried only 73,266 and 48,276, respectively.
On this trial stretch, 57% of the passengers travelled by bus in just 3% of the vehicles. By contrast, 36% of the passengers used cars and two-wheelers in 79% of the vehicles. The remaining 7% took cycles and autorickshaws in 18% of the vehicles.
Though there were four lanes for cars and two-wheelers in the BRT stretch as against six in the two parallel roads, it registered 19% more passenger trips than the combined figure of the other two. There was no loss in overall average journey speeds. Safety was another consideration: When compared with other arterial roads, the number of deaths on the trial road was 16% lower between 2008 and 2012, even with a half-botched BRTS.
With Rs48,500 crore cleared for 100 smart cities, it would be a pity if smartness primarily translated into redevelopment. Among the initiatives are intelligent transport solutions that benefit all residents by reducing commuting time. By that token, the BRTS should be considered smarter than other modes of transport, including the Metro.
The BRTS provides much better mobility and can be integrated with a Metro system, which in fact is connecting Tito Marg. Cost is another factor: The Metro costs Rs150 crore per km if built on the ground and Rs250 crore if it is below. The BRTS costs only Rs10 crore per km with a minimum gestation period. One sometimes wonders if the BRTS isn’t considered because it doesn’t cost crores.
Mumbai is at long last also contemplating elevated reserved bus corridors on both the Western and Eastern Express Highways. This doesn’t address the problem of burgeoning traffic with the automobilisation of the city — doubling to 2.5 million vehicles in just a decade — but at least is a halfway house. The state government is attempting to justify the construction of a 36-km-long Rs13,000-crore coastal road by including a BRTS on it, but that is just a pretext for reclaiming some 175 hectares for a highway that will have no tolls.
One way or another, there is going to be a crackdown on cars. The National Green Tribunal has already cracked the whip on 10-year-old diesel vehicles in the NCR and those that run on petrol have five more years to be phased out.
At ConnectKaro, speakers pointed out that parking was a tool to increase mobility. A car occupied some 23 sq m over a typical working day — at home, at work and for an evening’s outing — while an ‘economically weaker section’ home for four persons occupied only 18 square metres. As much as 12% of Delhi’s area is occupied by four-wheelers. The New Delhi Municipal Council head suggested that if parking was to truly reflect the value of real estate, it should cost Rs200 an hour at Connaught Place.
Mumbai is also planning to raise parking fees perceptibly, making them rise with each passing hour and charging even for night parking. Motorists are protesting but as Enrique Penalosa, the former Bogota mayor who ushered in the full BRTS, once observed in Mumbai, citizens don’t have the right to drive or park. It’s a privilege, for which they have to pay.
(Darryl D’Monte is chairperson, Forum of Environmental Journalists of India. The views expressed are personal.)