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Delhi got its BRT wrong but we must give it another try

Yes, the BRT crammed the private vehicles for space while the buses whistled by. But was not that the idea? That a fast, efficient and reliable service would make people switch to public transport?

columns Updated: Mar 30, 2015 12:17 IST
Shivani Singh
Shivani Singh
Hindustan Times

Just as Delhi is preparing to dismantle its seven-year-old BRT stretch, New York in the car-saturated United States, is warming up to the idea of a bus transit system.

Not quite the traditional Bus Rapid Transit, the Big Apple’s own version — Select Bus Service — launched in 2008, the same time as Delhi’s BRT, is turning out to be a worthy alternative, reported The Atlantic’s CityLab last week.

The city of New York has understood that its much-celebrated subway network can’t meet its growing mobility demands and that building a bus transit system is cheaper and quicker. Today, at NYC’s seven SBS corridors, travel speeds are up by 23%, ridership by 10%, and crashes are down by 20%.

But, quite like Delhi, many NYC residents had misgivings about the project. Squeezing general traffic lanes and banning heavily used left turns would mean an additional 10-20 minutes for many car trips, warned Queens Chronicle, a hyper-local daily. But, that hasn’t stopped the authorities from expanding. Last week, the city approved designs for a new corridor in the Queens, an eastern borough of NYC, a $200 million project that will start building by 2017.

Delhi’s BRT was built on a similar idea. In 2008, concrete dividers were placed to segregate bus lanes from cars and twowheelers between Ambedkar Nagar and Moolchand flyover. 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 longer.

Did the government go wrong in implementing BRT in a city with too many private cars? Not really. Delhi’s congestion problem will only get worse in the absence of efficient public transport systems. Yes, the BRT crammed the private vehicles for space while the buses whistled by. But was not that the idea? That a fast, efficient and reliable service would make people switch to public transport?

Was it a bad move, then, to implement the plan along a busy stretch flanked by posh neighbourhoods where most residents solely rely on private vehicles? But there is hardly any stretch in Delhi which does not see heavy traffic. Besides, it made sense to have BRT where people rely more on private cars because any conversion would have lessened the burden on the roads.

Where the government went wrong was in prioritising the fundamentals. First, the BRT as it was envisaged in Delhi, was not really a BRT. While it included exclusive bus lanes, it did not have adequate stations, vehicles, or information systems. Traffic signal cycles were too long. On almost all BRTs, passengers pay their fare before entering the station. In Delhi, they paid after entering the bus. This slowed down operations.

The passengers could never time their journey in the absence of timetables. Erratic frequency often led to overcrowding. Maintenance of buses was poor and safety remained an issue. Even the new low-floor variants turned out to be accident-prone.

Also, Delhi’s BRT failed to offer a full commute to the passenger. The 5.8 km stretch was smooth, but the buses ended up navigating jams as soon as the stretch was over. No wonder, the BRT got a bad name.

Across the world, BRTs have had a rough go. In Johannesburg, South Africa, the project was confronted with resistance from both suburbanites from the exclusively white enclaves and from the black-owned minibus taxi industry that sprang up during apartheid, the New York Times reported in 2010.

In 2012, protests over service on Bogota’s bus-rapid transit system escalated into riots. The Colombian capital will finally be building a metro and integrating it with the BRT. Indonesia’s Trans Jakarta busway drew criticism for taking up valuable lanes providing insufficient buses to meet commuter demand at peak times, Jakarta Globe reported in 2012.

But in all these cities, the BRT systems have succeeded and are in an expansion mode. Starting around the time Delhi did, even Ahmedabad has become the first Indian city to implement a successful BRT system. It sought guidance from Enrique Penelosa, the former mayor of Bagota who gave the world the BRT, and even garnered public support by branding the project as Janmarg (people’s way).

If anything, Delhi has learnt how not to run a BRT. Perhaps it is time to draw up a more efficient plan.

First Published: Mar 30, 2015 12:13 IST