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It's curtains for flawed BRT but Delhi needs the real thing

In Delhi, no public infrastructure project has ever evoked such acrimony as the BRT did right from its construction stage in mid 2000.

columns Updated: Jul 30, 2015 13:40 IST
Shivani Singh
Shivani Singh
Hindustan Times
Delhi BRT,Bus Rapid Transit,Delhi public transport
Experts say the decision to scrap the BRT corridor will hit efforts to control pollution since the basic idea behind the system was to promote public transport and reduce the use of cars. (Ajay aggarwal/HT File)

Delhi's ill-fated Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) corridor will be gone in three months. Private vehicles, which were squeezed into narrow lanes created by concrete dividers, will get their road space back. The five MLAs from the areas along the 5.8-km corridor will have kept their promise of 'Jo kaha, so kiya' to their voters.

In Delhi, no public infrastructure project has ever evoked such acrimony as the BRT did right from its construction stage in mid 2000. While much is said about the design flaws - bus stops in the middle of the road, concrete dividers and long signal cycles - where the government went wrong was in securing the fundamentals.

First, the BRT as it was envisaged in Delhi was not really a BRT. While it included the exclusive bus lanes, it did not have adequate stations, vehicles, or information systems that are the basic features of any BRT system. On almost all BRTs across the world, passengers pay their fare before entering the station. In Delhi, they paid after entering the bus. This slowed down operations.

Second, the passengers could never time their journey in the absence of time tables. Erratic frequency often led to overcrowding. Maintenance of buses was poor and safety remained an issue.

Third, Delhi's BRT failed to offer a full commute to the passengers. 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 here.

Last month, I got to see a successful BRT in Lima, Peru's capital. Awash with rickety diesel cars imported from richer neighbouring countries, Lima is one of the most polluted cities of South America. These smoke-spewing cheap vehicles crowd every nook and corner of the capital. But in the lanes dedicated for El Metropolitano, Lima's 33-km-long BRT stretch started in 2010, buses get a clear passage.

Officials say a rush-hour journey that used to take two hours in the pre-BRT days is now completed in 25 minutes. The flat fare of 2.5 soles (`50), even during rush hours, is cost-effective. Before El Metropolitano, there used to be around 30 accidents per month on the route. Now it has come down to three to four.

Not just Lima, BRT is becoming popular across the world and has grown by 383% in the past ten years, according to data released by the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy (ITDP) in November, 2014. China is the global leader in BRT, having added 538 kilometres of green corridors since 2004, when it ran just one 14-km stretch. Brazil has added 345 kms and Mexico got 234 kms in the same period. Even USA, that loves its cars and eight-lane flyways, has built 104 kms.

In the past seven years, Delhi has learnt how not to run a BRT. Now it is time to draw up a more efficient plan to make it work. The 8.8 million vehicles on Delhi's roads are not just clogging up the city but taking a deadly toll on its citizens. Increasing mass transit options is not a choice but a compulsion.

So far, our governments have focused on long-term, capital-intensive solutions. Delhi's Metro carries 2.5 million passengers daily and its expansion requires huge investments with Phase-3 costing us `45,000 crore.

According to ITDP, BRT's capital costs is generally less than 10% of the cost of metro and 30-60% of the cost of light rail. BRT can also be implemented much more quickly than rail-based transit and can carry more passengers.

In Delhi, road space freed up by removing bus lanes will only attract more car traffic. That is a proven principle of induced demand. The alternative is to think smart and make space for cleaner, efficient public transportation that could free up roads, save money and time for a majority of commuters.

The AAP government has already committed itself to buy 10,000 new public buses. Some of these vehicles could be marshalled into fast lanes in areas that have a strong established bus ridership. But the demand for this has to come from the community.

The sooner Delhi makes that choice the better.

(The views expressed are personal. The writer tweets as @shivaniss62.)

First Published: Jul 27, 2015 12:49 IST