Lessons learnt, time for a better-planned BRT
Delhi, which built the BRT in 2008, around the same time as NYC, dismantled its lone bus corridor between Ambedkar Nagar and Moolchand two years ago.
Like most visitors to the city, the former transportation commissioner of New York City Janette Sadik-Khan was impressed with the Delhi Metro. “Now you need the same kind of investment for streets. Design them for better mobility, which would make it faster for the bus (to move),” she said in an interview to HT last week.
Sadik-Khan was speaking from her experience. New York City is known for its extensive subway network. But there are areas not served by the mass transit. So during her six-year tenure, Sadik-Khan changed NYC’s “mobility playbook” with cycle lanes, reclaimed walking spaces, and the Big Apple’s customised version of the Bus Rapid Transit (BRT).
The cost of building mass rapid transit is exorbitant, so NYC built a “surface metro” by turning its roads into rails and putting buses in the place of coaches, with much less money. The idea of the BRT originated in Brazil’s Curitiba in the early 70s when the then-mayor Jaime Lerner realised that building a subway was costly and time-consuming. So he gave the bus the functional advantages of the urban rail transit, and the first fast bus lanes launched in 1974 cost 50 times less than the mass rapid transit system, wrote The Guardian.
NYC’s customised Select Bus Service (SBS) had no low-floor buses or fancy bus stations when it began. Even the fare collection machines were pulled out from the subway and repurposed for the SBS, said Sadik-Khan. “Now when people stuck in traffic (in their cars) see a bus pass by, it makes for a compelling proof of the concept,” said the former commissioner.
The SBS, which now runs on 15 routes, has had its share of problems. The recent fund cuts in the public transportation sector have held up expansion plans. While overall bus ridership in NYC has nosedived, SBS routes have done slightly better, said a report by the NYC comptroller, asking for better enforcement and signalling. It also recommended SBS-type upgrades in every local bus route.
Delhi, which built the BRT in 2008, around the same time as NYC, dismantled its lone bus corridor between Ambedkar Nagar and Moolchand two years ago. Besides its unpopular design – bus stops in the middle of the road and concrete dividers – Delhi’s BRT lacked the fundamentals.
The ₹200-crore corridor did not have adequate buses or information systems. Traffic signal cycles were too long. The absence of a key feature of the BRT — passengers paying their fare before entering the station — slowed down the operations. The 5.8km corridor could not offer a full commute to the passenger who could never time their journey in the absence of timetables.
But having learnt how not to run a BRT, Delhi may perhaps take a second shot at it. At 60-80,000 passengers per hour, the Metro can ferry four times as many passengers a BRT can transport in one direction. But building every kilometre of Metro costs ₹550 crore for the underground and ₹250 crore for the elevated line — eight to 18 times the ₹30-35crore-per-km cost of a BRT. The cost advantage is obvious.
While the Metro is great for longer journeys, the BRT is better suited for short to medium travel distances and does not involve the hassle and additional cost of the last-mile commute. Officials say the government is working on reviving a proposal to build a corridor between Karawal Nagar and Shastri Park, with links to Bhajanpura, Mori Gate and Gandhi Nagar.
Instead of putting bus lanes in the middle of the road, the authorities now propose to build new roads, running parallel to the existing ones, exclusively for buses. They also promise better integration with Metro stations and large bus-terminuses.
By the next year, the government hopes to augment its heavily depleted bus service, not just the CNG-run ones but also 1,000 new electric units. If the new corridor is approved on time, some of these buses could be used on the BRT more efficiently. If this works, authorities could even look to expand it in spacious sub-cities, such as Dwarka and Rohini.
World over, be it Johannesburg, Bogota, NYC, or Jakarta, BRTs have had teething troubles. But that has not stopped any of these cities from going into expansion mode. Closer home, Ahmedabad and Indore have implemented a successful BRT. As more than 10 million private vehicles choke its arteries, increasing mass transit options is no more a choice but a compulsion in Delhi.