It's quick. It's low-cost. It's convenient. It's affordable. The Bus Rapid Transport System is a great urban mobility innovation. And it's time Indian cities, plagued by endless jams and long commuting times, took it seriously, says MURALI GOPALAN.

It’s a strange sight: two lanes in the middle of the road with only buses on them. All other vehicles are in adjoining lanes on either side, jammed bumper to bumper. Most are air-conditioned cars and SUVs with only one or two people in them, quite unlike the packed buses. For a while, roles are reversed as the car drivers gawk as their less privileged counterparts race past in the buses.

Unwilling to wait through the jam, some private vehicles enter the bus corridor and follow the buses. There is no one to stop them. A little later, when the segregation ends and the traffic merges, they overtake the buses.

This then is Delhi’s Bus Rapid Transport System (BRTS). It is a busy six-kilometre stretch, from Ambedkar Nagar to Moolchand, in the national capital’s southern district.

Originally, it was meant to be an 18-km-long corridor from Ambedkar Nagar to Delhi Gate. However, when the first phase opened, it met with a barrage of criticism because of the jams faced by other traffic. So, the Delhi government shelved plans to extend it.

“I guess the initiative suffered because Delhi was getting ready for its next big thing in the form of the Metro,” says Dinesh Mohan, Volvo Chair Professor Emeritus of IIT Delhi. He was part of the team working on the BRT for the national capital. “The stakes were a lot higher (for the Metro) because there were big international contractors quite unlike the humbler BRT.”

Despite all its problems, however, Delhi’s BRT still runs, zipping more than 12,000 passengers over those six kilometres every hour during peak times.

Like Delhi, Ahmedabad’s BRTS also has dedicated lanes. Here, too, the limited space on the side of the road creates jams. Commuters often have to make their way through heavy traffic to get to the middle of the road and catch a bus.

But unlike Delhi, Ahmedabad’s BRTS is on the city’s periphery, and much longer. The first phase, covering 67 km on nine routes, began operating in October 2009. About 125,000 passengers use it every day, even though the fares are 30 per cent higher (Read: Ahmedabad’s Pride).

Given that they run in different cities, and in different operational environments, it may not make sense to compare the two BRTs. But both transit systems are a hit with passengers, helping them cover great distances rapidly.

They carry far more people than the private vehicles that travel over those same roads. And that is precisely what they were built for.

URBAN MOBILITY INNOVATION

Millions of people in Indian cities rely on public transport, particularly buses, for their daily commute. But the lack of infrastructure makes that commute a struggle.

“It is in our interest to make our bus systems more efficient, convenient and safe,” says Mohan. The bus rapid transport system, he believes, is the answer to India’s urban mobility challenges.

A BRT system essentially involves the creation of exclusive lanes for high-speed, low-floor buses, enabling speeds that match if not exceed those of local trains. The cost of building a BRTS is just a fraction of that of a light rail or metro rail system.

The urban mobility system was pioneered by the Brazilian city of Curitiba in 1974 (Read: Travelling the World).

Over the years, other cities have followed Curitiba’s cue, particularly Colombia’s capital Bogota, whose model has been emulated by Ahmedabad.

“BRTS is for higher capacity and speed. It can complement the metro. It gives you a comfortable environment,” says Madhav Pai, Director of Mumbai-based Embarq India. Embarq, which is involved with BRT projects in India, is a not-for-profit initiative of the World Resources Institute providing solutions to urban problems.

By offering a cheap and quick alternative to people driving their own vehicles, an ideal BRT system reduces traffic congestion and accidents.

At the same time it offers huge economic benefits through its lower construction costs, reduced expenditure on buses and savings on fuel with fewer private vehicles on the road.

BRTs are also far more flexible than metro systems. They can be built in phases and become operational quickly. In addition, BRTs can be rerouted as needed to cater to rising demand in new areas, something metro systems cannot do.

The road system may be an imperative for India, given the scarcity of funding and high operational costs of metro systems.

The relatively lower fares also need to be factored in — not everyone will be able to afford a metro ticket.

Nowhere is this need felt greater than in Mumbai, where, according to a World Bank note, 90 per cent of motorised commuters depend on public transport.

“Today, four million use buses in Mumbai. We will have to segregate them. It is doable if you want to move the majority. There are 10 lanes on the Western Express Highway and you can give two lanes to buses,” says Pai.

QUICK, SAFE, EFFICIENT

Globally, bus rapid transit systems are user friendly, efficient and safe. They have stations instead of stops. They also use prepaid tickets and smartcards, just as in metro rail systems. This enables faster boarding and shorter stop times.

Stations are often elevated, so passengers don’t have to climb steps to get in. This is particularly beneficial to those using wheelchairs. Electronic boards inform passengers when the next bus will arrive.

The buses themselves are comfortable, air-conditioned vehicles.

In India, the BRT system is at various stages of development in different cities. Gujarat has taken the lead: Ahmedabad is going about it with a vengeance. Rajkot already has a system in place while Surat has planned a 102-km network for which trials begin next month. Vadodara is also working on a BRT.

Other cities that are building BRT systems include Visakhapatnam and Indore. It is also on the drawing board for Hubli and Dharwad in North Karnataka.

“There are three buses every two minutes on the 22-km (Hubli-Dharwad) stretch and we think it is a good idea to begin a BRT here,” says Prof Shivanand Swamy, Associate Director of the Centre for Environmental Planning and Technology (CEPT) University, which is involved with the Ahmedabad BRT. At present, over 200,000 people travel between Hubli and Dharwad daily.

CHEAP AND BEST

“If you want your grandchildren to be in debt, build a metro,” quips Embarq’s Pai. Not that he’s a fan of private transport: “Cars are like cigarettes — they choke the roads,” he declares before proceeding to reel out statistics about pollution and health problems caused by the number of cars on the road. “The need of the hour is BRTS. We need to give buses a bigger role. At present they go at 7 kmph, which means they need to be segregated.”

Studies have shown that a BRT system is far cheaper to build, accounting for just 1-10 per cent of the cost of a metro rail system (see table: Cheap Ride).

Delhi Metro spent about Rs 10,570 crore on its first phase, which covered 65 km. In comparison, the initial phases of the Ahmedabad BRT, covering 90 km, will have a total cost of about Rs 1,000 crore, says CEPT’s Swamy.

For public transport corporations, BRTs also result in a reduction in capital expenditure. Given that buses cover their routes quickly, they will be able to make more trips, thus reducing the need to buy more buses.

The clincher really is the speed with which a BRT can be built vis-à-vis a metro system. Delhi Metro began construction on its first phase in October 1998 and commenced services in December 2002. The Ahmedabad BRT took half that time to be operational; construction began in 2007 and services commenced in 2009.

LOSING ITS WAY

Unfortunately, the BRTS hasn’t been quite as successful in India. The Delhi BRTS has failed to make an impression because of the short distance it covers.

Pune, the city where the first BRT project was piloted in 2006, is not doing any better. The 16.5-km corridor connecting Katraj to Hadapsar through Swargate was to have provided a blueprint for other such projects in India. The stretch was supposed to be ready by 2008. However, today, despite spending Rs 200 crore against the original estimate of Rs 115 crore, it is still incomplete. Several patches are missing and construction of a flyover has prevented buses from plying.

The project, worth nearly Rs 1,000 crore, has become contentious as some sections pass through congested areas.

“There is actually no BRTS in Pune because the basic features are absent. None of the corridors has a continuous dedicated bus lane,” says Major General S.C.N. Jatar, President of Nagrik Chetna Manch, an NGO. “The Pune Municipal Corporation says that they have 40 per cent or more of dedicated lanes. But these are in stretches and not continuous. This is sheer mockery of the concept of BRT.”

CEPT’s Swamy believes the way to a successful BRTS is to avoid busy roads, at least initially. “There is no point starting off on congested roads. In the long run, BRT capacity will increase as it connects all important centres.”

The BRTS in Visakhapatnam, which was to have been ready over a year ago, is now slated for completion next March, according to municipal corporation officials. The delay has been due to land acquisition problems.

“With great difficulty, we have completed 82 per cent of the work. The balance will be extremely hard as it involves taking over land from the Navy and the Railways. We also have to relocate temples and mosques,” says a senior official.

The project was taken up a few years ago under the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission at an estimated cost of Rs 452 crore.

It has two dedicated corridors and a total length of 43.2 km.

The cost is being borne in the ratio of 50:20:30 by the Centre, the State Government and the Greater Visakhapatnam Municipal Corporation.

DIFFERENT APPROACH

Ahmedabad, however, stands out in its implementation. At present, 137 buses operate on nine routes. The bus speeds average 26 kmph, including stops. This is faster than cars and two-wheelers, which average 22 -24 kmph, says CEPT’s Swamy.

But IIT Delhi’s Mohan is not convinced about Ahmedabad’s success. “The Ahmedabad BRT system is mostly on the periphery of the city, where there is less traffic. That really does not serve a public transport function. One could say that buses would operate very efficiently in a BRTS in the desert, but there would be no passengers,” he says.

Embarq’s Pai has a different take. “The issue boils down to scale. Why is Ahmedabad successful? Because people have bought into the idea and it has clicked. Every corporator wants a BRT, and that, to me, is success. Delhi is a failure because they have not been able to expand,” he says.

Mohan defends the Delhi BRTS, pointing out that the bus lane also supports public services by allowing ambulances, fire trucks and police vehicles to travel on it. “It perhaps reduced the bus efficiency slightly but made the corridor more flexible, putting through an incredible 120 buses per hour at peak time,” he says.

“This stretch is also the only road in Delhi where cyclists and pedestrians get exclusive space. The benefits are there for all to see, with people able to walk peacefully at night while cycle numbers have increased,” adds Mohan.

Ultimately, it is in India’s interest to plan for and create quick, convenient, low-cost and safe public transport systems.

“It is easy but just needs commitment,” says Pai. “I do believe there will be a tipping point and people will realise that metros will not do the trick.”

But India just does not have enough experts for something like the BRT either in government or municipalities.

“We do not have many options for transporting people in Indian cities. Given our per capita incomes and spending capacities, a majority of people using motorised transport will continue to travel by three-wheelers, tempos etc if we don’t change our mindsets,” says Mohan.

(With Virendra Pandit in Ahmedabad, Alka Kshirsagar in Pune, and Ch. R. S. Sarma in Visakhapatnam)

(This article was published on July 7, 2013)
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