Ferrying over 35 million passengers daily in cities across the world, the bus-rapid transit (BRT) system has proven to be the balm for urban commute woes. Yet, its mention in the Indian transport circles evokes a lingering hangover of the system’s massive failure in Delhi.
Why Delhi chose to go the BRT way
By 2004, the Delhi population was caught in the upswing of urban migration and public transport woes — with the “Killer Blueline” buses on a rampage. It was also when experts had assembled to conceive the Delhi BRT system. A high-quality bus-based transit system, it aimed to deliver fast, comfortable, and affordable services at metro-level capacities.
Worldover successful BRT systems were set up with segregated lanes, stations typically aligned to the center of the road, off-board fare collection, and fast and frequent operations. The Delhi BRT network, however, met some but overlooked most of these benchmarks. This disregard and ensuing public outcry led to its failure and demise.
Here’s a look at what went wrong and why the discourse surrounding the Delhi BRT needs a tone check.
Losing face: media and public outcry
One of the point of contention against the Delhi BRT, among Delhi commuters, was the soaring travel time. But it was found that commute hours for BRT users saw a significant drop of 40%. The project affected motorists and it is these voices that rang louder in echo chambers created by media outlets.
This was followed by court cases which sought entry of cars to the bus-only lanes, contesting the value of “wealth creators” with that of bus users. In 2012, the Delhi High Court quashed the plea, quoting Bogota Mayor Enrique Peñalosa, “A developed country is not one where the poor own cars. It is one where the rich use public transport.”
The verdict wasn’t enough to calm the clamour for scrapping the initiative. The case offered insight to how misinformed media reports were able to pushback on a “basic” BRT setup, while throttling bus transit.
From BRT bus-only lane to free-for-all lane
To begin with, there were never dedicated BRT buses for the BRT bus lanes. So low-floor buses were brought in haphazardly to fill in this void. After resolving the initial confusion regarding the operation of the lanes, they were thrown open to buses of all sizes, utility, and forms. This led to congestion and bus bunching, as many of these poorly maintained buses would either breakdown or stall the low-floor “BRT buses”.
Even so, the Delhi BRT managed to carry 12,000 passengers per hour per direction, albeit at a grinding speed of 13 km/hr. An indication that the transit system was doing its job but lane congestion was clearly hindering its performance.
Commuters struggled without level boarding
One of the key USP of BRT transit is accessibility to all commuters — especially children, caregivers, the elderly, and the disabled. And the Delhi BRT missed the mark as it overlooked level boarding. Therefore, the network witnessed commuters struggling to board or alight buses.
Simply put, level boarding requires the bus station platforms and the floors of the bus fleet designed to match their height. This allows seamless movement and accessibility to commuters. In Delhi’s case the lack of dedicated BRT buses exacerbated the problem.
Anything but free-flowing
What does a city get when it builds an entire transport network on the premise of free-flowing transit, but ignores the free-flowing bit. The Delhi BRT it is! The system which was dedicated to prioritise and facilitate bus movement did anything but that.
With six-phase intersections, traffic management along the 6 km stretch was never worked out to improve bus movement. And this failure was evident as junctions lay witnessed to buses piling up by the dozen and commuters caught in the chaos of boarding or deboarding on the carriageways itself.
Stepchild treatment: Delhi Metro over BRT
Among Delhi BRT critics an analysis would sound incomplete without drawing comparison with the Delhi Metro Rail Corporation (DMRC). A world-renowned and efficient transit system, the Delhi Metro has been catering to the needs of many a daily passengers. How many you ask? Around 23 lakh in 2019. Now, compare that to Delhi’s 40 lakh bus ridership — which has been wavering off-late given its state of neglect — and investing in a bus-based transit system seems a plausible move.
The Delhi Metro is doing a good job because of the autonomy and funding it receives. Whereas in Delhi BRT’s case, there wasn’t even a unified body to overlook the gamut of functions. This led to various obstacles, the most evident being lane enforcement. The BRT lanes were pretty much a free-for-all, with private vehicles and buses of all kinds fighting out in the meleè.
Now, let’s look at the disparity in cost. The 6 km Ambedkar Nagar to Moolchand (Delhi) BRT stretch, which included the BRT and walking and cycling infrastructure, cost about Rs 200 crore to build and a further Rs 150 crore to dismantle the bus lane. While the metro rail costs the exchequer Rs 550 crore per km for underground and Rs 250 crore per km for the elevated line.
Limited scope for a limited corridor
Planned as a four-corridor project, the Delhi BRT was caught in a limbo pretty early on. The initial 18 km stretch, from Ambedkar Nagar to Delhi Gate, was launched on a trial run of 5.8 km on April 2008. And that’s all that was left of it when the system was dismantled.
The limitation of the Delhi BRT’s potential can be directly attributed to the limitation in expanding the corridors and the network. Though bus speeds improved within the pilot stretch, they would sink as soon as buses would get out of the network into mixed traffic.
Lack of public acceptance due to lack of outreach
One of the key observations from the Delhi BRT debacle is that the public doesn’t take to rapid transit networks like ducks to water. The Delhi BRT severely lacked in public outreach and the system utilisation was affected due to this dearth.
The BRT in Delhi was introduced to challenge conventional bus commute, which barely offered comfort and convenience. Yet, little to no information about this transformation and usage of the system was disseminated among the general public, most importantly bus users. So naturally what ensued was chaos on the BRT stations and lanes.
With Delhi planning to revisit the BRT project, though elevated, these above points along with global benchmarks needs to be part of the conversation. The city has a chance to rewrite its transport history and revitalise a transit system which is time-tested and continues to serve a majority of its people.
In the second blog, of this three-part BRT series, we talk about the basics of getting BRT right and how Hubbali-Dharwad could be close to the gold standard.
Written by : Rohit James
Edited by : Kashmira Medhora Dubash
Banner Image source : DNA INDIA