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Don’t Miss the Bus, Delhi

This blog originally appeared in The Hindu Business Line

It is good news indeed that the Chief Minister intends to re-launch the BRT in an improved form. Hopefully, the city will use lessons from its mistakes to build better

Contrary to popular belief, the Delhi BRT (bus rapid transit) system was not a complete failure. A study by technical experts WRI India, EMBARQ and CST India found that despite its faults, the system provided better mobility to road users. It carried over 53,000 passengers a day along a mere 6km stretch. The average time for bus travel decreased by 35 per cent thanks to the corridor, and an overwhelming majority (88 per cent) of bus commuters said they were happy with the system.

This view was upheld by the Delhi High Court in October 2012, when it dismissed a plea to scrap the Delhi BRT system on the grounds that nearly 70 per cent of users were moving faster and bus ridership had increased 32 per cent. The judge quoted the famous line, “A developed country is not one where the poor own cars. It is one where the rich use public transport.”

Well-suited to India

There are 27 cities in India with a million-plus population each. These cities need reliable and safe systems to transport large numbers of people. BRTs stand out for their flexibility, relative low cost, and rapid rate of implementation. They already form a part of multi-modal transport systems — integrating trains, buses and other forms of transport — in 194 cities worldwide, with the more than 5,000km of bus corridors serving 32 million passengers per day.

Indian cities are large and complex, and no single transport solution can possibly meet their needs. In Delhi alone, half of its 17 million citizens depend on public transport, which includes buses, auto-rickshaws and a sophisticated metro rail system. BRT designs can range from simple to very complex, depending on the need — that is, from basic bus corridors to high-capacity systems that combine multiple lines and connect to transport services outside the BRT corridor. In every case, BRTs can be easily integrated into, and become a valuable part of the city’s overall mobility system.

In Curitiba (Brazil), for instance, the BRT system was built to run buses like a surface metro, with level boarding stations, prepayment, large buses and exclusive bus lanes. In Bogota (Colombia), this idea was expanded into a two-lane system to accommodate both non-stop express services and local services with multiple stops. In Istanbul (Turkey), high-speed buses travel in a fully segregated BRT corridor, which multiplies both capacity and speed. In Guangzhou (China), the BRT is so sophisticated that passengers need not disembark to transfer to a different line.

Need for planning

The ill-fated Delhi endeavour underscores the steps cities can take to ensure that a BRT system works to its best potential. A BRT system combines stations, vehicles, services, running ways and information technology — all of these must work in tandem. The daily management of the system, to function at high capacity, is merely step one in getting it right.

Step two involves ensuring that the BRT can integrate into the city’s existing transport systems, that is, connect people to metros or last-mile modes of transport, such as auto-rickshaws in Delhi. Additionally, the BRT should integrate into the built environment of the urban area it intends to serve. This calls for a slew of additional investments such as building safer access to and from the rapid transit corridor, and optimising bus schedules to link with available metro services.

Three: BRTs are constantly innovating, evolving. There can be no single set of solutions for all times. Technology for vehicle propulsion and for docking buses to passenger platforms, for instance, continues to evolve, as does information technology — one of the mainstays of BRTs. Cities need to keep in mind that although newer technologies bring higher capital costs, they are key in delivering success.

Four: Institutional frameworks must be improved to help remove the barriers impeding BRTs in rapidly growing cities. Improved coordination across municipalities and government agencies will make city planning easier by bringing stakeholders together around a single vision. Education and outreach can spur sustained interest and investments in a BRT, paving the way for its success.

Delhi-specific solutions

Back in 2009, EMBARQ, WRI India and CST India studied the Delhi bus corridor in detail. They found that despite its successes, the pilot project had experienced several setbacks during the first months of operation. The problems included congestion in non-bus lanes, frequent bus breakdowns in the segregated lanes, confusion over bus entry and exit points, unauthorised pedestrian crossings (jaywalking) and faulty traffic signals. This led to customer dissatisfaction. To improve bus operations, the Delhi BRT must make four critical changes in its next iteration.

One, the Delhi BRT should continuously monitor a set of key transport indicators, which will keep officials informed about operations at all times, anticipate problems and solve them ahead of time — rather than respond after something goes wrong, and make overall improvements to the system. The key indicators include travel time, bus frequency, passengers per vehicle, fleet size, monthly revenue, average user fare, operation costs, fuel consumption, average commercial speeds, annual fatalities and customer satisfaction.

Two, it should adjust services to meet demand. The key indicators will flag traffic increases during peak hours. Officials should step up services to meet this demand, and reduce off-peak services to provide balanced service. Flexible route planning — namely, using short-loop routes and express routes to bypass certain stations — is one way of improving efficiency.

Three, it should make sure customers are satisfied by offering a clean, reliable, fast, safe and comfortable service. Advanced GPS systems can help manage operations and demand in real time, and bus terminals should be located close to other mass transit points for easy transfers. Terminals should be built wider and longer to avoid crowding. Easy-to-follow user information should be readily available to help passengers find their way around without difficulty.

Four, image management should be improved to ensure both citizens and the government support the BRT as it re-launches. It is known that the initial response to the Delhi BRT was negative from some media outlets and opinion makers, leading to a political firestorm. A sophisticated marketing strategy can help promote not only the bus corridor but also the benefits of mass transit; branded buses, terminals, maps, websites, videos, and educational messages are a part of this strategy.

Mobility for all

As environmentalist Sunita Narain once wrote, “...the bottom line is this: our cities cannot accommodate present and future car populations”. We must not make the mistake, committed the world over, of expanding roads to tackle vehicle congestion. After decades of building and maintaining expensive urban highways, many cities, including San Francisco and Seoul, are choosing to tear them down to gain social, economic and environmental benefits.

If one views mobility, clean air and liveable surroundings as basic rights for every citizen, then increased investments in BRTs become a moral imperative. BRTs reduce the need for car travel, mitigating air and noise pollution, as well as greenhouse gas emissions. They also reduce accidents and ensure citizens get much-needed physical activity. Not least, they afford the elderly, women, people with disabilities and the poorest citizens better access to jobs and other benefits of city life.

Delhi, and India at large, cannot afford to exclude BRT in the urban mobility portfolio. The news that the Delhi Chief Minister intends to introduce the BRT in an improved form is good indeed. Hopefully, the city will start afresh, using lessons from the pilot to build a better BRT in the coming months.

Dario Hidalgo is Director Integrated Transport Practice at the WRI Ross Center for Sustainable Cities. Amit Bhatt is Director for Sustainable Transport (India) at WRI Sustainable Cities

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