Frequent gridlock, unbridled congestion and health hazards due to carbon dioxide emission are part of the urban nightmare. Spiralling fuel costs and limited space further add to the woes of Indian cities.

It is slowly dawning on policymakers that improved public transport is the key to sorting out these problems.  But the question they frequently ask is whether people would make the shift to public transport. A host of cities from Africa to Australia, led by Curitiba and Bogota, have convincingly demonstrated that a smart Bus Rapid Transit System (BRTS) can make a difference.

The first BRTS, inaugurated in 1974 in Curitiba, Brazil, caught the world’s attention. The city managers boldly demarcated dedicated bus lanes on roads perceived as a privileged space for cars. These exclusive lanes improved speed and reduced travel time.  Well-designed buses turned intra-city travel a pleasure. Intelligent integration of bus network and city planning reduced trip lengths.  

In 2000, the city of Bogotá in Colombia improved upon the Curitiba model and launched its own TransMilenio BRTS. Its resounding success silenced the sceptics and reiterated that wise planning does deliver. Cities were enlightened, and more and more of them reinvented their bus transport system.

Indian cities, where the usage of private cars still constitutes a small percentage, had a well-working bus transport in the past. But over the years, they overlooked modernisation and failed to make sufficient investments. Consequently, the quality of services deteriorated. Cities such as Chennai that need a fleet of about 8,000 buses run on half the strength. Delhi, which should have about 11,000 buses, has only 5,771. As a result, India offers a meagre 1.29 buses per thousand passengers, while other well-planned countries provide vastly more — Brazil has 10.3 buses per thousand. The gaping holes in Indian urban transport policy stand exposed.

Seemingly, the government learnt its lessons, and re-thought its approach. It announced a new National Urban Transport Policy in 2006, under which cities must prioritise public transport and take measures to make it more attractive. It strongly recommended that lanes and corridors be reserved for public transport and non-motorised modes of travel. The working group on urban transport for the Twelfth Plan has also recommended an investment of more than Rs. 40,000 crore to augment bus transport over the next five years. It is in this context that cities such as Delhi and Ahmedabad chose to implement the BRTS.  

A recent audit of the BRTS across the world by the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy (ITDP) showed that Ahmedabad scored 76 out of 100 points, while Delhi scored only 22 points. The best system in the world — Bogota’s TransMilenio — topped the list with 93 points. This is not a reflection on the usage of Delhi BRTS, but on the dilution of design parameters.

Despite having only a truncated network, the Delhi system carries about 12,000 passengers an hour per direction — far more than cities such as Beijing. The lower and middle-income groups, starved of good transport facilities, found the BRTS a great service. But the minority car owners strongly felt that the road space belonged to them and tried to put a spoke in the city’s wheels.

On the other hand, Ahmedabad’s BRTS, aptly named Janmarg — people’s path — made significant design improvements, developed a large network, provided comfortable stations and safe transfers. Undiluted public support helped it succeed, where Delhi failed.  

The contrast in the tale of two cities — Delhi and Ahmedabad — shows that half-hearted measures to address critical urban issues will not deliver.

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