Rail-based systems may be necessary in the metros, but bus systems offer solutions for all Indian cities staggering under the effects of unsustainable automobile use.
GOVERNMENTS EVERYWHERE are rethinking their policies for ground transport in the 21st century against a background of rising demand for fossil fuels, environmental worries, and deteriorating quality of urban life. Towards the end of 2005, there were 982 million passenger vehicles on the planet.
If the rate of growth of vehicle ownership in developing countries holds good till 2030, these nations will have more vehicles (out of a projected total of 2.6 billion) than those of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development. It is useful to remember that 70 per cent of costly fuel in the United States, a market with saturation levels of vehicle ownership, goes towards transport.
China and India are widely seen as the major demand centres for automobiles, driving both private ownership and usage higher. The Economist reports that China's year-on-year growth in automobiles in 2004 stood at 75 per cent. India's draft National Urban Transport Policy 2005 expresses support for measures to reduce automobile dependence and promote public transit, walking, and cycling, but has no plans to reduce car ownership.
Clearly, vehicle ownership patterns in both India and China are likely to mirror the experience of the developed world, as both countries achieve high rates of economic growth.
Affluence generally drives the acquisition of private vehicles until congestion, pollution, and official policy curb further growth. Finland is cited as an exception, where robust economic growth during the 1990s was not accompanied by a similar pattern for the transport sector because the telecom-based economic activity was not transport-intensive.
If there are similarities between India and China in economic terms, there is a major divergence in China's more active pursuit of public transit development. Beijing is among the forerunner cities with its first Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) line. Several Chinese cities such as Hangzhou, Guangzhou, Xi'an, Chengdu, Jinan, and Shenzhen, are actively working on similar projects for implementation over the next half decade, often complementing new metro rail.
In India, New Delhi recently commissioned the third line of its Metro subway rail system, but the other congestion-hit cities have a great deal of catching up to do. The national capital is also in the process of developing its own BRT system with the goal of extending it to a total length of 300 km.
New Delhi's focus on transport infrastructure is owed in good measure to the need to have working systems in place before the 2010 Commonwealth Games. The other metros and big cities, however, continue to be governed by an outmoded transport policy and technology framework.
The New Delhi network will potentially join successful BRT systems in several international cities, such as Tranmilenio in Bogota (Colombia), and Curitiba (Brazil) where strong civic leadership has ensured smooth implementation. Other BRT-oriented cities are Beijing, Jakarta, Leon (Mexico), and Seoul, while projects are under way in Cape Town, Dar es Salaam, Hanoi, Lima, Mexico City, and Santiago, say Lloyd Wright and Lewis Fulton in an overview, in the journal Transport Review.
Bus-based urban transit technologies have remained in a time warp in India, while technologies for cars and two-wheelers have been inducted rapidly. This lacuna is acknowledged by the United Progressive Alliance Government's draft National Policy on Road Transport. The policy makes the timely announcement that the Centre will encourage the introduction of vehicles of high technology and large capacity for public transit.
Such recalibration of priorities will make it possible for the States to invest in advanced BRT systems. For the one planned for New Delhi, the Transport Research and Injury Prevention Programme (TRIPPS) of the Indian Institute of Technology Delhi and RITES have completed the detailed design on a designated corridor. The 16 km stretch between Dr. Ambedkar Nagar and Delhi Gate will eventually form part of a much bigger network.
Proponents of BRT - which is often funded by international lending agencies - claim it is superior because it provides for parallel development of facilities to encourage walking and cycling. The success of BRT depends on the availability of exclusive right-of-way lanes, reforms in business and institutional structures, rapid boarding and alighting, free transfers between routes, pre-board fare collection and verification, clear route maps and signage.
They may also appeal to Governments because they cost much less than rail systems: between $1 million and $15 million a kilometre, compared to $50 million to $200 million per kilometre for elevated and underground train systems, according to Wright and Fulton.
BRT systems that run 18-meter articulated buses capable of carrying 140 people stand out conceptually because they make pedestrians and cyclists an integrated part of the system. Some transport planners are considering design modifications that would enable the buses to run not only within dedicated lanes but also elsewhere; buses may also be provided entry and exit on both sides, so that they could utilise median lanes or the margins.
In the long term, rail-based systems may be necessary in the metros, but bus systems offer solutions for all Indian cities that are staggering under the effects of unsustainable automobile use.