Climaction Society

Take a bus

Illustration: R. Rajesh  

Last weekend in his “Mann ki baat”, Prime Minister Narendra Modi brought up road safety, saying “One accident takes place every minute in India”. The data from the Ministry of Road Transport supports his statements: In 2012, five people died every day, on average, in road accidents in Delhi, four in Chennai and two in Bangalore. While “driver error” is cited as the leading cause, congestion is surely the leading enabler. Simply put, if we have too many vehicles on the road, they are more likely to bump into each other. We’re driving slower too – congestion has more than halved average driving speeds in many metros in the past 10 years. Yet we also have more people moving into cities and getting wealthier, leading to more vehicles in the road each year. What to do?

We saw last time that metros were perhaps too expensive for all cities in India given the high levels (about 60%) of two wheelers in the traffic. Why is this? The cost per km for a two wheeler driver is One rupee per kilometre, making a fare of Rs. 40 per person per trip too expensive. Let us therefore look at other successful (and the less successful) examples of Bus Rapid Transport System (BRTS).

Buses are unglamorous and considered “uncool”. And there’s the pity. Public imagination is unfortunately caught up with metros and electric cars – neither of which will provide the solution that buses can for the twin problems of climate change and congestion – if and only if certain conditions are met.

What are those? Well, the poster child of a BRTS is the Transmilenio operating in Bogota in Colombia. Up to 1,500 buses carry 1.4 million riders daily in its 100+ km network. Success can also be found closer to home in the Ahmedabad BRTS.

The salient features of these good systems are (a) dedicated lanes – this is the key point for a successful rapid transit system: you want a system that is predictable and fast? Give it a separate lane (or two). Allowing irate car drivers, giggly teenagers on scooters and cows to share a lane with a bus system is to make it a slow bus system. (b) Offline ticket collection mechanisms: Successful BRTS have ticket dispensers in the stations, and the passenger cannot board a bus without a ticket. (c) Predictable and Frequent Schedules on clean and convenient buses: If a bus comes only every hour and sometimes not even then, it is unlikely a person with access to private transport will choose to travel on the bus.

This was the hallmark of the TVS Bus service that served Madurai in the past. Buses were clean and they ran on time to a published schedule. “You can set your watch by the TVS bus” was the popular adage, and that contributed in no small measure to the success of the service. Most modern BRTS have low floor or flat floor buses that are level with the platform allowing for easy and quick boarding (d) a meaningful network: the Transmilenio has 112 km length in its network; Ahmedabad’s’ Janmarg has 85 km in its network; with a station every 500m.

In contrast, the hugely unpopular and unsuccessful Delhi BRTS had a ridiculously small 5.8 km in its network. If we were to examine how to fail, the Delhi BRTS would show us the way: Short network and shared lanes -- police rarely notice let alone punish those who get into the “dedicated lanes” for the buses. Add to this the lack of coordination with the metro schedules. On-board ticket collection allows Mrs. Kapoor to fiddle for change in her commodious handbag forever. Steps in the buses cause delays in boarding. Lack of public engagement leads to lengthy media campaigns against the BRTS. Why do we even feign surprise at its failure?

We need an affordable rapid transit system in many of our larger cities. Evan Auyang, the Deputy MD of the Kowloon Motor Bus Company – one of the largest bus operators in the world and one of the providers of public bus services in Hong Kong, says that a rapid bus transit system is a great choice for a country with limited capital to spend and an essential part of the urban public transport mix. Prof. Shivanand Swamy of CEPT, who designed the Ahmedabad’s BRTS says much of the resistance to a BRTS comes from the image of a slow, low cost system that takes away road space from a car. Politicians would love to spend on a glitzy metro instead as a concrete, but perhaps not credible, testament to their actions. This resistance needs to be overcome, because as he says, we cannot have mobility for the masses if we don’t make space for the climate-friendly, economical bus. In his words: “Dream of a metro; try and build a BRTS.”

(Climaction is a fortnightly column that is published in MetroPlus Weekend on alternate Fridays. The views expressed in the articles are those of the author.)

The next article in this series will appear on August 21.

Feedback and questions may be e-mailed to

(Mridula Ramesh is the Executive Director of Sundaram Textiles. She is also a student and teacher of global warming.)

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Printable version | Oct 30, 2020 10:20:49 PM |

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