More buses, fewer cars please

Road Democracy: “The BRT corridor creates an incentive for people to use public transport while also ensuring a fairer distribution of space on urban roads.” Picture shows the Corridor at Sheikh Sarai in New Delhi. Photo: R.V. Moorthy   | Photo Credit: R_V_Moorthy

The new government in Delhi is reportedly planning to dismantle the 5.8- kilometre-long pilot Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) corridor and replace it with a six-lane road instead. Those who have followed the saga of the BRT experiment in Delhi will not be surprised by the decision to dismantle the corridor despite its apparent benefits.

The BRT corridor in South Delhi provides dedicated lanes for pedestrians, cyclists, and buses, creating an incentive for people to use public transport while also ensuring a fairer distribution of space on urban roads. A concerted policy of encouraging public transport, in conjunction with policies to penalise the use of private vehicles, could have helped reduce air pollution levels in the city as well. Instead of taking concrete steps to reduce traffic congestion and pollution in the city, the government is planning to dismantle the limited facilities that public transport users enjoy in this city.

Since the corridor’s inauguration in 2008, it has faced stiff opposition from the car-owning elite. As a result, the project has never been expanded, despite initial plans to construct a 100 kilometre network of BRT corridors in the city. In recent months, Saurabh Bhardwaj, MLA, Aam Aadmi Party, has been quite active in trying to get the bus lanes dismantled. He has argued that while BRT corridors are desirable in theory, this corridor was poorly designed and therefore unable to meet its objectives. While some of the design criticisms advanced by him are valid, none of them logically lead us to the conclusion that the Delhi BRT project cannot be salvaged and made to work.

The criticisms

The most common point of criticism has been that the road is too narrow and has too much vehicular traffic to be able to afford two dedicated lanes for buses. Assuming that vehicular traffic is indeed slower when the BRT is operational (which is not always true), we must recognise that making the additional lane available for vehicular traffic is only a temporary solution to the problem of traffic congestion. The root cause of congestion is the increasing use of cars. Buses along this stretch carry twice the number of people as cars do, while occupying much less road space. Public transportation is the long-term solution to the problem of traffic congestion, and the BRT encourages it.

The other criticism is that the Delhi BRT does not follow the best standards of BRT planning. The Delhi BRT is often compared unfavourably to the “closed” Ahmedabad BRT corridor, which does not allow city buses to enter the BRT lane. Such a BRT system allows better control over the flow of dedicated BRT buses, and is able to prevent any fluctuation in the number of buses entering the corridor at a given point in time. While these are real advantages of a “closed” BRT corridor, it also denies a large share of bus users the benefit of using the bus lane. It is worth noting that precisely because the Delhi BRT is “open” and more inclusive, it caters to more than five times the commuters of the Ahmedabad BRT. Even if buses in the Delhi BRT run at a slower speed on average, the overall impact is much greater, and the benefits more evenly distributed among various classes.

It is true that buses in the Delhi BRT corridor have not been able to attain the speeds commonly achieved by BRT systems elsewhere. However, this is primarily because cars are not fined when they enter the BRT lane. Any transportation system consists not just of physical infrastructure — roads, traffic signals, bus stops, etc — but also an institutional infrastructure that makes the system work as intended. There wasn’t enough coordination between the Delhi Integrated Multi Modal Transit System Ltd. (DIMTS), the organisation in charge of designing, constructing, and operating the BRT corridor; the Delhi Transport Corporation (DTC), which operates the buses; and the Delhi Traffic Police, which has the authority to enforce traffic rules.

No institutional support

The attitude of the traffic police has been bizarre. From the inception of the project, the police has flatly refused to enforce traffic rules on the BRT corridor. They have not prevented private vehicles from entering the bus lane, or fined drivers who flouted the rules. While the DIMTS was forced to hire traffic “wardens” for this role, they were ineffective because they did not have the authority to fine or punish drivers who violated the rules. Little was done to prevent the parking of cars on footpaths, or car drivers from misusing cycle lanes. Pedestrian crossings were often unmanned, and motorists who terrorised pedestrians trying to reach the bus stop went scot-free. In any case, the traffic police has never seen the protection of the rights of way of buses, cyclists and pedestrians as a part of its job.

None of these institutional failures are likely to be mitigated by improvements in the physical design of the BRT corridor, either in this location or elsewhere. Fundamentally, they point to a lack of political leadership, and more broadly to the indifference of both civil and political society towards the marginalised classes of commuters who stand to benefit the most from a functioning BRT system. Apparently, even this pro-poor government led by the AAP is willing to expropriate time from the poor and give it to the rich, for that is what “scrapping” the BRT infrastructure amounts to. Many commentators seem to believe that the involvement of international expertise in the design of Delhi’s BRT will solve its woes, but experts in physical design will have no remedy to offer for this deeper malaise of indifference.

(Karthik and Aashish are members of the newly formed Bus Ko Rasta Do Abhiyaan – Make Way for Buses Campaign . Aashish is a research fellow at the research institute of compassionate economics (r.i.c.e). Karthik is an assistant professor of public policy at the Jindal Global University, and a doctoral candidate at the Department of Urban Studies and Planning at MIT, Cambridge, U.S.)

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Printable version | Jun 15, 2021 5:32:22 PM |

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