The Delhi government’s move to scrap the bus rapid transit corridor owes more to an ill-informed campaign by powerful media interests than any considered review of the project’s effectiveness.
On July 21, 2015, Delhi’s Deputy Chief Minister Manish Sisodia told reporters that the city’s BRT corridor will be scrapped, citing public demand and accidents. The next day The Pioneer celebrated with the headline “Delhi’s curse BRT scrapped at last” and the Times of India boasted, “A look at how TOI campaigned consistently to ‘scrap this trap’”.
This decision, if implemented, would have more to do with a systematic campaign run mainly by these two newspapers over the past eight years against Delhi’s 5.8 km long dedicated bus rapid transit (BRT) corridor. In truth, most of the points stressed by these newspapers are factually incorrect; but their continuous repetition over the years has now finally borne fruit.
It is a remarkable case of intense lobbying by powerful groups derailing public policy into directions that are harmful for the long-term development of our cities. Since they have been reasonably successful in convincing many of their influential readers that the BRT is a fundamentally flawed project, its important t examine if their arguments stand up to scrutiny.
Argument 1: Lack of planning.
‘The project was conceived in a hurry and implemented without enough discussion’.
In reality, this is one of the few cases where a project undertaken by the Delhi government took about 10 years of detailed technical discussion before the first brick was placed on the ground. The idea for a BRT corridor was first floated in 1997 in the report Delhi on the Move 2005 and the BJP government of the time commissioned studies to understand how reserved bus and bicycle lanes could be promoted in Delhi. Soon after, the government changed and the incoming Congress government revived the idea.
An international conference was organised by the government in 2002 to assess worldwide experiences in the desirability, design and operation of dedicated bus corridors. As an outcome of this conference, the government decided to establish a high level committee chaired by the Chief Secretary to recommend proposals for sustainable transport in Delhi.
The Committee submitted its report in September 2002, and suggested that Delhi should construct four BRT corridors. The expert group of the committee proposed that the first corridor should be along a route where bus ridership was among the highest in the city and the stretch was largely under the control of the Delhi Government. This turned out to be the Ambedkar Nagar to Delhi Gate route, a stretch of about 18 km.
The job of implementing the proposal was given to the Transport Department of the Government. To implement this scheme the government established the Delhi Integrated Multi Modal Transit System (DIMTS) as a joint venture with the Infrastructure Development Finance Company Ltd., with professionals from IIT Delhi as academic advisors and RITES Ltd. as the project consultant. A high level Core Group chaired by the Chief Secretary was set up to oversee the development of the BRT project. The Core Group included all concerned officials, including the Delhi Police.
Over the next four years, detailed design discussions were held with all stakeholders including all the government departments, Delhi Police, RWAs, MLAs, management officials of schools along the way, NGOs and press reporters. A scale model of the BRT was displayed in the Delhi pavilion at Pragati Maidan and at numerous workshops and conferences.
Based on all the inputs, detailed designs were prepared for discussion for a special workshop held in December 2005. This workshop was organised by the Transport department and attended by 80 Indian experts and stakeholders and three international experts specially invited for the event. The final approval for the designs was given after considering inputs from the workshop. At that time, no major objections were put forward by any organisation and all the press reports were favourable.
Tenders for the project were issued after this and finally the Chief Minister laid the foundation stone for the project on 4th October 2006. The construction of the corridor took over a year and the route from Ambedkar Nagar to Moolchand was opened in April 2008.
Clearly, by no stretch of the imagination can it be said that this project was executed in a hurry or that the public was not consulted.
Argument 2: Bad design.
‘The design of the BRT corridor was “wrong”. It had a faulty design. Lack of facilities for pedestrians, especially in crossing the road to reach the bus shelters in the middle. There are no foot over bridges. No arrangements for electronic fare collection prior to boarding buses. No integration with other modes of transport to become efficient and acceptable. No free and convenient transfers to different routes’.
Let us consider each one of these issues in the light of national and international experience. A significant number of the critics are very unhappy with the placement of bus shelters in the middle of the road. How will they cross the road? They ask. It is very curious that out of the hundreds of cities around the world where buses and trams operate in the middle of the road, Delhi is the only place where this has become an issue!
The fact is that, at all other locations in Delhi, fifty per cent of bus users have to cross the whole wide road to get to the bus stand and when they leave the bus. This is because half the people work, shop or live on each side of the road. Therefore, out of the four times you enter or leave the bus on a round trip, you have to cross the full road two times in a day. At no normal bus stands are there any facilities to cross the road in any of our cities. Bus commuters have to fight their way through unregulated traffic. This is why we witness a high number of fatal and injury accidents around bus stops all over the city.
On the other hand, on the BRT stretch, every single bus stop is right before a junction and a light controlled pedestrian crossing has been designed for bus commuters to cross half the road safely to get to the bus stop. The movement from the pedestrian path to the bus shelter is designed to be wheel-chair friendly also.
In this case every passenger has to cross half the road every time, that means four times half the road over a round trip. In both cases commuters spend the same time while crossing the road, but they are safer on the BRT because crossing half the road at light controlled crossing gives much more protection. Given this, there is no need for foot over bridges and the system is disabled friendly which foot over bridges are not.
In any case, placing public transport corridors in the middle of the road is not a new idea. When buses or trams move in reserved lanes they can maintain undisturbed movement only if they are not in friction with other vehicles stopping or turning left in front of them. The practice has been followed for most tram systems for more than a hundred years and exists today in dozens of cities around the world including Kolkata.
Electronic fare collection prior to boarding buses was in introduced in most countries to reduce the cost of having a conductor on board. In such situations the driver had to issue tickets and the bus could not move until all the passengers had moved past him slowly. This increased the time buses waited at bus stops and harmed the efficiency of the operation. Therefore, pre-boarding and smart card fare collection systems became important.
When surveys were done of the bus operations in Delhi, it was found that because there was an on board conductor, there were no delays on this account. Therefore, pre-boarding ticket collection is not a major issue for our system. These systems can be introduced in time to reduce the load on the conductor and reduce leakages in the system.
Criticisms concerning free transfer facilities are management and not design issues. In Delhi, since buses are managed by two different agencies (DTC and DIMTS) and the metro by a third one (DMRC), free transfer policies will take a lot of work. In many cities public transport is managed by a single agency, which makes things a lot easier.
The other point is that there is no integration with other modes of transport. This seems an odd bit of criticism and far from a major issue since the corridor is only 5.5 km long! It also ignores the fact that the BRT corridor is the only road in the city where arrangements were made for auto-rickshaw parking near bus stands for ease of commuters.
Argument 3: Wrong location.
“Designers miscalculated the road space required for other traffic, leading to traffic jams. Its peculiar design, the hogging of road space in dedicated lanes by buses. BRT system is not meant for congested cities like Delhi.”
“We will now plan BRT corridors in outer Delhi and not in congested localities”. Gopal Rai, Minister for Transport, Government of Delhi.
It appears that there is a complete mis-conception about the need for a BRT even among many planners and professionals. The most fundamental aspect of a BRT is giving unhindered passage to buses in a reserved lane, for two reasons: (1) Providing predictable and faster transport to bus users as compared to car users. We have come to this stage because no city in the world has been able to reduce congestion for cars by building more roads. However, we can get rid of congestion for buses by leaving a lane reserved for them and not filling them up with other vehicles. (2) A reserved bus lane is the only way ambulances and fire trucks can make their way through a congested city.
Therefore, reserved bus lanes are only needed where traffic is congested and not in the periphery of the city where traffic is light. It is needed where you want heavy density public transit use. This is why all sensible city managements take BRT routes through the most congested parts of the city taking space away from cars. Now we have reserved bus and tram lanes of different designs in congested parts of more than 200 cities all over the world.
One of the angriest complaints is that the BRT stretch is bedevilled with unbearable congestion in the car lanes. It is now possible to get data on average hourly congestion rates from Google maps. A detailed analysis of these maps shows that a very large number of roads experience congestion similar to that on the worst part of the BRT on a daily basis. There are at least 31 locations where the congestion can extend to more than one km on a daily basis. This occurs on all kinds of roads including the widest signal free roads.
Therefore, it is surprising that a two km stretch on one road is selected for a concerted and consistent attack for over seven years. It would be more productive for us to understand why the problem is becoming endemic all over the city and try and come up with solutions that help all citizens of the city. It is quite certain, that even if the reserved bus lanes are removed from Joseph Broz Tito Marg, the problem of congestion will not disappear.
Argument 4: Very unsafe.
‘The stretch rapidly became notorious for frayed tempers, accidents and delays. The Pioneer has been running a campaign against the faulty and poor planning of BRT corridor as it has led to heavy traffic jams and frequent accidents on the stretch’.
‘There have been several accidents and traffic has become haphazard’, Deputy Chief Minister Manish Sisodia.
On 13 November 2007, a motorcyclist died in a motorcycle crash on the BRT corridor under construction. Unfortunate as this was, after this the media started criticising the very concept of the BRT as the cause of accidents instead of demanding better management of the project to prevent such incidents. Times of India started running BRT stories under a logo titled ‘Big Road Trauma’ and The Pioneer titled their stories ‘Road to Hell’. With continuous repetition of the idea that this was the most dangerous road in Delhi, the idea has stuck.
It is no one’s case that the corridor cannot be made safer, but it is certainly not the most hazardous road in Delhi. Every year the Delhi Police publishes a list of the top ten ‘black spots’ and the number of fatal accidents on each road in the city. The BRT stretch has never figured in the top ten.
The accompanying chart shows the actual number of fatalities on the BRT stretch since 2003. The data shows that during the construction period, the number of fatalities was similar to that before the construction started. In the six years of BRT operation except for 2010, the number of fatalities have been less or similar to that before the BRT. Taking note of the high number of deaths in 2010, the authorities examined the situation and found that the buses were speeding on the bus lanes. After this, corrective measures were taken, like installation of rumble strips, and the fatalities reduced in 2011 and 2012. In 2012, the number of fatalities was less than in all of the pre BRT years.
It is unfortunate that so many deaths have taken place on the corridor. Many of us are certain with better management of the corridor and continuous improvements the death rate can be almost zero. On other roads buses are involved in a large number of fatal accidents because they fight their way through pedestrians, bicyclists and other motor vehicles. On the BRT corridor pedestrians, bicyclists, and buses have been physically separated from the rest of the traffic, and therefore, accidents should have been reduced dramatically. The main reason they have not is that traffic discipline has not been enforced by the Delhi Police on this stretch.
Press reports warned us very early regarding this: “The job of managing Delhi’s infamous traffic on this pilot corridor has fallen on a band of 40 helpless private traffic marshals deployed by the Delhi Integrated Multi-Modal Transit System Limited (DIMTS), which is supervising the project… In regular visits in the last fortnight, Hindustan Times has never found a traffic policeman on the entire stretch”. Officials from the Delhi Government claim that the Delhi Police has refused to do so right from the beginning.
So what went wrong?
The above account suggests that there is not much wrong in the design of the BRT corridor in Delhi. But, some things must have been done reasonably wrong for the project to get so many people unhappy. With the benefit of hindsight, some issues can be highlighted.
- The biggest mistake made was to limit the length of the corridor to 5.8 km instead of completing the whole stretch of 18 km before opening it for regular operations. Enough people do not benefit if you have such a limited facility. If the corridor had been completed, a huge number of bus commuters, bicyclists and pedestrians would have been convinced of the benefits and supported the government against the naysayers.
- The government should have forced the Delhi Traffic Police to maintain traffic discipline on the corridor. This would have minimised the number of accidents and made operations much more efficient.
- There should have been a much wider public education and publicity programme on the merits of such a project and how it would work. They should have been educated on why such corridors are needed in congested parts of the city. Citizens should have been requested to be patient in the initial months of the pilot project and suggest improvements. This was not done and so it was much easier for those against the project to mislead everyone else.
- All bus drivers and their managers should have been put through a training programme on safe and efficient use of the corridor. The effort put into this was inadequate.
- A well staffed public relations unit was not set up to receive public complaints and mechanisms to take action on them.
- The positive aspects of the corridor – safe, well lit and disabled friendly pedestrian and bicyclist lanes, efficient drainage to prevent water logging, and underground conduits for all services – were not highlighted and publicised.
So, we have come to stage where a project in its nascent stage might be abandoned for the wrong reasons. A combination of anti-BRT lobbies and a headline hungry press, and ill-informed members of the public influenced by them, has managed to confuse the politicians into taking the easy way out by scrapping the BRT corridor.
This is bound to send the wrong message to all other cities in the country and delay implementation of effective solutions for traffic management and pollution control by a decade or more.
Dinesh Mohan was Volvo Chair Professor Emeritus (Retired), Transportation Research & Injury Prevention Programme at the Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi. He was part of the team from IIT Delhi that was involved in advising the government on the Delhi BRT.