Bus transport will become attractive once again if Bus Rapid Transit systems (BRTs) go as planned in some of India’s fast-growing and extremely-congested cities. Delhi, Pune, Bangalore, Ahmedabad and Mumbai have planned, or begun construction of, these systems.
BRTs promise to solve at least two of urban India’s problems—pollution and transport—fast and inexpensively. Vehicles contribute 70% to urban air pollution. Cars occupy more space in Delhi than green areas. Rail-based urban transport systems are costly and take decades to set up.
A BRT is a high-quality bus-based transit system that delivers fast, comfortable and cost-effective urban mobility through the provision of segregated right-of-way infrastructure, rapid and frequent operations, and excellence in customer service. BRT emulates the performance and amenity characteristics of a modern rail-based transit system at a fraction of the cost.
India’s National Urban Transport Policy, announced in April 2006, encourages the use of public transport. It has a mix of financial incentives, assistance, regulatory and enforcement mechanisms to create public transport systems. As 60% of Indians are expected to live in cities by 2050, better transport is clearly a pressing need.
BRTs usually are 10-100 times cheaper than a metro rail system. They can be set up in just two years, against decades required for a metro rail system. They are flexible in terms of routing and technology—if one route does not work, others can be added; improvements in bus technology can be quickly implemented by upgrading the fleet.
They score over existing bus services because they have newer vehicles running on dedicated corridors, and therefore pollute less. New engine and fuel technologies reduce pollution from diesel engines, a major source of urban air pollution. Reducing sulphur content in diesel to below 500 parts per million enables the use of particle filters and catalysers. These cut emissions of sulphur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide and particulate matter.
Since the late 1990s, when air pollution in Delhi made it one of the worst cities in India to live in, transport experts have said better urban mass transport is the only lasting way to reduce congestion and pollution. The Delhi government’s reaction was to initiate the Metro rail project that has, over nearly a decade, created just three transport corridors.
India’s experience with BRT has been dismal so far. The BRT corridor in Delhi is moving slowly because of widespread opposition. Policemen say it is not possible to reserve a third of the road for buses. Transport operators, whose business it will affect, claim it will be costly. Politicians, who make money off transporters, and own bus fleets, are wary of pushing a project that could affect their income.
The experience in Pune, where one BRT corridor was opened in January, has also been dismal. Transport experts say the corridor has been poorly planned and traffic and pedestrians encroach on the tracks reserved for buses. This slows the system and causes jams. Bangalore also plans a 37km stretch; it has time to learn from the mistakes of Pune and the extremely slow progress in Delhi. However, in Latin America, southeast Asia and Africa, governments are planning BRT systems to provide faster, better and affordable transport. In Jakarta, Governor Sutiyoso inaugurated the Transjakarta Busway, a $49 million BRT, in February 2004. It has been so successful that, just three years later, it is being rapidly expanded.
Surveys have indicated that it has already replaced 14% of cars on existing routes and 80% people are willing to use the system, once they are serviced by it.
This is Asia’s biggest BRT and uses dedicated lanes; it is less prone to traffic jams. It has been hailed as a successful, locally-funded way to encourage travellers to use public transport. It faced opposition when it began, but its success has silenced critics. The system carries some 100,000 passengers a day. In contrast, Delhi’s metro carries 450,000 a day and has cost around $1.5 billion.
Asia, where earlier city governments favoured rail-based systems, has as a whole shifted to BRT’s. Singapore uses a mix of buses, metro rail and light rail, but buses dominate with 280 routes and 3,400 vehicles.
China is considering developing an urban public transport system with buses and trams as the major transport modes. This will harmonize development of transport and land use in its cities. Similarly, several cities in Africa and Latin America are implementing BRTs.
Taken together with other means of transport, BRT can help emerging mega cities of the region improve the quality of life for citizens in the near future. They are uniquely suited to Indian cities, with distributed residential and commercial centres. BRTs are certainly the best way to improve the quality of life in India’s cities, both in terms of better, and quality mobility, lower pollution and congestion. Better transport will be the key that unlocks the door to a better life.
Nitya Jacob is a communications consultant who writes on development. Comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org