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Ahmedabad/New Delhi/Pune: The success of Ahmedabad’s bus rapid transit system (BRTS) has encouraged Gujarat to extend the model to Rajkot and Surat, which will see such services starting this year.

The state’s enthusiasm runs counter to the mixed experience of users and planners in Delhi and Pune, where the BRTS hasn’t exactly been universally embraced.

“The civil infrastructure for both Rajkot and Surat projects, largely inspired by the Ahmedabad BRTS model, is more or less ready," said I.P. Gautam, principal secretary of the state urban development department. “We expect to open these services for public by December."

A BRT system involves the deployment of public transport buses in a closed or semi-closed network, with the aim of achieving the comfort and quality of rail while keeping costs down. On paper, this is ideal for the rapidly growing Indian cities that desperately need such mass-transit systems that can be set up quickly and cheaply to decongest roads clogged with ever-increasing traffic.

The first BRT was set up in Curitiba, Brazil, in 1974, although the one in Colombia is generally adopted as the best model for the system.

The Rajkot BRTS has been built at an initial total cost of 175 crore, which includes 57 crore for flyovers.

“Of the 60 odd km route currently planned for the Rajkot project, a stretch of 11km will be operational this month itself," said Ajay Bhadu, commissioner, Rajkot Municipal Corporation (RMC). “Travel for commuters will be free for the first three months. We will run 10 AC (air-conditioned) high-floor buses initially."

In Surat, India’s eighth most populated city, work is on for the 30km that has a budget of about 450 crore.

“It’s time to scale down and think Indian," said H.M. Shivanand Swamy, associate director of the Centre for Environmental Planning and Technology (Cept) University, who designed the Ahmedabad and Surat projects. “In the case of Surat, we have designed narrow lanes and narrow buses."

A government official said the opening of the two BRT systems is likely to boost chief minister Narendra Modi’s popularity ahead of assembly polls in December this year.

Ahmedabad’s BRTS project, known as Janmarg (people’s way), started operations in 2009 and has come to change perceptions about public transport in the city. The project was implemented by Ahmedabad Janmarg Ltd (AJL), a special purpose vehicle floated by the Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation (AMC).

“We built a network and not just corridors. It generates revenue of 9 lakh per day and about 1 lakh riders commute by it on a daily basis. Today, the Ahmedabad BRTS network covers 45km and we aim to take this to 135km by 2015," said Guruprasad Mohapatra, commissioner, AMC. The corporation says it’s able to recover operational costs from the revenue generated.

While the central government funds 35% of the project under its Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JNNURM), 15% comes from the state government and the remaining 50% from the municipal corporation.

Elsewhere in India, BRTS is operational in Delhi, Jaipur and Pune. In all, BRT is planned in 21 Indian cities including Bangalore, Vadodara and Lucknow. Of these, as many as 13 cities are currently implementing it. These include Vijaywada, Visakhapatnam, Bhopal and Kolkata among others, according to Swamy.

The Ahmedabad project differs from those in Delhi and Pune in that it has sharply segregated bus lanes and real time monitoring system, where commuters can track arrival or departure time similar to a Metro system monitoring. It was also closed off to other traffic, unlike Delhi which has a hybrid system. Only designated BRT buses can use the system in Ahmedabad unlike Delhi, were all buses can do so.

“The Ahmedabad BRTS is a less inclusive system compared with Delhi, as far as its design is concerned," said Abhijit Datey, senior research associate at Cept in Ahmedabad and co-author of a study on the social inclusiveness of various BRT systems in India. “There are no provisions for facilitating the movement of pedestrians and cyclists on the Ahmedabad BRTS, while the Delhi BRTS has separate pathways for moving them."

Another reason cited for the smooth running of the Ahmedabad BRTS is single ownership from the outset. In the capital, the nodal agency, Delhi Integrated Multi-Modal Transit System Ltd (DIMTS), came into the picture at a much later stage, after the pilot project was designed. There was also a lack of coordination between the traffic police department and the municipal body in Delhi, according to an industry expert who did not want to be identified.

S. Velmurugan of the Central Road Research Institute, which evaluated the Delhi BRTS, said the design depends on traffic density and other factors. “For a stretch like the one which has the BRT in Delhi, used by around 200,000 vehicles during peak hours, a hybrid system works better than a closed one," he said.

“The basic problem of the Delhi BRTS is that it is too limited in its length and reach. Had it been implemented on a longer stretch, one that did not have as high volume of traffic as the existing one, the results would have been different," he said.

The Ahmedabad BRTS is working well but needs to be constantly improved, said Shreya Gadepalli, regional director, India, Institute for Transportation and Development Policy (ITDP), a New York-based non-profit organization that works on sustainable transportation projects.

“There is a need to expand the station size at certain places and solve traffic congestion problems," she said. “For places like Delhi, Jaipur and Pune, where BRTS did not succeed initially, a public perception has been built which is difficult to improve. In comparison, the branding of Ahmedabad Janmarg has been very strong."

Gadepalli has worked on the Ahmedabad and Pune projects as an adviser. She said changes were being made to the Pune system, which was India’s first BRT system, launched in December 2006 on a pilot basis.

That 16.5km stretch remains an unsuccessful pilot, despite ambitious plans on the part of the civic body to increase it to 27 more roads covering over 100km across the city. As in Delhi, the lack of success has bred opposition to the project.

One such critic is S.C.N. Jatar, president of the non-governmental organization Nagrik Chetna Manch. He says little homework was done before the project began.

“So far, the municipal body has invested 2,000 crore in the project and it is a failure," he said. “The project began without a basic pre-feasibility report which would have studied the various mass-transit corridors and figured out which of these would be able to support a BRTS. This should have been followed by a specific BRT feasibility report and then a detailed project report. Only Ahmedabad followed this classic model; neither Pune nor Delhi did this, hence you see the result."

One key reason for the failure is that lane segregation exists only in name—all vehicles, not just buses, use the corridor.

“The basic requirement of a BRT is a dedicated corridor and that we have not been able to achieve in Pune. Now, the local civic body is looking to revive it in Pune," said Vikas Mathkari, corporator, Pune Municipal Corporation, and president of the city unit of the Bharatiya Janata Party.

As for the national capital, public frustration with the apparent delays may have stunted the BRT’s growth.

“We have got our plans for the next phases ready but the government is reluctant to approve them after the controversy on the first corridor," said Rakesh Katyal, vice-president, BRT, DIMTS.

However, a 10 September order by the Delhi high court may see the programme being expanded beyond the first phase. The court has ordered that the traffic flow on the 5.8km corridor should revert to the status prior to July 5, when the high court order allowed all vehicles to ply in the reserved lane for buses, until there’s a final ruling.

maulik.p@livemint.com

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