Urban transport debate: Is BRTS the answer?

Urban transport debate: Is BRTS the answer?

Ahmedabad: Movement of passenger traffic on the 30km bus rapid transit system (BRTS), aptly name Janmarg (passage for people), in the eight months since it was commissioned, has risen nearly four times to 60,000 passengers a day in July. Further, surveys show that one in two passengers were those who had earlier walked, or used private vehicles or alternative public transport.

Even the user experience seems to have been pleasant. Most Ahmedabad residents, even those that do not use the system regularly, say BRTS cuts 15-30 minutes in journey time to Kankaria, a lakefront area in east Ahmedabad. “Going to Kankaria by regular road would take us not less than 45 minutes. But on the BRTS, it is less than 15 minutes," said Ruhi Lal, whose residence is in Vastrupur, currently not a stop on BRTS. According to her, once the network is complete, it will become easier for her to commute to the workplace.

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The alacrity with which citizens of Ahemdabad have taken to BRTS has settled the debate on urban transport, at least in Gujarat, and the Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation, which operates 41 dedicated buses on BRTS, is now proceeding with plans to add another 10km by end-August and eventually, 217km in all.

The Ahmedabad experience is significant, especially because town planners view this as the best way to address the problem of urban transport, especially in the context of a sharp spurt in privately owned vehicles. Vehicle sales in India, including those of three-wheelers, two-wheelers, cars and commercial vehicles, have nearly doubled in the last seven years, increasing from 6.8 million in 2003-04 to 12 million in 2009-10. What’s happening in Ahmedabad is also important, because the only other experience of this nature in India, BRTS in Delhi, has largely failed in the first phase.

While the early experiences in Ahmedabad have been positive, analysts warn that unless run well, systems such as BRTS could run into problems in very crowded areas.

“I think the bus rapid transit system works well in cities where you can to some extent regulate car movement," said Arvind Mahajan, an executive director with audit and consulting firm KPMG Advisory Services Pvt. Ltd, adding that the real test would come when it was implemented in areas that had a lot of mixed modes of traffic.

The experience

A few reasons underlying Ahmedabad’s successful experience flow from unique characterisitics of the city that may be difficult to replicate across the country.

BRTS comprises two access controlled single-lane carriageways with a median in between, which broadens into a common bus stop in the middle of the road. On either side of the BRTS carriageway, city transport buses, autorickshaws and the other modes of transport vie for two lanes of road space.

Unlike Delhi, Ahmedabad has less traffic congestion. According to data from a 2008 study on traffic and transportation strategies, Ahmedabad’s lower geographical spread means city residents travel much less per trip than Delhi. According to the data, which was based on numbers reported by cities in 2007-08, Ahmedabad residents on an average travelled 6.2km per trip per day, as opposed to 10.2km in Delhi, 11.9km in Mumbai and 9.6km in Bangalore.

The Ahmedabad BRTS differs from Delhi in another key aspect. Only specifically identified buses ply on the network. Regular Ahmedabad transport service buses ply on regular roads. They aren’t allowed access to the dedicated lane.

“Here it is a success. In Delhi, it failed," said Pradeep Chawda, a professional driver, who’d heard about the city’s problems with BRTS when he drove some customers to Delhi recently.

While planning BRTS, the planners decided to avoid earmarking dedicated bus lanes in arterial roads. Instead, as H.M. Shivananda Swamy, a planning expert and professor of urban transport at the Centre for Environmental Planning and Technology, who helped design the corridor, puts it, the planners chose to “focus on busy places, not busy roads".

To be sure, Ahmedabad’s development as a ring-radial city —a city, much like Delhi, that evolved in concentric circles with radial roads—definitely helped transport planners. According to Swamy, in the case of Ahmedabad it ensured that people were on the road much less on an average, when compared with other cities.

The debate

In some ways Swamy and his team are at the centre of the ongoing debate on the future of public transport. As many as 590 million people—or roughly 40% of India’s population— will live in urban areas by 2040. According to one school of thought, BRTS is the cheaper and hence more effective method; the other favours a Metro network. But there are some, like Swamy, who believe that it does not have to be a case of either-or and can actually be a mix.

Swamy’s office is cluttered with city maps and books on transport planning, while the walls of an adjoining room are festooned with Google maps of large cities around the world. His students have traced the outlines of different classes of roads onto these maps as a way of comparing transport plans for these cities. In another room, a large-scale map of Kolkata covers much of the wall. The students are trying to evolve—as a project—the ideal transportation plan for Kolkata.

Swamy stresses that the debate is not about choosing between BRTS or the Metro. “We’ve reserved one corridor for Metros. Suburban rail—we are looking at seriously. We did not argue that BRT is an alternative to Metro. We don’t think that is the way to plan for cities. Multi-modal is important," he said.

Arguing similarly, I.P. Goutam, the Ahmedabad municipal commissioner, said, “Before government, there are two issues. (Whether to) modernize AMTS (Ahmedabad Municipal Transport Service) or city bus services of the city and introduce either BRTS or Metro in Ahmedabad. At that point of time (2006), Ahmedabad’s population was about 14 lakhs or so."

In 2006, several local agencies together decided that the city should first have a BRTS. The Metro project wasn’t ruled out. But BRTS was selected as a better option, Goutam said.

“If a person is joining a job, private or government, he will first look for a house. And second, look for some kind of a two-wheeler...whatever his salary will match. Because urban transport is not giving him a dependable transport system. Because our city is not planned on the basis of public transport availability."

Goutam said the problem was exacerbated because existing public transport services rarely kept to time, forcing people to buy their own vehicles. And once people buy vehicles, road space for public transport reduces.

Some experts say that in the developing country context, with a large number of poor people, there are additional challenges such as ensuring the right mix of public transport options that take into account the ability of the consumers to pay.

“The big challenge for developing countries like India is to keep a balanced transport mix that provides adequate accessibility for people and goods. Currently, India is rapidly motorizing as a result of its very fast economic growth, and lack of convenient public and active transport facilities, but it still has the majority of trips by foot, bicycle and public transport," said Dario Hidalgo, a senior transport engineer for the World Resources Institute Center for Sustainable Transport.

Hidalgo was part of a panel that awarded the Janmarg this year’s sustainable transport award—an award given annually to cities worldwide. Last year’s winner was New York city mayor Michael Bloomberg. “It is very important to at least maintain the current modal split (small share of auto, large share of public and active transport), to avoid catastrophic increases in fuel consumption, air pollution, green house gas emissions, congestion and road traffic injuries and deaths," he said.

The choice, to a large extent, will also be influenced by the underlying capital costs. The first phase of the Delhi Metro cost some Rs10,571 crore, or around Rs162 crore per km. The first BRTS phase of 12.5km cost Rs96 crore, with the entire 90km network expected to cost Rs1,000 crore.

Umesh Varma, an activist with Citizens for Better Public Transport in Hyderabad, a civil society organization that has been fighting against the city’s planned elevated Metro rail project, said the project should be immediately scrapped as it is “highly expensive" compared with alternatives such as BRTS, both in terms of capital cost per km and passenger fares.

“Metros are not a solution by themselves in any city. Metros are part of the transport system, and should be targeted for the very high demand corridors, above 50,000 passengers per hour per direction, because their cost is very high ($60-150 million/km or around Rs283-707 crore/km). For all other corridors (below 50,000 passengers per hour per direction), it is possible to handle the traffic operations with buses if the full BRT concepts are applied integrally," Hidalgo said.

Ahmedabad seems to have proved that.

C.R. Sukumar in Hyderabad contributed to this story.