So what was that fuss about?

Pleased with its professionally executed hatchet job on what is probably Delhi’s first real public transport endeavour that incorporates the needs of pedestrians and cyclists apart from bus users, the press seems to have forgotten the BRTS – moving on to search for other programmes to torpedo. But what was the BRTS fuss all about? Read on …

“’Experts’ order serial rape of Delhi Roads” screamed a particularly tasteless headline, in a national paper, of an article that claimed that the entire city shall be subjected to “gang-rape by greedy contractors with the benign blessings of rootless experts and supine babus.” In another widely published English newspaper, the editor in chief spoke out fearlessly against the “brutal enforcement of licence-quota raj on our roads”, denouncing what he saw as the “cynical and expensive exercise in enforcing a new kind of ideological socialism.” In another op-ed carried by the same paper, another piece spoke out against the “elitist” nature of the same project. “The masses want to drive,” noted columnist Saubhik Chakravarthy,” So reducing road space for private vehicles is ultimately elitist.” Judging by the vicious vendetta unleashed by the mainstream press, one would assume that the mild-mannered professors of the Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi, had committed a crime against the state, rather than have designed the latest addition to the city’s mass transit system.

“Many trial projects sometimes receive bad press before the benefits become apparent,” explains Professor Geetam Tiwari, from the Transport Related Injury Prevention Programme (TRIPP) at IIT Delhi, “But we never expected a campaign of this nature.” As one of the lead designers of the project, Tiwari herself has been subjected to pointed personal attacks in the press.

The Bus Rapid Transit System (BRTS) was originally considered in 1998, when a study commissioned by the Transport Department of the Greater National Capital Territory of Delhi (GNCTD) recommended dedicated lanes for pedestrians, bicyclists, and buses as a solution for the increasing number of bus accidents in the national capital. The proposal was then studied and revised at various transport conferences over the years until Delhi’s successful commonwealth bid provided the much needed impetus to translate it into a functioning pilot project. After nearly 18 months of construction, the first BRT corridor was unveiled in April 2008 under intense media scrutiny.

Broadly speaking, the BRTS is based on the empirically established principle that the differing relative speeds of mixed-mode traffic is a significant cause of road congestion and accidents. Simply put, the differing speeds and stopping frequencies of buses, bicycles, cars and motorcycles leads to bottlenecks and traffic chaos. The BRTS seeks to widen existing roads and divided them into four physically divided sections: reserving the two left-most lanes for pedestrians and bicyclists, the middle lanes for cars, motorcycles and auto-rickshaws, and the central corridor for buses, ambulances, fire engines and emergency services. Thus, each lane is reserved for traffic with similar speeds, resulting in a more streamlined flow for all traffic. It is, in theory, a remarkably simple concept, but in practice requires a radical transformation of traffic behaviour. “Shifting buses from the extreme left to the extreme right is a large shift,” admits Tiwari, “but once the system settles down, traffic flow shall improve.” However, the absence of any public communications in the run up to the trail period meant that an unprepared public crowded every possible lane – resulting in what some called “orchestrated chaos”, a middle class outcry against “victimisation of car drivers”, and a media campaign to scrap the project all together. The Delhi Government for its part showed commendable political courage in backing the project in an election year and urged commuters to reserve their judgment until the kinks in the signalling, and signage were ironed out. By then however, the papers were already bemoaning the “ideologically motivated” project with headlines like “Buses hog space, cars squeezed out”, that highlighted the “plight” of car owners.

At the time of print, sustained media pressure had forced the Delhi Chief Secretary Rakesh Mehta to offer a compromise solution, stalling the expansion of the project pursuant to further studies of alternative models. While the fate of project is uncertain, the hysterical response of certain sections of the project’s opponents appears to be the latest attempt of an elitist media to impose a gentrified, car-centric, upper- middle-class vision of a global metropolis on a city comprised primarily of working class inhabitants.

Broadly speaking, the opposition to the BRTS is on the grounds that the system increases congestion and commuter inconvenience and reduces road safety- making it a complete failure as a mode of transport. However, a perusal of reports accessed by Frontline suggests that the mainstream press might not be telling its readers the truth.

Few newspapers have taken the trouble of revealing that buses account for 62 per cent of commuters along the BRT stretch; bicyclists make up another 18 per cent and cars, motorcyclists and auto-rickshaws account for only 20 per cent of commuters. By providing reserved lanes for buses and bicyclists, the BRTS benefits 80 per cent of commuters. Further, a Travel Time study commissioned by the Delhi integrated Multi-Modal transit System, a Special Purpose Vehicle established to oversee Delhi’s transport, suggests that the BRTS does not add to congestion, and in some cases might reduce it.

At peak traffic hours, between 5 PM and 8 PM, average traffic speeds of car traffic along the BRTS Corridors range between 8 and 35 km/hr. In comparison, traffic speeds along August Kranti Marg – a parallel road with no traffic segregation – range between 8 and 15 km/hr. Average Speeds during peak hours along the “signal free” Ring Road – that boasts of 37 new flyovers in the last 8 years – are a lowly 6 to 7 km/hr. Thus, if seen objectively, car speeds along the BRTS are comparable to those anywhere in the city. The advantage of the BRTS is that bus speeds along its dedicated bus corridors are between 20 and 25km/hr at all times. What this implies is that 62 per cent of commuters along the BRTS are travelling significantly faster than anywhere else in the city, at no cost to car drivers. However, the sight of buses whizzing by, while cars stay stuck in traffic seems to disturb the middle class press no end. The second line of attack on the BRTS has been to label it a “killer corridor” after four fatal road accidents in the 18 months of its construction, despite the fact that, as per police statements, at least one accident was caused when a sleep-deprived motorcyclist rode into a road divider while under the influence of alcohol.

While no death is insignificant, the press vendetta against the corridor seems to ignore the Delhi Police Road Accidents Report of 2006 that notes that that pedestrians and bicyclists collectively accounted for 53 per cent of the 2000-odd fatalities on Delhi’s road’s that year. In cases where the nature of the impacting vehicle was known, buses and trucks were responsible in 58 per cent of the cases. Road safety experts point out that a majority of accidents occur due to the presence of bicycles and pedestrians in the bus lane. By putting buses and pedestrians on opposite sides of the road, the BRTS reduces to reduce such accidents. Car drivers, allegedly the victims of this new system, comprise only three per cent of all traffic related fatalities.

The vast gulf between the situation as reported by Delhi’s newspapers, and reality as experienced on the street was brought out by a an exclusive opinion poll conducted by NDTV, a national television channel, that found that 88 per cent of bus commuters felt that the new BRT and its buses were an improvement on Delhi’s public transport system, while 71 per cent felt it would reduce travel time. In sharp contrast to the impression created by the initial reports, 61 percent of car drivers actually said that they found driving easier now that buses had a lane of their own.

The BRTS controversy also offers an opportunity to re-examine the role of the private automobile as a mode of transport in Delhi. As pointed out earlier in this article, private vehicles ferry only 20 per cent of Delhi’s commuters; however, a Centre for Science and Environment study points out that they account for nearly 4.5 million vehicles on the road as compared to approximately 7500 buses. In 2006-07, Delhi added more than 1000 private vehicles to its streets every single day. All these vehicles require road space – a commodity that is shrinking every year. The study points out that in the period of 1996-2006, when Delhi’s road length increased by 20 per cent, cars increased by a staggering 132 per cent. Unsurprisingly, road space per vehicle decreased.

Thus far, the government’s strategy has largely revolved around creating new roads, widening existing ones and building flyovers to span busy intersections. The increasing congestion has lead to fresh demands for an upgrade of road infrastructure; but this seems to be an increasingly unsustainable option. Delhi already has 21 per cent of its land area under roads, compared to only 11.5 per cent under green cover. Clearly, the future of urban transport cannot revolve around the private automobile; but if every attempt at improving public transport is termed “socialist”, “elitist”, or “rape”, this city may not have a future at all.

Aman Sethi

16 thoughts on “So what was that fuss about?”

  1. Great post Aman. I must say, many like me were also somewhat misled initially by the hysterical campaign by the Media. My overall sense was further reinforced by the disclosure that the research had been funded by Volvo and Tata, clearly interested parties in the game. This is something I am ambivalent about. The first inkling of a different possibilty came from my sister who is a journalist living in Saket and commutes by bus. She said her travel had become much easier and the time reduced from one and a half hours to about forty minutes. Your post actually puts the thing in perspective.
    One small point however. There was a time when soem of us had in Delhi begun to think of urban planning and public transport issues (in 1997/98) and from that time on, the campaigners for the BRT concept positioned their alternative in opposition to the Metro. Metro-bashing was a favourite pastime and we all partook of it – led by some of these experts. Today, i think the same anti-Metro rhetoric cannot continue. It has greatly eased commuting in the city and not only for ‘elites’ as was being argued by our BRT campaigners.

  2. Fantastic reading Aman. Somebody needs to say this in the mainstream media too. Just one comment about the term ‘the middle class’. I’ve been struggling with this term for some time since I wonder if it obfuscates more than it reveals. Who is the middle class? I know we all refer to it as a shorthand, and I broadly know who are being referred to. But what exactly is ‘middle’ about them? In a country like India, anybody who owns or even drives cars on a regular basis should probably be classified as upper class, including you and me. So is it the educated upper classes – the intelligentsia included – that we refer to as the middle class? My point simply is that the term ‘middle class’ may have come to exonerate and mask the enormous privilege that this class enjoys. It seems to defang the tiger, render it cute and bumbling, taking away the daily loot and plunder (private health, education, transport and employment) that this class enjoys. The term’s very elasticity (covering everybody from the government upper division clerk to Barkha Dutt, or film stars who often use this term to describe themselves) which we all find so useful and like I said, employ in our writing, may be blunting the critical edge of what we are saying. Also, we find ourselves in a curious situation wherein the upper upper class remains shadowy and outside the debate always, almost never becoming the target of our severest critique. You understand, these are as much questions I ask myself…

  3. My conversations with proponents of the BRTS did reveal a decided anti-metro stance; I think the issue does tend to become ideological at some point.

    But it could be argued that atleast part of the metro’s success could be attributed to the TINA (there is no alternative) factor. Bus systems tend to be cheaper – and if air conditioned – then as comfortable. They are also more flexible and provide better point to point connectivity. Its supporters also say that bus stops can be operated for a fraction of the energy costs of the Metro.
    As for construction costs, bus based systems cost about 10 crore per kilometer vs a whopping 200 crore per kilometre for underground train systems.

    According to one transport researcher i spoke to, a metro doesnt travel at much greater speeds than buses – the speed attained is a function of the acceleration -which for a vehicle carrying standing people – cannot exceed a certain safety limit (i think 1m/s/s. So speeds are a function of stopping frequency.

    Over the last few years, we have seen a moderation of both camps – with a consensus on what could be called the skeletal structure idea – where the metro provides the backbone and the buses provide the extensions.

  4. I agree completely about the metro versus buses debate. About the skeletal structure idea, apparently the London Transport Authority finally woke up to the wisdom of this system. It used the money made with the famous congestion charge recently levied on private vehicles coming into central London to completely revive the bus system. It works beautifully now, with an extensive, efficient bus network and the load on the metro lessened. As most will know, the London metro had become a nightmare previously with the kind of load it was expected to bear.

    In the case of Delhi, another very neglected solution as I read somewhere is the suburban rail network we have. Its quite extensive, includes very conveniently located stations and can actually be a very effective third arm of Delhi’s transport system.

  5. An article by Dinesh Mohan in the EPW – he is quite clearly in the pro-bus camp – says that rail riderships across the world are actually dropping as cities change and become more decentralised. Rail systems are unable to adapt to a changing city – something that buses are more adept at.
    Maybe the ring railway offers us lessons in this regard.

    However the latest news suggests that the Northern Railways shall be providing a special feeder service along the sewa nagar, lajpat nagar routes for crowds surging to watch the 2010 games at JNS stadium.

  6. I am a resident of the city of Hyderabad. For the last three years I have been associated with a campaign, called the Right to Walk , urging relevant authorities in the city’s administration to provide footpaths on roads and manned pedestrian crossings to ensure pedestrian safety.
    The core issues that the Right to Walk Foundation, is being established to address are:

    1. Do the Citizens of India have a Right to Walk?
    2. Whose Responsibility is it to Provide for and Maintain Footpaths?
    3. What is the Mandatory Width and Height of Footpaths?
    4. What are the Steps that the GHMC takes in Order to ensure that Encroachments, Littering and Urinating on Footpaths does not happen? (For example, does the GHMC take parking issues into account while issuing trade licenses?)
    5. What are the Facilities Provided for Pedestrians to cross a Road?
    6. What are the Facilities Provided for Commuters to use Public Transport?

    In order to realize the vision of the foundation, the issue of footpaths cannot be viewed in isolation. The Public Transport System, other issues of pedestrian safety such as safety in crossing roads etc. also need to be brought into focus. We are trying to contact automobile giants to help us forward in this Campaign.

    We understand and appreciate the fact that for the pollution levels to come down public transport usage has to be increased. For this to happen, the first step in transport, that is walking needs to be encouraged. In Hyd, either footpaths are missing or are completely encroached.

    Can you help us in propelling the Campaign forward?

    Regards
    Kanthi Kannan

    The Right to Walk Foundation
    http://www.right2walk.com

  7. Dear Kanthi,

    I am not sure of how you can move this campaign forward as I have little experience in organising campaigns. What i could suggests is that you isolate specific things that you would like to see done and then focus your energies on them.
    For example, if there is a specific pedestrian crossing that has lead to a number of accidents – you could use that as a rallying point with the local authorities and MLA to fix that particular problem. Once you have got one thing done, you can move onto another similarly specific project. You might find that each successfully completed project shall result in more people joining your campaign.
    I would advise against taking a purely judicial line on the issue. It might be counter productive to file a PIL.
    Finally, a note of caution on encroachments: I would careful about demanding a removal of all encroachments. Roadside vendors are a crucial part of a city’s economy – providing critical services for large numbers of people. Hence the issue of footpath space is something that needs to be thought of.

    Finally, it might be useful to also consider the case of those who are unable to walk. It might help if you can tie with a group that works with the differently abled -and perhaps conduct a campaign around making public spaces, footpaths, and bus shelters wheelchair friendly and safe for the visually impaired.

  8. Aha, so the CSE has a report by international transport specialist Dario Hidalgo on our BRT that may help to cut through some of the fuss:
    “Hidalgo points out: “The focus in Delhi has to shift towards reducing average person delay rather than vehicle delay.” He has studied the ‘wait time’ for all types of motor vehicles at the Chirag Delhi intersection. The results indicate that the wait time for cars and two-wheelers is 96 per cent of the total wait time, and affects 32 per cent of the people moving through the corridor.

    Compared to this, the wait time for a bus is only 4 per cent – but it affects a majority 68 per cent of the people as buses carry more. Therefore, future improvement in the management of the corridor should aim at increasing the throughput of people and not vehicles. The review shows that currently, while buses are just 2 per cent of all vehicles at the Chirag Delhi intersection during the morning peak hour, they move 55 per cent of the people. Cars and two-wheelers make up 75 per cent of the motorised fleet, but move merely 33 per cent of the people.

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