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.