Bus Rapid Transit: A Tale of Three Cities

Bus Rapid Transit: A Tale of Three Cities

by Transport Niti - Feb 6, 2015 05:39 PM +05:30 IST
Bus Rapid Transit: A Tale of Three Cities

The hits and misses of the BRT system in three Indian Cities-Pune, Ahmedabad and Delhi

The word BRT evokes strong emotions depending on which city you live in. While Delhiites and Puneites are likely to go to war with you if you utter ‘BRT’ in public, Amdavadis on the other hand take great pride in Janmarg, the BRT system that’s won them worldwide acclaim.  The aversion to BRT in Delhi and Pune is borne out of a) wrong priorities, and 2) poor implementation of a good concept.

Bus Rapid Transit: A Tale of Three Cities

Wrong priorities – For years, an impression has been created that the primary purpose of roads is to enable smooth movement of vehicles as against moving people efficiently. This has created a sense of entitlement among vehicle users that they have the first right on roads.

In reality, only 30% of total trips are undertaken by personal vehicles in our Tier 1 cities. In Delhi, only 20% of total trips are taken by personal modes and 43% by public transport. These statistics did not deter vehicle users to legally challenge the implementation of the Delhi BRT.

Although the HC ruled in favour of the BRT eventually, its initial ruling forced the Delhi government to allow private vehicles to use lanes reserved for buses, destroying the very essence of BRT – providing priority to a mode that can move more people while occupying less space.

Source: MoUD,2007
Source: MoUD,2007

While Delhi’s car and two-wheeler users have no case against reserving a lane for buses when there are two bus users for every car and two-wheeler user, their counterparts in Pune (and Ahmedabad to a lesser extent) could argue that they outnumber public transport users 4 to 1 and hence should not have to yield space to buses in their respective cities.

It is fine if a city wants to be an automobile-oriented one but the citizens of such cities must be made aware of the consequences.

Source: MoUD,2007
Source: MoUD,2007

Puneites will agree that their city is severely congested and doing nothing is not a solution. Pune then could either widen its roads or invest in a mass rapid transit system that doesn’t force them reserve space for mass transit, i.e., building an underground Metro rail system.

Even if a road is widened, it must be noted that every new lane can accommodate only an additional 1,290 passenger car units (PCU) per hour (a two-wheeler is considered to be 0.5 to 0.75 PCUs).  According to the Pune RTO, the city added 1.44 Lakh two-wheelers and 42,800 cars in the financial year 2013-14. Of course, not all of these new vehicles would’ve travelled on the city’s roads during the same hour.

Let’s assume that just 10% (or 14,400 two-wheelers and 4,280 cars), or 15,080 PCU of these newly registered vehicles will use the city’s roads during the rush hour.  To accommodate these 15,080 PCEs, the city will need the equivalent of up to 12 additional lanes each year on its road if the growth in automobile ownership continues at the current rate.

This is a conservative estimate because when you add traffic signals to the mix, the capacity of roads can drop from 1,290 PCE/hour to 500-800 PCE/hour. So, if the city decides to adopt an automobile-oriented approach it must realize that it would have to lose land available for productive activity such as industries, malls, offices, and even residences, to accommodate additional lanes every year.

One option to overcome this problem would be to spread horizontally but that will result in longer trip distances which has a positive correlation (along with an established causal relationship) with congestion and emissions.

The US adopted this approach and is beginning to realize that automobile-oriented suburban model of development is not economically and environmentally sustainable. It eventually leads to increase in non-productive spaces (parking and roads) and shortage of productive areas.

Use of personal modes of travel is an inefficient and outdated way of moving people. In the absence of good alternatives in our cities, it unfortunately becomes the only option available for people who can afford cars and two-wheelers.

To be fair, not all Puneites want an automobile-oriented development approach if anecdotal evidence is anything to go by.  Going by newspaper reports on such matters, there is overwhelming consensus amongst Puneites that everyone else in the city should be using Public Transport.

They are all for public transport but don’t want it getting in the way of their cars and two-wheelers. Some NGOs in the city, are of the opinion that the city should buy more buses instead of building a Metro or BRT.

The arguments are purely financial in nature and unfortunately ignore the finer aspects that influence individuals’ decision making process in choosing a mode of travel. Considering that most commuters make rational decisions, between a bus and personal mode, why would anyone choose former?

It boils down to several ‘costs’. Some of the most important ‘costs’ that weigh on a commuters mind include door-to-door travel time, comfort, safety, and reliability. The city buying more buses offers just one benefit; it reduces the frequencies at which buses ply but does not reduce rest of the ‘costs’.

While frequency has some effect on door-to-door journey time and reliability, it still doesn’t make public transport attractive for car users. One must appreciate the fact that car and two-wheeler users are choice riders. They do not have to ride the bus because they have a better option especially if the bus is going to get stuck in the same traffic jam. Captive riders on the other hand are those, who do not contribute to congestion at all because they cannot afford personal modes of transport and hence take the bus.

Bus Rapid Transit: A Tale of Three Cities

Increasing the number of buses reduces the time spent waiting for a bus at a stop for captive riders who regardless of the frequency would’ve taken the bus. As a result, increasing the number of buses improves their journey experience but does almost nothing to reduce congestion (i.e., reduce number of vehicles on the road).

Buying better buses works in a similar manner in that it improves the comfort levels of existing users but does not reduce the door-to-door travel time. However, if the bus becomes more competitive in terms of travel time, reliability and comfort, choice riders would be more likely to use it.

The only way really to give public transport a distinct advantage is by giving it a separate lane. A separate lane alone however is not what constitutes a BRT, a mistake both Pune and Delhi made when they attempted to implement BRT.

Poor Implementation – The promoters of the Pune and Delhi BRT had their hearts in the right place but unfortunately failed to build it right, Pune more so than Delhi. To understand what went wrong with Pune and Delhi BRT, one must appreciate the finer nuances of BRT.

BRTS for all practical purposes is LRT/Metro on rubber wheels that provides door to door connectivity (not just station to station). The Institute for Transportation Development and Development Policy (ITDP), a research, consultancy and advocacy organization, has developed a scoring methodology to rank BRT systems around the world.

Depending on the score out of 100, BRT systems are categorized as Gold Standard (85 or more), Silver Standard (70 to 84), Bronze Standard (55 to 69), and BRT Basic (18 to 54), 18 being the minimum score required for a system to be even considered for further evaluation.

While ITDP doesn’t report a score for Pune, it gave Delhi (Moolchand – Ambedkar Nagar corridor) a score of 30 which gives it a rating of Basic BRT. Ahmedabad’s BRT (Janmarg) got scores of 68 (Bronze) and 72 (Silver) for its RTO-Maninagar and Narol-Naroda corridors.

The categories on which these BRT systems were evaluated is shown in the table below along with a breakdown of scores received by the Delhi and Ahmedabad BRT systems under each evaluation category. It is not clear if the Pune BRT was evaluated by ITDP but it is quite likely that it did not score adequate points to qualify for an evaluation.

Source: ITDP 2013 BRT Scores
Source: ITDP 2013 BRT Scores

The BRT corridors in both Delhi and Pune were deemed as failures primarily due to planning and design flaws such as discontinuous bus lanes, lack of access to bus stops, non-segregation of ordinary and BRT buses, poor enforcement, and inefficient intersection treatment.

In the case of Delhi’s BRT, certain key elements required to make a BRT function like a quality mass transit system were found missing. These include:

1. Off-board Fare Collection System: Since BRT is often confused with buses on dedicated lanes, they end up getting facilities that are usually provided for ordinary buses. This includes buying a ticket from the conductor instead of scanning ones card at a turnstile like the ones used for rail bases systems.

Delhi didn’t provide any off-board fare collection systems but Ahmedabad did. Off-board fare collection system save considerable amount of time and just makes the entire journey more reliable and convenient. It is strange that Delhi already had a similar mechanism in place for the Metro but it didn’t extend it for the BRT. It wouldn’t have been difficult for the BRT and Metro fare system to be integrated with a common prepaid card.

2. Intersection Treatments: Intersections are the bottlenecks along all arterials. It is at the intersection that all delays are incurred and hence require special attention in design and operations. With BRT thrown in the mix, signalized intersections especially must be designed to provide priority to BRT buses without causing undue delays for general traffic.

While Delhi and Ahmedabad both installed signal priority measures at intersections, the former made an engineering error – it chose extremely long signal cycles (the total time it takes for a signal to serve all movements). Long signal cycles tend to build up traffic similar to how a landslide which first blocks a river and then gives way leading to flooding. Indian cities are notorious for operating their signals with outrageously long cycle lengths.

3. Service Planning: Delhi BRT also suffered from inefficient service frequencies resulting in long wait times during both the peak and off-peak hours.

4. Overall Design: Delhi’s BRT did not provide passing lanes (overtaking lanes) at BRT stations and hence requiring all BRT buses to stop at stations even if they weren’t meant to, just because the bus in front had to stop. Other design problems included poor pavement quality, and location to stations in relation to the intersections.

5. Station Design: Delhi’s BRT stations also scored poorly on account of neglecting safety and comfort, factors that have significant impact on choice riders. Commuters are known to overestimate their wait times at bus stops by as much as four to five times.

A station’s design can often mitigate this inherent limitation associated with mass transit. It is therefore important to build and brand BRT stations differently from those meant for regular city buses. By all accounts, Delhi BRT’s stations were never designed to attract the choice rider, the white collar employee of an MNC.

6. Quality of Service: Finally, Delhi BRT also fared poorly on factors that have the biggest influence on choice riders. These include unsafe access to BRT stations and overcrowded buses, factors which dissuade most white-collar commuters from relying on public transport.

So, what Delhi BRT did was just improve the service for existing riders and some new ones without attracting choice riders who continued to drive their cars, albeit on narrower roads.

If a similar evaluation were to be done on Pune’s pilot BRT project, we’re likely to find that it suffers from more problems compared to Delhi. Embarq, another advocacy and consultancy organization active in India and abroad, did evaluate the Pune BRT and gave it a score of 18% which shouldn’t surprise anyone.

The biggest problem with Pune’s pilot project was that it was a ‘pilot project’. No transportation mode would succeed if it’s built on a pilot basis. The wheel would’ve been a colossal failure had its inventors decided to build a quarter of a wheel as a pilot project.

Similarly, BRT or any transportation system for that matter, must be built holistically taking into account areas that generate traffic (residential areas) and areas that attract that traffic (job centers, shopping areas, etc.) with the intention of provide quality door-to-door service.

Unfortunately, Pune and Delhi BRT seem to have been done designed to provide station-to-station service. It is no surprise then that these projects failed to reduce congestion in Delhi and Pune.

The other problem with the pilot project was that it only provided an improved bus service for captive riders and did nothing to attract choice riders, much like Delhi.

Bus Rapid Transit: A Tale of Three Cities

Fortunately, Pune seems to have learnt its lessons and is now building a comprehensive network of BRT across the city especially in the industrial suburb of Pimpree-Chinchward. The new BRT includes central stations, off-board fare collection, sliding doors to channel passengers into the bus in a more organized manner, and more importantly, level boarding.

Level boarding is a key component of a BRT and allows of quicker boarding and alighting resembling the flow of pedestrians in and out of a Metro coach. Without level boarding, each passenger takes longer to board/alight which increases the time that bus has to stop at a station.

Level boarding shaves off vital seconds per passenger per station resulting in more efficient bus journeys. Having said that, even the new BRT stations in Pune do not seem to be designed for the choice rider and do not have continuous footpaths to and from the BRT stations.

As Ahmedabad and two hundred other cities worldwide have demonstrated, BRT is an excellent mass transport solution that provides the benefits of a Metro system at one tenth the cost and there is no reason for Tier 2 cities to build expensive Metro rail systems before considering a BRT network.

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