Tuesday, April 22, 2008

brt: what is it for?

According to the newspapers and TV channels, Delhi's newly opened Bus Rapid Transit System (or BRTS) has already been a dismal failure. The move to build separate lanes and bus stops in the center of the road for buses, so they don't have to weave back and forth amid the bicyclists, pedestrians and delivery carts to make their stops, has done nothing to relieve traffic congestion in the car lanes. But was that ever what it was intended to do?

From the outset, we've heard that the BRTS would be all things to all people. First, it was supposed to relieve congestion on the route and make things safer for bicyclists and pedestrians by reining in the (mad) bus drivers and encouraging car drivers to opt for public transport instead. Then, Post-Nano, it was the solution to Delhi's air pollution woes, a feat that can only be accomplished by reducing the number of drivers. Then, when the anti-Metro lobby got ahold of the idea, it was supposed to be a more equitable and humane form of transport for the millions of poor people who presently are at the mercy of the Bluelines and DTC, which hasn't upgraded its fleet in eons despite (I believe) a Supreme Court edict ordering it to do so.

Was it ever possible that it could accomplish all these things while simultaneously making the way faster and smoother for cars? Of course not. When you reduce the number of lanes from three to two, traffic slows down. That is an inescapable rule of urban planning. In order to ease congestion, the BRT essentially has to force people to give up their cars and take the bus. And because there are no other measures to do so--such as high license fees, restrictions on entering the city center, etc--the only way to do that is to MAKE CONGESTION WORSE.

Now the bus takes 30 minutes to do the route it takes you an hour and a half by car. We shouldn't be surprised. That was exactly what the BRT was designed to accomplish. But is it a good thing? Should the city be designed to improve the lives of the greatest number of people, or for the people who have money? Chaos has surely resulted. But maybe it is the kind of chaos that Delhi needs--lest we spend the tax money intended to develop the country building air-conditioned passages from every posh South Delhi house to every elite shopping mall and five-star hotel.

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