Wednesday, December 17, 2008

before you scrap it....

I was one of the first to blast the BRT (bus rapid transit system, for those of you in the USA) as an ill-conceived disaster. But now that Sheila Dikshit has been re-elected and parliament is calling for the BRT to be scrapped, I'm starting to think that we ought to consider carefully before we bring out the bulldozers. The reason: Whatever India's strengths, getting things right the first time has never been one of them.

Most of the commentary on the BRT has been motivated by the very justified desire to kill the thing. I hate it, too. And I'm angry every time I have to make my bizarre, circuitous detour to avoid it (U-turn under the Savitri flyover, cut left across traffic to cut through GKI M-Block market, and then down past Archana and N-Block to the LSR road). But because of this hatred, and because none of the people who write about these things actually ride the bus, my suspicion is that we're all missing some major points.

Yes, the BRT was badly designed, or badly built if it was not built to specs. But it is foolish to look at it and say that we've made 4 car lanes into 2, or that this route takes ten times the traffic that the model in Bogota handles. The reason is that the BRT was designed not only to make life easier for the poor people who have to fight Delhi's miserable bus system every day, but also to encourage people to give up their cars and ride the bus.

Yes, in retrospect this seems like an absurd goal (OK - even beforehand it seemed ludicrously unlikely). But because everybody has been intent on pointing out the obvious reasons that the BRT makes life hell for car owners, there are several reasons that it has failed that nobody (or at least very few people) have pointed out. And these are the most important ones.

First, the BRT doesn't go anywhere. Yes, it gets you from the Outer Ring Road to Defence Colony, and once it was dreamed it would get you all the way to ITO. But how were you supposed to get to the bus stop on the Ring Road? How were you supposed to get from ITO to your final destination? By DTC or Blueline bus? By auto? Dropped by private car? No public transportation system will win over people who own cars until it becomes more convenient and/or significantly cheaper than driving. Right now, neither the BRT/bus system nor the Metro is either, except, in the case of the Metro, for a lucky few who both live and work near stations. The BRT planners got it half right -- they made it miserable to drive your car. But they didn't make it pleasant enough to ride the bus.

Second, there aren't enough buses. The point of dedicating a lane to buses is not to allow them to whoosh down the road at 70 km per hour like the white Ambassadors with the red lights on top. The point is to move the maximum number of people down the road in the shortest possible time. All measures of the time it takes to go down the route--dutifully reported in the press--are therefore irrelevant. As anybody who rides the bus anywhere in the world knows, it's not the time you spend IN the bus that matters; it's the time you spend WAITING for the bus. This shortage of buses is also a major reason why the guys (like me) sitting in traffic in their cars hate the system so much: the bus lane is always empty. If there were buses cruising down it and passing me every 15 seconds, it wouldn't look like a wasted lane.

And if those buses could actually take me somewhere I wanted to go, and I could get to the bus stop conveniently from my house, I'd happily give up my car.

1 comment:

Perakath said...

The government's response to the issues you speak of is that they can only be solved by building more BRTs!!

I must say, I will never give up my car as long as I live, and there are MILLIONS of Delhiites who feel like I do. The BRT effort may be well-meaning, but it's misguided. I think the Metro is the way forward, although even its usefulness will be limited for as long as they shut it down so early in the night. When I go out at night I usually get home around 2 or 3 am, and if the Metro ran even one train every half-hour at those hours, I'd take it. But the option doesn't exist.