Just as in most things urban, so also in urban transport, the nation woke up after prolonged slumber to the necessity of public transport in cities. This was when the multiplicity of private motor vehicles began choking city roads, causing long traffic jams across cities. Government of India (GoI) came up with a National Urban Transport Policy (NUTP) in 2006 that emphasised public transport, recommended cities to prepare comprehensive mobility plans (CMP) and set up Unified Metropolitan Transport Authority (UMTA) for million-plus cities. GoI also launched the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JnNURM), a reform-based initiative of central financial assistance to urban local bodies (ULBs).
The Bus Rapid Transit System (BRTS) was woven into JnNURM. This was not a home-grown system. It was borrowed primarily from Latin American cities, in particular, Curitiba in Brazil, where BRTS was successful in providing a low-cost and quick-paced public transport service. The decision-makers in Delhi were impressed and decided to roll out the system in some Indian cities. BRTS projects for 422 kms were sanctioned for nine mission cities at a total cost of INR 4,770.86 cr. These cities were Pune, Pimpri Chinchwad, Indore, Bhopal, Ahmedabad, Jaipur, Vijayawada, Vizag, Rajkot, and Surat. Delhi BRTS was funded by the state. All of them did not start at the same time and BRTS approvals to these cities were spread out over a decade, starting 2006. Later Amritsar, Naya Raipur and Hubli Dharwad also joined in, the last two with World Bank loan.
BRTS approvals to Indian cities were spread out over a decade, starting 2006.
During the stage of construction of the BRTS, a number of problems began to be encountered. These, inter alia, related to design, exclusive right of way, accessibility to BRTS stations, issues of safety and adverse court rulings. At the stage of operation, additional issues of civic indiscipline, accidents, bus breakdowns, insufficient fleet, financial weaknesses of ULBs, and withdrawal of central support haunted the BRTS.
In regard to design, Curitiba, the Brazilian city fashioned BRTS stations at grade. This allowed customers to access the bus station without climbing up or down. Indian cities, weighed down by local issues, designed stations differently that made access for commuters difficult. The selection of BRTS lanes on either side of the road centre helped avoid interference with the multiple activities that take place in the lane next to the footpath. These comprise garbage vehicles picking up garbage, taxis and autos picking up and dropping passengers, commercial vehicles loading and unloading goods, parking and hawking. However, the choice of the lane closest to the median compelled BRTS passengers to cross half the road to reach the BRTS lane, putting passengers at risk of being knocked down by running motor vehicles. To avoid accidents, traffic signals were introduced for passenger-crossings. This led to the slow-down of vehicular traffic outside the BRTS lanes.
At the stage of operation, additional issues of civic indiscipline, accidents, bus breakdowns, insufficient fleet, financial weaknesses of ULBs, and withdrawal of central support haunted the BRTS.
Exclusive right of way for BRTS buses remained a pipedream, given the low levels of civic discipline in our cities. Car owners, auto drivers and motor cyclists invaded BRTS lanes with impunity. Such indiscipline caused many accidents. For instance, between 2016 and 2019, twenty-two accidents involving fatalities were reported in BRTS lanes in Ahmedabad. Pune reported similar accidents on the BRTS stretch. Cities were compelled to employ BRTS wardens to protect the right of way leading to increased costs of BRT operations. In Indore, a Division Bench of the High Court ruled in October 2013 that cars could use the BRT lanes as a temporary measure and appointed an expert committee to look into the matter of exclusive use of BRT lanes by BRT buses. This order was revisited by the Madhya Pradesh High Court in February 2015. It ordered, after considering the Expert Committee report that no other vehicle except BRT buses should operate in the BRT corridor in Indore. In the interim, the city faced much confusion.
While the cited glitches caused setbacks to BRTS, the key problem lay in the fragility of municipal finances, where the urban local bodies ran the BRTS. The GST subsumed many municipal taxes and property tax was virtually the only substantive tax ULBs were left with. While cities that went for the BRTS were initially provided capital to invest in new buses by GoI, this introductory central assistance no longer exists. ULBs are now on their own and are finding replacing ageing buses and adding new ones for increased population an uphill task. With inadequate and run-down fleets, the bus services in many BRTS cities have been caught up in a vicious circle of smaller fleets, fewer passengers and larger losses. In cities where bus services are being run by the states, the situation does not appear rosier, since states are also financially struggling and BRTS does not seem to be a priority.
Quite visibly, BRTS seems to have been overshadowed by its more glamorous kin — the metro.
In a situation of this kind, the BRTS is perceived as having largely failed in its objectives. It was expected that BRTS would wean passengers away from private vehicles to buses, since it would provide faster service at an affordable cost. Additionally, the lane reserved for the BRTS would move many times more people than private vehicles. For reasons stated above, none of these objectives fructified. Instead, BRTS was seen as monopolising rare road space and clogging non-BRTS lanes. Local councillors expressed serious reservations about BRTS. Yogesh Sasane, a Pune councillor remarked, “We consistently face traffic jams in Hadapsar. Citizens had long started using the BRTS lane. It was uselessly separated.” Siddharth Shirole, another councillor added, “I’ve maintained that BRTS won’t be of use till it has one bus available every five minutes.”
In the meanwhile, authorities throughout the country developed a new-found love for metros. Apart from Kolkata and Delhi that began metro construction before the arrival of BRTS, Bengaluru, Jaipur, Ahmedabad, Pune, Pimpri Chinchwad, Indore, Bhopal, Surat and Rajkot — all lined up to go in for metro. States were equally enthused and so was GoI. It extended INR 74,400 crores for metros and state governments extended their own support. Quite visibly, BRTS seems to have been overshadowed by its more glamorous kin — the metro.
The failure of BRTS is a warning signal for urban programmes crafted by GoI that ULBs are required to implement.
The sum effect of the aforementioned developments has been that after the initial all-round enthusiasm for BRTS, interest has rapidly waned. Only three cities (Pune, Surat and Ahmedabad) proceeded beyond the pilot phase. None of the BRTS cities was able to achieve the entire planned network length; none of them seem to be worried about it nor keen to plan ahead for any BRT expansion. Delhi has already disbanded its BRTS in 2016. Pune and Pimpri Chinchwad have followed. Additionally, BRTS cities are now struggling with a surfeit of public transport systems — the normal bus service, BRTS and the Metro. In the situation, they are silently keen to drop BRTS. However, it appears that in view of inconvenient questions that may be asked about public money invested in the BRTS, the system would be given a silent burial over a period of time. In any case, in a country with half a dozen mega cities, 50 metropolitan cities and more than 150 towns with populations above 300,000, BRTS in a dozen cities was a small initiative covering about 10 percent of the nation’s urban population and its disappearance may not be much noticed.
The failure of BRTS is a warning signal for urban programmes crafted by GoI that ULBs are required to implement. Initial assistance is no guarantee of permanency of the investment. Cities may not have the capacity to continue to run them once the source runs dry.
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