India: Delhi's exorbitant public transport failure

Buses ply on the road as commuters are stuck in a traffic jam at the Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) corridor in New Delhi, on April 27, 2008.</p>

Buses ply on the road as commuters are stuck in a traffic jam at the Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) corridor in New Delhi, on April 27, 2008.

After a new report debunked its claims that the hopelessly flawed Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) corridor has speeded up bus travel and reduced accidents in the city, the Delhi government has pleaded that the project cannot be scrapped lest its failure affect other transit systems planned around the country.

Absurd? That's the sort of logic that the BRT has been following since it was first suggested.

I'll get into the new Central Road Research Institute (CRRI) report in a moment. But here are the real reasons that the BRT has been a complete failure.

1. They built it in the wrong place.

The not-so-secret agenda of the BRT planners was to convince middle class commuters to shift from cars to the bus, so they put the first route smack in the middle of wealthy South Delhi, which has a greater percentage of car owners than any other part of the city, as well as (once) some of its widest and therefore least congested roads.  This meant that the system was going to irritate a powerful lobby from the outset, and also that its usefulness to the lower class / lower middle class bus riders would not be immediately evident. 

2. They started a "trial run" when the thing was half-finished.

This was an incredibly boneheaded move, because it ensured that there would be no upside to the corridor. The jams were particularly bad where the bus lanes began -- an obvious bottleneck -- and because the corridor didn't actually deliver riders to their destination, even for bus goeers it was essentially a short, smooth ride in between the usual stop-and-go.

3. They didn't increase the number / frequency of buses.

Leave it to engineers who don't commute by bus to miss the one crucial fact about bus travel: It's not the bus ride that takes forever, it's waiting for the bus to come in the first place. So when the BRT opened for business, car owners would sit -- parked, for all intents and purposes -- in the car lane, waiting for 15 or 20 minutes before a bus would whiz by in the empty "rapid transit" corridor. 

4. They didn't link the thing to the Metro.

Indian readers will recall that the BRT began amid a slanging match over whether buses or a subway system was the most practical a cost-effective way to convert Delhi to a public transportation city. This was stupid, since the answer was "all of the above." But it also meant that the BRT and the Metro essentially developed independent from one another. If the first leg of the BRT had taken riders directly to a major Metro exchange, both systems might have leveraged added riders. And the BRT, in particular, might have gotten a boost from the Metro's street cred with the middle class.

5. There was no stick and no carrot.

Not only was the BRT not actually faster than taking your car or bike -- since you'd have to first get to the BRT line, which lacked the commuter parking lots present at Metro stations. But apart from the traffic jams that it created, there was no punishment for continuing to drive: Parking fees remain as low as 20 U.S. cents an hour (or unlimited period) in many high-traffic areas; license fees for cars are low, and not collected annually; the cops rarely issue parking tickets or tow cars; and there is no charge for bringing your car into the city center, such as exists in London or Singapore.

So what's the result?

According to CRRI, 'a lack of a proper bus route rationalization has meant that buses cluster on the BRT stretch, with only four-five passengers boarding or alighting per bus, but the government data shows a huge number of passengers plying on the stretch. This, the report notes, "is obviously boosting the passengers per hour per direction (PPHPD) drastically and thus presenting an exaggerated figure",' the Times of India reports.

Moreover, "A comparison of the available road crash data indicates that there is an increase of 40% in the number of fatal road crashes coupled with 48% increase in the number of fatalities. At the same time, the number of simple/injurious road crashes reported by the traffic police has registered an increase of 7%."

And comparing the normal BRT non-functioning to an experimental run in recent weeks, in which the bus lane was thrown open for everybody, the CRRI also found that the thing was bad for the environment.

"The amount of fuel consumed on the stretch has also been calculated by the CRRI study. It found that the idling at intersections led to losses of 78-139ml in the case of petrol cars while in the case of diesel, it was between 72-217ml across different time periods of the day. The amount of fuel lost ranged between 2% and 45%, says the report, with the maximum quantum wastage being recorded on the stretch between Sheikh Sarai to Chirag Dilli, varying in the range of 17%-41% during the day. The time lost in idling was from 37%-60%."

So much for green transport.