Thursday, June 07, 2012

Why BRT is Better for Future Urban Transport (WSJ)

From Wall Street Journal, June 6th, 2012

The push back against Delhi’s Bus Rapid Transit seems like an unnecessary waste of time and energy, just delaying the inevitable. This is because Delhi’s reliance on private cars, two-wheelers and even auto-rickshaws is not sustainable in the long-term. Here are some reasons why:

Fuel Prices:

Last month, petrol prices were raised 11.5% to 73.18 rupees per liter in Delhi. The outcry at this perceived attack on the “aam aadmi,” or common man (who anyway remains largely unaffected because he rides a bicycle), has been sizeable, and laughable at times. A Hindustan Times opinion piece says “its psychological impact… has been devastating. The night before [the price increase], long queues had formed at petrol pumps as if tanking up would save cars and two-wheelers from Armageddon.”

A recent policy brief by the American Public Transportation Association examines how public transportation “protects Americans [and everyone else] from gas price volatility.” While it states that an increase in petrol prices will cause a shift from automobiles (and other private modes) to public transport, a less obvious finding is that “the decline in ridership [on public transport] when gas prices fall is not as great as the increase in ridership when gas prices rise; the long-term effect is an increase in ridership.”

The price of fuel may fluctuate in the short term, now that it is a deregulated commodity. But ultimately fuel is a diminishing resource. It is elementary economics that as supply decreases (and demand increases), prices will rise. An efficient BRT in Delhi, which when implemented system-wide, would provide an attractive public transport alternative.

Congestion Pricing is Coming to Delhi:

In early 2010, under a Delhi High Court order, a Special Task Force was set up to study problems related to traffic congestion in the city. Among the subsequent proposals, congestion pricing was recommended for heavy vehicles entering Delhi and all vehicles entering certain congested parts of the city’s center and old quarter.
In December 2011, news broke that the Municipal Corporation of Delhi planned to charge car drivers 150 rupees ($2.70) and motorbike riders 50 rupees during the day (residents of congestion zones would be exempt in their area). Even though experts believe the plan would be difficult to implement in Delhi, it remains an option that may well be turned to in the future (or may manifest itself as an increased tax on fuel in the city).

Increase in Parking Fees:

The Special Task Force also recommended a re-evaluation of parking practices in Delhi. According to Anumita Roy Chowdhury, executive director of research and advocacy at the Center for Science and Environment, scarce urban land is being offered for parking, in what perpetuates a “hidden subsidy” to car owners. It also raises some equity concerns. “More land is allotted for one car slot while building a multilevel parking structure than to a low cost housing scheme for poor people. A car needs about 23 square meters to be comfortably parked, but a very poor family in Delhi gets a plot of just 18-25 square meters,” she said.

The National Urban Transport Policy also recommends that parking should be used as a restraint measure that discourages the use of private vehicles, thereby making public transport more attractive.
And the Delhi Government is looking into it. In early May, Delhi’s Transport Department posted a public notice inviting feedback on the proposal to increase parking fees. Existing fees range from about 10-20 rupees an hour, but the new proposal is to charge a fee of 50 rupees for the first three hours during peak times and 30 rupees for the first three off-peak hours. After this, every subsequent peak hour will cost 30 rupees, and every off-peak hour 20 rupees. The proposal also includes a monthly charge of 1,500 rupees for residents, who have been parking for free until now.

Finite Road Space:

Approximately 21% of Delhi’s land area is occupied by roads, which is among the highest worldwide, according to the task force. And with much of the city developed, there is very little scope for adding more. Additional roads do little to alleviate the problem anyway. Drivers are tempted to travel on the newest roads, soon bringing congestion levels back to where they were initially, and often even making them worse. The flyovers between AIIMS and Dhaula Kuan on the Ring Road illustrate this well. The only option now is to manage our traffic by prioritizing buses, which occupy only 2.5 times the road space that a car needs and carry up to 40 times as many people.


For those of us who sneeze and wheeze through Delhi, this is probably the most important reason. The Centre for Science and Environment last year said that the health of everyone who travels on urban roads regularly or lives near them is at serious risk.  “About 55% of Delhi’s population lives within 500 meters of such roads – and is therefore, prone to a variety of physical disorders,” it said.

With increasing car-ownership and congestion, and thanks to some good policies being put in place by the Delhi Government, it is going to get harder and more expensive to drive in Delhi. It would be smart to put our weight behind sustainable public transport. We need an efficient system that puts a network of buses running on dedicated lanes within an easy walking distance from our front doors, connected with an extended metro system.

If you do want to continue driving, despite the rising fuel prices, high parking fees and congestion charges, you should still support the BRT: it just may take some cars that are competing for space with you off the road. Now that is an outcome we should all be rooting for.

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