Monday, August 13, 2012

Against Public Interest - Undermining BRT in Delhi, India

From Economic Political Weekly, August, 2012

One of the objectives of the 2006 National Urban Transport Policy was to “encourage greater use of public transport”. Yet, at times governments and even the judiciary seem to go out of their way to infl ict injury on the few initiatives that are taken to facilitate public transport.

Take the case of the 5.8 km Bus Rapid Transport (BRT) corridor in New Delhi. This is a project that was more than a decade in the making and went through many layers of discussion and assessment before the first stretch was made operational in 2008. For reasons that remain unknown and can only be said to be the voice of the car lobby at work, two years ago a section of the media ignored the benefi ts to those who travelled by bus and attacked the project in a crude fashion claiming that it would slow vehicle movement in the project stretch. The Delhi government chose not to respond purposively to this senseless and high voltage attack on the BRT and instead put its expansion on hold. Now, in a strange decision the Delhi High Court first admitted a public interest litigation (PIL) against the BRT and then, on the basis of a poorly conducted study, has passed interim orders allowing private vehicles to ply on the dedicated bus lanes. What hope then for public transport in the country if these are the developments in the capital?

By all accounts the corridor is popular among users of public transport – who constitute, according to various studies, more than half of all road users – since it enables them to travel faster and more safely through dedicated lanes. It is not surprising that in these selfi sh times the relatively well-off in their cars have taken umbrage at their less-fortunate fellow citizens being able to travel smoothly in buses.

If it was bad enough that the court admitted a PIL petition on the BRT, what was worse was its ready acceptance of what is by any standard a very weak study of the Central Road Research Institute (CRRI). The CRRI evaluation of the Delhi bus corridor, which was commissioned by the Delhi High Court, was either carelessly prepared or was designed and executed to come up with conclusions favouring the arguments of the petitioner.

The CRRI study is so full of holes that it is diffi cult to believe that this is the work of a research institution. For instance, in its comparison of traffic movement in the BRT corridor with three other
arteries in Delhi, the agency did not care to see that it had to isolate the variable studied from all other aspects of traffi c movement.

Instead of studying a single variable, it compared a bunch of interrelated factors – vehicle speeds (of buses and cars), vehicle movement and emissions. What is more, the CRRI ignored the fact that bus occupancy rates vary during the day much more than of cars, and went ahead and used “average” occupancy rates to measure the volume of (people) movement – thereby tipping the comparison in favour of cars. Most egregious was the use of average incomes of different kinds of road users to measure the value of time lost/gained on the BRT. With such an approach, the value of the time lost by one wealthy occupant of a slowing BMW could well exceed the value of the time gained by a bus full of low and middle-income users. Are we or are we not equal citizens? And, yet, the court on the basis of this “study” gave a direction last month to let private vehicles travel on the BRT until it gave its fi nal orders.

Concerns have also been expressed about the placement of the bus lanes in the centre, which, it has been claimed, has made it diffi cult for commuters to cross busy roads. But this too is off the mark, for placing the bus lanes in the centre ensures that commuters have equal access to either side of the road when they alight or disembark, something that would not have been possible if the BRT lanes had been placed on the left.

The BRT project is in line with urban transport programmes elsewhere in the world that strive for greater effi ciency and use by a larger number of commuters. It is no one’s argument that the BRT in Delhi is perfect. But if the court, in its fi nal orders, were to rely on a single poorly conducted study and allow private vehicles to use what are supposed to be lanes dedicated for rapid movement of buses, it will be striking a serious blow against public transport.

If experiments like the Delhi BRT are destroyed at the very beginning, a wrong message would be sent to all the cities that are struggling to provide better public transport facilities.

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