For the vast majority of residents in Indian cities, public transit is the only practical means to access education, employment and public services. This becomes more important when public services are beyond the viable distance of walking or cycling.

While there are bus systems to cater to this need, they often miss out on the two parameters that matter the most – reliability and speed.

This is where the Bus Rapid Transit system comes in.

The Bus Rapid Transit system is a high-quality set-up that delivers fast, comfortable and cost-effective services by providing dedicated laneways for buses. It comprises busways and stations typically aligned to the centre of the road, off-board fare collection, and fast and frequent operations.

Think of it as a bus network with Metro-level infrastructural setup and capabilities, except that it is on-ground, making it even more accessible. Why don’t more Indian cities have this transit system?

Some fail, others succeed

In 2008, Delhi opened its first Bus Rapid Transit line, designed to be a 5.7-km corridor that would transport 12,000 passengers per hour, in South Delhi. By 2016, the city government decided to scrap the project altogether. There were important reasons for that.

First, the dedicated bus lane was only 5.6 km-long, after which the buses would re-enter regular traffic. This corridor was always going to be too small to test, as the average route length for a passenger in Delhi was approximately 10 km. Plans to extend the corridor to 14 km were never implemented.

Second, the dedicated bus lane was essentially a free-for-all lane. It was left open to buses of all sizes, utility, and forms. For some time, it was even open to cars and two-wheelers. Unsurprisingly, this added to traffic congestion instead of solving it.

Despite this, the Delhi Bus Rapid Transit system was able to transport 12,000 passengers per hour per direction, though at a grinding speed of 13 km per hour. This was an indication that while the transit system was doing its job, lane congestion was hindering its performance.

Finally, there is an elitist bias in the city that protects those in cars and takes space away from walkers, cyclists, and bus-users. As the Delhi Bus Rapid Transit corridor was hit by snags, a public relations crisis unfolded. There was negative media coverage and a public outcry against the corridor, primarily by rich people in cars. Newspapers railed against the Bus Rapid Transit system, pushing to “scrap this trap”.

A bus takes up twice the space of a car but can carry 20 times as many people. Delhi’s bus ridership is estimated to be about 40 lakh people per day, according to figures available from 2018. To blame the bus rapid system for traffic congestion is counter-intuitive.

Some Indian cities have successfully implemented the Bus Rapid Transit system – Indore, Ahmedabad, Surat and Hubli Dharwad, among them. What did these cities do right that the others can learn from them?

Urban transport specialist Prashant Bachu, in a memo last June, highlighted how Indore was able to implement an 11.5-km Bus Rapid Transit corridor in mid-2013 despite seven years of public opposition. Since then, Indore’s iBus has seen a 700% increase in passenger ridership, Bachu says. The bus service has also managed to breakeven operationally, with the highest earning per kilometre in the entire country, according to Bachu.

Indore’s Bus Rapid Transit corridor was built and maintained along the busiest road that cuts across the city, unlike other cities where they were built along roads where it was easiest to do so. The iBus operated at high frequency, even when there few users in the early stages. Fares were kept low, with the minimum being Rs 5.

Finally, a well-crafted communication strategy helped overcome the scepticism. This involved project branding, free trial runs and citizen sensitisation campaigns, among other things. While Indore is a much smaller city than Delhi, there are lessons to be learnt from the iBus system.

The benefits

A reliable and affordable bus system with reasonably good quality, if implemented well, could reduce emission levels, make individual lifestyles more active and generate significant revenue. In cities like Delhi or Gurugram, which experience consistently high levels of pollution and traffic congestion, it is imperative that the quality public transport is prioritised as a leading form of mobility.

How can such dedicated bus transit systems generate a profit? “The magic wand lies in attracting low distance passengers whilst continuing to provide an affordable service,” said Bachu. Providing a service with a high frequency of buses – with a minimum fare of Rs 5 – will attract passengers who have to travel shorter distances.

By combining frequency with affordability, the volume of people using the service would increase significantly, as seen in Indore. A route operating at a higher frequency attracts a larger ridership due to the confidence of availability, without any wait time.

A standard bus with a 60-person capacity, running at a 70% occupancy ratio, translates to a fare of approximately Rs 50 per km. Then, there is the advertising capacity of a Bus Rapid Transport system – inside the bus, on the bus and at the stations. The revenue generated can be between Rs 55-Rs 60 per km. Indore, before the lockdown, with similar policies in place, was able to generate Rs 104 per km.

As noted earlier, one problem with the Delhi project was its slow speed of 13 km per hour. If a proper corridor is provided, 20% more passengers could be catered to at the same initial fixed cost. This would also reduce the maintenance and staff costs, as buses would travel greater distances in the same period, while drivers travel longer distances at the same salary.

When it comes to traffic congestion, it is important to recognise that a Bus Rapid Transit system must be a network, just like the Metro. There needs to be a minimum of one bus every two minutes – ideally every minute – catering to at least 1,800 passengers per hour per direction.

Taking the initiative

Transport expert Dario Hidalg, who was also part of the agency that built the Bus Rapid Transit system in Bogota, Columbia, explained it was not just a technological leap, but an institutional transformation, that led to the success of the project – the world’s largest network. Called TransMilenio, it has been running for over 20 years.

Buses ply on the TransMilenio system in Bogota, Columbia. Credit: Mariordo (Mario Roberto Durán Ortiz), CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

The mayor of Bogota, Enrique Penalosa, was a leading figure in pushing for the Bus Rapid Transit system.

The project was built on private-public partnerships. The national government of Columbia and the District of Bogota have already spent over $750 million to develop and sustain TransMilenio.

Indian cities need to learn from Bus Rapid Transit systems such as those of Bogota and Indore. Public relations campaigns, like the one run in Indore, should also be run to bring awareness among citizens. Private transport must not be incentivised and focus should be shifted to public transport.

The lessons from previous mistakes and success stories should be incorporated to create a new and improved Bus Rapid Transit system for the future. As Hidalgo said, it takes initiative. Without that, the failure of such a system is inevitable.

Akash V Basu is an Associate at Raahgiri Foundation. Sarika Panda Bhatt is a Director at Nagarro.