Last year was a mixed bag for the public transport ecosystem in India, especially for the bus industry. It started with Delhi dismantling its bus rapid transit corridor in January. The “always in news” corridor, which became operational in 2008, was disowned mid-way by the previous Congress government and taken apart by the present Aam Aadmi Party regime owing to the perception that it caused huge traffic jams.

On the other hand, the Golden Temple city of Amritsar launched its own bus rapid transit corridor with Deputy Chief Minister Sukhbir Singh Badal inaugurating the first phase of the project in December. It was initially conceived as a Metro project but lack of demand, high cost and long construction time forced the state government to rethink the solution and come up with the bus corridor instead.

The BRT – a bus-based mass transit system – may still be debated in India and questions may be raised about its applicability, but the technology is not new. According to the website, there are 207 cities around the world transporting over 34 million passengers per day through about 5,500 km of BRT. While Latin America carries much of this demand in 69 cities, the second highest demand is in Asia, which has about 42 cities with such transport systems. Therefore, the BRT has proven the world to be a system that provides high-quality mass transit at a much lower cost than the Metro.

The shutting down of the Delhi corridor has impacted decision-making in other Indian cities as well. Bangalore and Bhubaneswar, which were in advanced stages of planning, held back on their decisions because of various reasons, including the widespread negative media reports in Delhi. The launch of the Amritsar BRT is, hence, very significant. While it is too early to analyse its success, the system is different from Delhi in three ways.

Corridor selection

Delhi was more like a bus corridor and not a full-fledged BRT. Therefore, it is unfair to compare all the other projects with the Delhi experiment.

The length of the operational pilot corridor was only 5.6 km, insignificant to make a tangible impact on the 58,000-odd commuters on buses using the corridor. On the other hand, the Amritsar corridor measures 31 km and is expected to transport over 100,000 passengers per day. The stretch from India Gate to Amritsar Railway Station, which would be completed by January-end in the first phase, measures 9.3 km – almost 70% more than the Delhi corridor and that too for a city with a much smaller trip length. The entire corridor is expected to be operational by March.

Operations planning

The Delhi corridor allowed any and every bus to use the system, resulting in a lack of operations planning and control. A World Resources Institute India-EMBARQ report found that the corridor experienced many setbacks in the initial months of operation. There were frequent breakdowns in the bus lanes, confusion over bus entry and exit points, jaywalking, faulty traffic signals, and severe congestion in the motor vehicle lane that led to a huge media outcry and customer dissatisfaction.

Amritsar, on the other hand, is designed as a closed system with only 93 dedicated buses running at four-minute intervals, with off-board ticketing. It will be operated by a centralised control system.

Branding and marketing

Delhi has one of the highest road densities in India at around 17 km per square km of area. Yet, going by the media coverage then, it appeared all of the city’s traffic problems were confined to the 5.6-km corridor.

Even with all its limitations, the Delhi BRT provided better mobility to bus users as their average travel time decreased 35% on the dedicated corridor and a majority of them (88%) reported they were happy with the system, according to the WRI India-EMBARQ report. The problem with Delhi was that these benefits were never effectively communicated. However, the voices of the minority road users in cars, stuck in traffic while the buses zipped past, reached the media regularly.

Amritsar, on the other hand, started marketing the system by first branding it differently, calling it Metro Bus. Secondly, before going into full-fledged operations, it conducted a trial run that not only addressed teething troubles but also helped market the system to a larger audience.

Bus to the future

Indian cities are large and complex compared to their Western counterparts, and are constantly growing. No single transport solution can possibly meet their needs. However, buses will continue to be their main mode of transport as bus-based systems can be designed as both simple as well as complex, depending on the need. In every case, these systems need to be easily integrated into and become a valuable part of the overall mobility system of any city.

While Delhi may have scrapped its BRT corridor, giving priority to buses is still relevant to it. This was reinforced by the Delhi High Court in October 2012, when in a landmark ruling it endorsed the bus corridor while dismissing a plea to scrap it, saying almost 70% of bus users were moving faster as a result of it and bus ridership had increased to over 32%. Quoting economist and former Bogota mayor Gustavo Petro, the high court judge had then said, “A developed country is not one where the poor own cars. It is one where the rich use public transport.”

Delhi cannot afford to miss the BRT bus and as it plans to bring back a new and improved bus corridor, it needs to take a relook at what went wrong and plan for a system that is more robust. Because the BRT may have gone from Delhi, but the traffic jams persist.

Amit Bhatt is Director, Integrated Transport, with WRI India.