Monday, August 13, 2012

Breaking the Habit

BRTS & the Cities of India

By Abdul Bari
Pedestrian & Public Transport User,
Architect Urban Designer

One wonders, what makes certain things work in one city and fail miserably in another. It may still be comprehensible to the casual mind if it were cities in different countries or continents we were talking about, but when it comes to cities in the same country it needs some pondering.

There were recent news reports on how well the Ahmadabad BRTS was doing, and on how it has gained public acceptance gradually, but steadily, among the higher classes of its people. It had some mind-boggling figures to the tune of 23% bikers, 25% auto rickshaw users and 3% car users shifting to the BRTS for their daily commute! That is quite an achievement for a new concept to get such a city-wide acceptance. Though it wasn’t a piece of cake, as we can imagine, but still having gone through the initial doubts and criticisms it is now well on its way to spread its network. And it won’t be long before it becomes a city habit.

And then we have the Delhi BRTS, with its criticisms and court appeals. Being a daily commuter on Delhi’s only BRT corridor I couldn’t help appreciating the meticulousness that is apparent in its design and execution. And even maintenance. Yet for all it’s worth the bus I take still doesn’t take the lane designed specifically for it, nor does it alight by the bus shelter that is designed for it in the middle of the corridor. There was a court order a few days back allowing mixed traffic on all lanes of the corridor, but why should that stop buses from using the lanes that have been designed for them? The BRT has apparently reported 32% increase in bus ridership, but somehow this figure has no impact on its wide-scale public acceptance or support.

The most common justification we hear on this difference between two cities getting such varied public responses within the same country, is that the Delhi BRTS is an open system while that of Ahmadabad in a closed one. This means, Delhi BRTS allows traffic from the non-BRTS road network to mingle with it at various points. My personal experience with this; I would wait for the bus to enter the BRT corridor because it would mean faster unhindered travel, and dread re-entering the conventional road network because that would mean unpredictability. The reason I use that word is; and i am sure people who have been in organized traffic in foreign countries will mostly agree, that it is the most important thing about road traffic. If one can predict how long it is going to take to negotiate it, then that is a hundred times better than not knowing when you will be relieved of that torture. And that is how road commuters are supposed to plan their travels. Non-BRT corridors in Delhi with its mixed traffic and erratic commuter behaviour are never predictable. And that precisely is what the BRT offers - predictability.

The Delhi BRT Corridor

The conventional Delhi Roads

The only complaints we hear about the BRT are by the car-owners, whose only complaint again, is they have to wait at the signal for far too long than they would like. Their general habit is to just keep moving, even if that is at a ridiculous speed because that is how they are used to commuting. They have become so habitual to chaos that order is now frustrating them. Agreed that the signal phasing of the Delhi BRTS needs to be a little more innovative but in principle a BRTS should work as well in Delhi as it is in Ahmadabad even if the Delhi volumes are much higher. It is a matter of breaking the habit of the commuters which has been so moulded over years and years of bad public transport and inequitable road planning. One cannot imagine the current road network accommodating more and more private vehicles every year. The only alternative is public transport and the BRTS is the current best practice worldwide. I don’t think there is a better explanation of this scenario than what the Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit has said, that the BRT is “for the common man,” but it faces hurdles from “vested interests.” What we have to acknowledge here is that our only chance of survival is together. Everyone requires a piece of road, and equitable road space planning is the only way for us to move forward.