Delhi's Bus Rapid Transit System (BRT) has been running for just over two years now, connecting the 14.5 km corridor between Ambedkar Nagar and Delhi Gate. To see how the controversial project is faring, I spent some time on the BRT during the past few weeks, traveling by bus, foot, auto and cycle, mostly between Chirag Dilli and Moolchand.
From the very start, the BRT was declared a failure by much of the media. Even today, news outlets and middle class citizen's groups regularly highlight the BRT's problems. To be fair, traffic on the BRT is horrible, and it seems obvious that better planning could have--and perhaps even now could--address that more effectively. Maybe the new "intelligent" signals will help. Maybe they won't. From the start, many people questioned whether it made sense to reserve the middle lanes for buses, especially given that it was impossible to widen the road without destroying trees. In fact, many trees were lost in the construction of the BRT. But in the end, its width was limited when residents of the posh colonies that border it successfully opposed even more tree cutting. Here is one of the many places where trees limited the width of the road:
In other places, trees were saved without impacting traffic.
Even mid-day traffic can be difficult on the BRT--for private vehicles. But the bus lane that you see there in the foreground, is empty, which makes bus travel much faster on the BRT than anywhere else in the city. Interestingly enough, the BRT actually seems to have more support than you'd think from people who don't ride buses. But bus riders are its biggest backers--and why not? The BRT moves buses quickly. And since about 60% of Delhi commuters travel by bus, it's not hard to see why the BRT is still going strong.
On the BRT, you have several options in buses. The red AC bus, pictured here, starts at Rs. 15 per ticket, and offers the chance of some room to breathe, even during rush hour.
For a ticket that starts at Rs. 5, you can travel non-AC, either in one of the new, modern, green DTC buses or in an old Blueline bus. Beware: at rush hour, most of these buses are tightly packed! There are many seats reserved for women, and women seem to be enforcing this rule effectively. (Late at night, the story is different; many buses carry only one or two women out of 40-50 passengers.)
A large part of what makes commutes by bus difficult is the time spent waiting; changing buses takes even more time. Buses also have to make many stops, of course, and then they have to rejoin traffic. But the BRT partly compensates for all that, by giving buses those two center lanes. I found that no matter when I traveled, direct trips on the BRT took about the same time--and sometimes even a little less--than a comparable trip by autorickshaw.
Waiting for the bus is rarely fun, but the BRT bus stops are a step up from what you get in most of Delhi.
For one thing, buses tend to stop at BRT stops, which means you have less of a need to run out into traffic and jump onto rolling Bluelines!
For a while, it looked like the police would refuse to enforce the BRT bus lanes, but that seems to have changed. You will find an occasional motorcyclist pushing his luck, or even a car, but this is rare. VIP vehicles bearing red lights, on the other hand, do not seem to worry about police--or the example they are setting, for that matter. They frequently travel by bus lane, even when there is no reason to do so. It looked like there was a party going on in this VIP car a few months back.
Of course the BRT is not just for buses and private vehicles; it's also for cycles. Along the corridor, there are places where you can rent a cycle. It costs only Rs. 10 for four hours. The cycle rental stands are a private-public partnership, and they are a very good idea.
I'll write about this more later. But for now let me say that business is slow, in part because you cannot take a cycle from one stand and return it to another. As a result, these cycles can be used for recreation and for visiting friends in the neighborhood, but they won't help you get to work. That is too bad, because I found it quite easy to cover the distance from Chirag Dilli to Moolchand by cycle in about 10 minutes, which is faster than bus or autorickshaw, if you include the wait time. The same was true for the return trip. Rent-a-cycles could be a valuable part of the BRT system if only this project were taken a bit more seriously.
More significantly, the BRT boasts dedicated lanes for cycle traffic--something that seems almost unimaginable in Delhi, where "might makes right" is one of the unwritten--but best-understood--rules of the road, and cycles are relegated to place very near the bottom of the transportation heap. The cycle paths were a wonderful idea; and when traffic is flowing smoothly on the corridor, they provide welcome relief to those pedaling cycles and cycle rickshaws.(My 10 year old son shot this sequence during the last week of his summer holidays.)
But when traffic is really bad, many motor bikes find the cycle lanes a little too tempting.
Then a few more join the crowd, which begins to make it difficult on the cyclists.
Before you know it, things get completely out of hand.The BRT security guards are outnumbered and overpowered; they have too little authority; the police are nowhere to be seen. (Mrs. Batti once gave quite a tongue lashing to a fellow on a motorbike who was literally trying to drive through, or over, a security guard attempting to enforce the cycle lane rules. After some tamasha, biker gave in, but he never admitted he was wrong.)
Having seen these pictures, you should have no trouble believing the results of the traffic survey my son and I recently conducted. We counted the northbound vehicles on the BRT cycle path for 10 minutes during peak traffic one day during the last week in June. We counted 84 cycles, which translates into a rate of of about 500 cycles per hour. We counted 251 motorized two wheelers, which translates to rate of over 1500 per hour! (We also saw three autorickshaws, and a car blocked half the cycle lane for 5 minutes, significantly slowing the flow of both cycles and motor bikes.)
This SUV, approaching in the cycle lane, arrived just after we completed our sample:
Motorcyclists have a tough time of it in Delhi roads, of course. But they don't belong in the cycle lane. I can tell you from personal experience that having a pack of two wheelers overtaking your cycle on a narrow lane is...unnerving, to say the least. The police need to take this more seriously, but having conceded as much ground as they already have to the motor bikes, one wonders how easy it would be to re-take the cycle lane for cyclists. It's a big problem, and I don't see it getting fixed soon. Still, you have to admit the cycle lane is probably better than the alternative.
That may not look so bad now, but wait until the light changes and those vehicles start moving. Not a lot of fun, I can tell you that! Delhi roads are difficult for cyclists, where ever you go. And cycles are probably the most sustainable form of transportation, other than walking!
If you want to lean more about the BRT, you can check out the Delhi Integrated Multi-Modal Transit System Ltd, which is is "a Joint Venture Company set up with equal equity of the Government of National Capital Territory of Delhi (GNCTD) and Infrastructure Development Finance Company (IDFC)." In addition to having a really long name, the DIMMTS has a website with some very interesting publications and presentations about the BRT and public transportation generally. (Students wanting to write an essay about issues related to public transportation would find these resources useful.)
Better still, why not take a cycle or bus ride and see what you think!
If you like what you've seen here, check out our photo essay page!