Making bus lanes work

Bus Rapid Transport, which is mass transport based on lanes dedicated to buses, is something that has been proposed in India for a very long time but has never really worked.

Delhi abandoned its efforts a few months back under the current state government, after experimenting with it on one road for a few years. Pune has BRT and  bus lanes, but that is also ridden with problems (no pun intended). Ahmedabad supposedly has a well-functioning BRT but the share of commuters using buses in that city is far below other cities.

Source: http://www.livemint.com/Politics/tPT6767pB5DSEEdZnBYcgP/Why-Delhis-bus-service-is-more-expensive-than-that-of-Chenn.html 

There have been proposals to introduce BRT in Bangalore, and some flyovers on Outer Ring Road were designed with the express purpose of maintaining bus lanes. Nothing has come to fruition so far.

In most cases, the problem has been with selling the scheme to the people – a lane exclusively reserved for buses adversely affects people who use private transport. Even though the latter are not numerous (data from the census shows that a very small proportion of urban Indians use private cars for their daily commute), their voice and clout means that it is a hard sell.

In my opinion, the reason BRT has been a hard sell is because of the way it has been implemented and sold. One problem has been that it has been implemented on only a small number of roads, rather than enabling a dense network on which one can travel by bus quickly. The bigger problem  has been implementing it on roads with low bus density, where the demarcated bus lane mostly appears empty while other lanes are clogged, giving incentives for motorists to cheat.

Instead, bus lanes should be demarcated only after bus density on the road has reached a certain density. There are several roads in Bangalore, for example, where buses already contribute to the lion’s share of traffic congestion (Nrupatunga Road, inner ring road in BTM layout and Hosur Road between Wilson Garden and Madivala come to mind – but there needs to be a more scientific study to identify such).

If such roads, with already existing high bus density, are chosen to mark off bus lanes, the bus lanes can be sold as a method to restrict all buses to one lane so that cars can move about freely on the rest of the road. While there might still be protests (thanks to such “reservation”), the fact that the reservation will not have much of an impact will mean that it is an easier sell.

Think about it! Meanwhile, here is a picture from Barcelona, which shows that even in supposedly rule-breaking Spain, bus lanes can work.

Getting BRT to work

Dedicated bus lanes are neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for BRT

After significant success in Ahmedabad and spectacular failure in Delhi, Pune is the latest city in India to embark on a “Bus Rapid Transport” (BRT) project. As the name suggests, the point of a BRT is to provide fast and convenient transport to people on buses that ply on existing roads, with some sections of some roads being reserved for buses.

However, in popular imagination, BRT has become synonymous with bus lanes (a lane of road reserved for buses), and the whole controversy in Delhi (which caused the project to be shelved) was about a lane of an arterial road being reserved for buses. In fact, however, a dedicated bus lane is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for implementation of BRT.

The attraction of BRT is that it comes with low infrastructure cost – unlike a train or monorail (or even a tram) line, there is not much investment required in terms of physical infrastructure. The challenge with BRT, however, is that its buses are liable to get stuck in traffic (just like every other vehicle) which might prevent it from living up to its middle name.

For this reason, certain changes are made to traffic patterns so that BRT indeed remains rapid. For example, traffic signals on arterial bus routes might be designed to give priority to the directions where buses travel. You might have bus stops in the middle of the road for people to get on to buses. And you might reserve lanes on roads for buses. Once again note that the last named is not a necessary condition for BRT.

What BRT should deliver is a dense and reliable network of buses. On arterial and other key roads, frequency of buses should be extremely high. Our current model of point-to-point and hub-and-spoke based bus routes need to be given up in favour of a more dense network, where it might be quicker for people to change multiple buses to get to their destination. This also warrants a change in the ticketing system, using a zone-based ticket than the current point-to-point ticket, and moving ticketing offline.

 

The fashion so far in India (with Ahmedabad being a possible exception) is to announce arterial roads as “BRT corridors” and start off the BRT services by reserving lanes on these roads for buses, without bothering about linkages and networks at either end. The problem with this is that the losers of the road space “pay” immediately, but the benefits of BRT are not immediately forthcoming.

A better method of implementation would be to make reservation of bus lanes the last step in BRT. The first should be to increase the density of buses and creation of networks. The problem with this is that it requires investment and the expanded (and densified) network might run far below capacity for a while. Yet, as the network expands (even without dedicated lanes), people will begin to see the benefits and convenience offered, and demand for BRT will increase.

Two things will happen – firstly, the expanded and densified network of buses will start crowding out (literally) private vehicles on the road. Secondly, people will see the relative benefits of taking these buses and these buses will start filling up. As these two effects take place, there will come a point when lanes can be reserved for buses without slowing down any of the rest of the traffic.

What we need, in other words, is “system thinking“, and to look at BRT as a solution to move people to their destination in a more efficient manner. Once policymakers recognise that bus lanes are only a means to this end, we can expect BRT to implemented in a proper fashion.