Making BRTS work

(yet another post that is a few days late, but what the hell)

In the recently delivered Karnataka State Budget, the government has budgeted funds for developing a Bus Rapid Transit System (BRTS) in Bangalore, in order to supplement the Metro and help ease the city’s traffic woes. The problem is that it’s a small amount that’s been released and the budget states “for providing BRTS between Hebbal and Silk Board”.

Commentators (including some traffic experts like MN Sreehari (not able to find the Deccan Herald link on this topic) ) have criticized the move, claiming it is going to once again choke the outer ring roads which have now been set free because of the efforts to make it signal-free. So the commentators have used this as an argument against the BRTS.

On the contrary, I argue that we need more, and not less, BRTS. The whole purpose of an integrated urban rapid-transport system is to encourage people to leave their cars at home and instead use public transport. And for that to happen, really good quality public transport has to be available in all areas (with autorickshaws providing last-mile service). Else there is no real incentive for people to abandon their cars.

The problem with initiatives like the Metro is that it takes way too long to construct. The cost involved in terms of intermediate inconvenience and lead time are enormous. Which is a major point in favour of systems such as the BRTS. So what needs to be done is that the BRTS needs to be introduced on several routes simultaneously, thus bringing a larger area of the city under the integrated public transport system.

The network effects here are huge, and the more the portion of the city that is served by high-quality public transport, the more the incentive for people to not use their cars. On the contrary, introduction of BRTS along one or two lines benefits few and causes inconvenience to a really large portion of the population (all users of the BRTSed routes).

We have already seen in Delhi the impact of a badly-implemented BRT scheme (along one road in South Delhi, if I’m not wrong; deeply unpopular and resented). I’m surprised the guys in Bangalore haven’t learnt from that.

Crowding out with public transport

This is an idea that’s been in my head for a while. About whether it is possible to nudge people who normally travel in cars to use public transport by simply flooding the roads with buses. The motivation for this comes from the hassles associated with marking and enforcing bus lanes, a form of public transport that is generally considered superior to subway trains in terms of cost of implementation and effectiveness.

So the idea is that as the number of buses on the road increases, the average speed of cars comes down. And after a point, the number of buses on the road means there’s enough supply that one can travel comfortably in them. And there will come a point when people will give up their cars in favour of buses since they can now spend the time more usefully rather than waste it by concentrating on the road.

Of course, this point is still far away for a city like Bangalore, though the BMTC has been making efforts, with initiatives such as the Bus Day. Still, now I’ve begun to have my doubts about it. About whether just increasing bus connectivity and frequency and quality will be enough to take cars off the road. I’ve begun to think if the comfort of not having to drive but travel at the same speed is enough to compensate for the cost of walking to and from bus stops and waiting for buses. The other cost of traveling by bus is that once you get into a bus you travel by a fixed route rather than adapting to daily traffic flows.

The important thing here is the distribution of waiting time for catching a bus. If a passenger is convinced that he is very likely to get a bus within a certain span of time with a very high probability (using vague words to avoid putting random numbers) he is likely to wait for a bus. However, if there are no such bounds, then the passenger might choose to travel by an alternate means of transport.

Still it needs to be seen. From what I know, all cities that currently boast of great public transport actually built a lot of the basic public transport infrastructure before the boom of cars in the place. I can’t recall off the top of my head any city that has actually nudged passengers from personal cars to public transport after cars had become default mode of transport (if you know of such cases, please let me know). In that sense, this nudging towards public transport is still a hard problem to solve. Nevertheless, I still think it might still be a good idea to try crowd out private transport by public transport.