Public Transit Done Right
For anyone stuck in one of India's interminable traffic jams, a bus rapid transit (BRT) system sounds like the answer to a prayer. Cheaper and easier to implement than a full scale underground metro, BRT has proved a striking success in cities such as Curitiba in Brazil and the Colombian capital, Bogotá. Its former mayor, Enrique Penalosa, together with EMBARQ, a non-profit specialising in transport solutions, are advising Indian cities on how to go down the same route.
The basic principles are the same: reserved lanes for buses, designed for rapid on-off boarding, with a simple pre-paid ticketing system – imitating the essential features of a metro at a fraction of the cost.
But it hasn't been a smooth ride. The first BRT system, launched in Delhi in 2008, drew strident criticism from motorists incensed at losing their pride of place on the road. It was even challenged in court (unsuccessfully) in 2012. Since then, some ten other cities, including Mumbai and Pune have launched their own schemes, with mixed results.
The striking exception has been Ahmedabad, in Gujarat. Here the concept has been implemented with gusto. Sleek new buses run at regular intervals down segregated tracks in the middle of the road, with regular 'stations' allowing passengers to step on and off on either side of the bus. Known as the Janmarg ('Peoples Route'), this system also features dedicated lanes for pedestrians and bicycles. Janmarg currently has 45km of corridors criss-crossing the city, plying 83 buses that cater to nearly 135,000 passengers every day. It has resulted in a noticeable reduction in congestion and pollution, and unlike most public transit elsewhere in India, its success in slashing journey times has even attracted some business people out of their (chauffeured) cars.
Officials claim that a stunning 57% of the city's motorists and two-wheel drivers have switched to the network. Independent studies put it at a more credible – but still impressive – 12%. But that number should grow as the network expands. When complete, one-third of the current population, will live within walking distance of a BRT station.
The scheme is the fruit of a unique public-private partnership model. The implementation of the project was handled by the state-run Ahmedabad Janmarg Limited, while private service providers retain the ownership, operations and maintenance of the specially designed Tata buses.
Janmarg is already being held up as a model for others to replicate. It won the Best Sustainable Transport Award from the Washington-based Institute for Transportation and Development Policy, and was featured as a public-private "lighthouse activity" at the 2012 climate conference in Doha.