A bus moves past a smog-enshrouded India Gate in Central Delhi. Altaf Qadri/AP

It’s supposed to be a more affordable and flexible way to move people around. But in one of the world’s largest and most congested cities, BRT just made everything worse.

This winter, as in many winters past, a thick blanket of acrid haze covered New Delhi. The levels of particulate matter in the Indian capital—16 times what’s considered safe to breathe—was so thick that it dimmed the sun’s bright midday glare to a dull glow. Schools were shut down, flights were disrupted, and pedestrians walked around with masks to filter out the toxic air.

One big reason why the seasonal siege of smog in this megacity of 25 million has become so serious: India’s growing love affair with the private automobile. Traffic congestion has worsened within the city, with destinations that were once minutes away taking hours to reach. And overall, traffic fatalities have remained appallingly high.

To tackle these challenges, Delhi has been trying to expand and strengthen its public transportation system. In 2008, the city opened its first Bus-Rapid-Transit (BRT) line, a 3.6 mile corridor designed to move 12,000 passengers per hour heading one way in South Delhi. But this year, instead of tweaking the system and extending the corridor, as originally planned, the city government decided to get rid of BRT altogether. Stripping the infrastructure is set to finish in February 2017 and cost around $1.6 million.

How did BRT, which has been proven to be an affordable and flexible alternative to fixed-rail transit, go bust in one of the world’s largest cities? The answer, say Indian transit experts, has something to do with missteps during implementation, often-misplaced political and public outrage, and compromises that were made early on in the process.

Within six months of its inauguration, congestion rose along the BRT’s corridor. Buses broke down and traffic signals malfunctioned. Accidents occurred as pedestrians scrambled in confusion to board and disembark, and jaywalked across the intersections. Car owners cried foul, and in 2012, lawsuits were filed, pushing for universal access to bus lanes. Compared to the glory of Delhi’s vast metro system, the embattled bus corridor looks more like a bad investment.

Going forward, the role of BRT, if any, in Delhi’s expanding transportation apparatus is unclear—and that’s a real shame. As the city’s worsening air quality problems prove, this is a city in desperate need of more efficient transit, and experts still insist that a well-designed BRT system could be a crucial component in making Delhi a prosperous and healthy urban hub.

“Scrap this trap!”

True BRT systems share several key features: designated lanes that run through high-density areas, snazzy modern buses and stations, efficient ticketing and boarding, and integration with other modes of transit and pedestrian-friendly street design. They’re also accompanied by public education campaigns, so that riders understand how to use them. In developing cities such as Istanbul, Mexico City, and Bogota, BRT systems have been put in place fairly quickly and cheaply, compared to rail-based transit, transporting bus riders to prosperity and decisively improving the quality of life overall. "It has succeeded as a real alternative to the metro,” says Ani Dasgupta, global director of Ross Center For Sustainable Cities at the World Resource Institute (WRI). “People see it as an appealing option.”

The problem in Delhi was that they got a watered-down version. "This whole thing got labeled as a BRT, but comparing it to the BRT is like comparing apples to oranges,” Dasgupta says.

The Institute of Transportation and Development Policy has established an international standard for BRT based on 30 design and service features such as the ones listed above. According to its score card, Delhi had a “basic BRT,” meaning that it has too few features to even be evaluated on the metric. But even the features that were put in place weren’t well done, per WRI’s evaluation report in 2009.

The first problem: The special dedicated bus lane was just about six kilometers (3.6 miles) long. After that, the buses would re-enter the flood of regular traffic. "This was too small a corridor to test any pilot because the average route length for bus users in Delhi is about 10 kilometers,” says Amit Bhatt, WRI’s strategy head of integrated urban transport at EMBARQ India, WRI’s sustainable mobility arm. “At least it should have been a corridor that starts at an origin and ends at a destination." (A plan to extend the corridor to 9 miles and build 14 more was never implemented.)

The second issue was that other vehicles, such as school buses, were also allowed into the BRT lane. (For a while, so were cars and two-wheelers.) And third, there was no education about how to safely and efficiently navigate the system and no incentive to change travel behavior. Other Indian cities fared far better on this front: Ahmedabad, for example, launched its 10 miles of BRT with a fleet of high-tech buses, closed bus shelters, and a pre-boarding ticketing system—all free of cost for three months.

As Delhi’s BRT hit snags, a PR crisis started to unfold. Newspapers railed against the project, calling it a “curse,” and pushed to “scrap this trap.” Even some planners and a former transport minister, Saurabh Bharadwaj, joined in the outcry. Via the Times of India:

“The stretch on which this BRT has been made was not the best choice. For one, the bus lanes are in the middle and getting to them is a huge pain for pedestrians. Secondly, there are about four major intersections on the road and despite a very expensive smart signaling system, the implementation has failed completely. We have asked for scrapping of the existing BRT.”

Not everyone is convinced the program was a total fiasco. Dinesh Mohan, a former transportation researcher at the Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi, who advised the government on the project, argues that the causes given for the BRT’s failure were misleading—and the small positives were largely ignored. According to WRI’s evaluation, commute time for those who took the BRT route buses dropped by 40 percent. (Duration of commutes for other road users along the corridor, however, rose.) Plus, the formerly car-centric stretch of roadway where the BRT was installed was revamped with bike lanes and intersections.

But at the end of the day, the anti-BRT voices won out, resulting in a “very poor outcome for BRTs, in general, but also for Delhi citizens, because they don't have an alternate solution.” Dasgupta says.

Building a better BRT

Mass transit in Delhi involves some staggering numbers. The 200-plus kilometer (125 mile) metro network carries around 2 million riders every day. But overall, bus transit is critical: the Delhi Transport Corporation, which runs the city’s 4,000 or so buses, moves around 3.5 million daily passengers. In early 2016, when the local government tested its odd-even car restriction policy in an effort to combat congestion and pollution, that number jumped to 4 million. In an Indian Institute of Technology report from 2008, transportation expert and BRT proponent Mohan weighs the benefits of BRT versus the subway.

The demand will never come up to the theoretical capacity of these systems partly because metro rail is not time saving as a vast majority of trips in Indian cities are less than 10 km in large cities...Public transport cannot charge more than this amount without losing ridership. Therefore, we have to promote an efficient and economical public transport system that has a dense network, is flexible, on the surface and of medium capacity (15,000 – 30,000 passengers per hour per direction). The BRT with dedicated bus lanes seems to be the only option left as it can be built at five percent of the cost of metro systems.

This year, the Delhi government has gingerly floated the idea of fixing BRT by installing elevated lanes. But building an entire system of elevated lanes would be very expensive, eliminating the BRT’s main cost advantage. “The smart option is to use the existing roadway in a way that is actually more democratic,” says Dasgupta, who hasn’t given up on the idea that BRT can work for Delhi. “Right now, the way we use roads is that rich people who own cars get to use the roads, and all the other people get stuck in buses that can't move.”

Using a ticketing system that’s integrated with the metro is also key, as is getting a proper fleet of BRT-worthy vehicles. Perhaps the biggest challenge will be selling Delhi residents on a second chance for the system, so it can be promoted as viable supplement—or even a preferable alternative—to the train. Given the recent past, this PR problem could be the hardest one to fix.

“Buses get a bad rap and are always seen as the second-, or third-best option,” Dasgupta says. “What we've learned through our work is that rebranding the whole service has helped.”

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