Mass transit is a scarce resource in India and cities need to retain whatever currently exists and build on it further. The past month witnessed reports from Pune and Bhopal that the Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) systems will be compromised either by allowing all vehicles into bus lanes or even by demolishing the system completely. This is being done with the hope to ‘improve traffic movement’ along these corridors. Even as their existing BRT systems decline in performance, these two cities and many other across India are investing in metro rail systems which are even more capital intensive. It is therefore crucial to do a careful review of whether BRT failed in Indian cities or if Indian cities have failed at BRT implementation as it can guide our decisions on upcoming mass transit systems.

              BRT in India started from Delhi and Ahmedabad and was later embraced by nine other cities across the country (See Shalini Sinha (VREF, 2019) for a thorough review of all the BRTs in India). The Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JNNURM) was instrumental in establishing the need for BRT systems in medium and large sized Indian cities to prioritise bus movement and provide reliable mass transit services to users at a reasonable cost. The scheme also provide financial assistance to cities thereby ensuring implementation in 8 of the 11 cities with BRT. Delhi BRT was funded by the State Government while Hubli-Dharwad and Naya Raipur were funded through financial assistance from the World Bank. None of the cities have expanded their BRT networks beyond what JNNURM/ World Bank funded or achieved the ridership predicted at the time of building their networks.

The typical reasons given for some of these cities’ declining interest in BRT are common-that there is more ‘traffic’ on the corridor, that it is difficult to access bus lanes in the centre of the road, that there are more accidents on the roads after BRT. Most of these arguments are perception based and not data backed. The real cause for cities backtracking on their BRT commitments is more than such simplistic arguments. We believe that the following systemic issues need to be addressed in cities, to revive the current BRTs and to enable success of upcoming mass transit systems.

  1. Let’s face it, we still love our cars! – The Delhi BRT received much bad press which eventually led to its scrapping. While much time was spent by experts criticising the design elements of the system, many forget that the backlash was from car users protesting their space being taken away while bus users’ perception of the system was positive. We now see in Pune and Bhopal as well that when the congestion reaches beyond a certain level of inconvenience for car users, cities think exclusive bus lanes are dispensable. Cities’ willingness to restrict car usage hasn’t emerged yet and that’s at the heart of the problems being faced in sustaining existing BRTs and other public transport systems.
  2. Special Purpose Vehicles-Trade of between pace of implementation and Institutional ownership? JNNURM mandated all its BRTs to be implemented through a Special Purpose Vehicle (SPV) formed specifically for the project. This was inspired by the success of the Transmilineo-the world’s most popular BRT system which was established as an SPV. The SPVs were intended to avoid the procedural delays of traditional Government agencies by focusing only on the project. However, most SPVs were understaffed to plan, execute and operate a successful BRT while some just existed on paper while implementation was done by Urban Local Bodies (ULBs) (eg. Visakhapatnam and Vijayawada). This resulted in limited institutional and financial support for BRT execution and upkeep
  3. Need to establish Public Transport Authorities (PTA) with legislative support and long-term vision: Executing BRTs is often a complicated exercise since it involves retrofitting existing high demand streets to a new pattern of usage. This typically delays the execution of projects as extensive stakeholder consultations and integration of various users’ needs need to be taken up along with site-specific issues like shifting utility infrastructure. Therefore, BRTs require strong support from its implementing agency with a long-term vision for the need of the project, which the project specific SPVs couldn’t provide. A recent report by the Volvo Research and Education Foundation (VREF), UITP and BRT Centre of Excellence, Santiago, Chile presents a global overview of successful BRT systems. It report highlights how BRT implementation benefited greatly from being implemented under a PTA with the mandate for long-term public transport vision for the city and integration across modes. Given that the Indian cities’ had limited success in establishing Unified Metropolitan Transport Authorities (UMTA), establishing PTAs focussing just on mass-transit, city bus and other paratransit services may yield better results
  4. Financing a BRT-Too big for the city, too small for a donor? As stated earlier, none of the JNNURM funded BRTs were extended further even in cities where it was received positively. One of the reasons for this continues to be the lack of access to finances for expansion. BRTs are in an ‘in between’ financing requirement where most proposals are in the cost range of INR 400-500 crores. Many cities are unable to pay for it within their budgets while at the same time international financing institutions find it too small. Providing access to low-cost finance is a key prerequisite to provide high-quality BRT systems across the country.

India should address the learnings presented above, to retain the current BRTs and scale the solution to many other cities focussed on improving public transport.