It’s the same story on either side of the border. The urban elite and the news media in India and Pakistan have been overly critical of the Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) systems, which provide an efficient and reliable mode of travel for middle-income commuters.
The presently under-construction BRT in Rawalpindi and the one operating in Lahore have both attracted their fair share of discontent. Some are concerned about the exorbitant construction costs of these projects; others are occupied with the loss of greenbelts. Often, critics refer to India for examples to develop and operate the supposedly better BRT systems.
Case studies from India, however, suggest that the Indian BRT systems are far from perfect.
The central government funded the public transit projects to serve the mobility needs of low/middle-income families, and support the National Urban Renewal Mission. However, the low-income families constitute a tiny fraction of the BRT ridership.
In addition, only a small percentage of BRT riders switched from cars or motorised two-wheelers (M2W), further limiting the BRT’s potential for environmental benefits.
India’s struggles with BRT projects offer invaluable planning lessons to Pakistan.
A 2012 study of the five BRT systems in India, led by Professor Darshini Mahadevia of the CEPT University in Ahmedabad, offers a critical assessment of the objectives, achievements, and unmet goals of the five BRT systems.
Shortcomings in the Indian BRT projects
While the study criticises the five BRT systems being built or in operation in India, the criticism is reserved for the operating details of the transit systems. Their review does not question BRT as the preferred mobility alternative to enhance urban commuting – the alternatives to BRT, such as the unabated growth in travel by private automobile or informal transit, are inferior and environmentally unsustainable. Rail-based transit is significantly more expensive.
The team reviewed the BRT projects in Ahmedabad, Indore, Jaipur, New Delhi, and Pune. The authors argue that with the exception of Ahmedabad, the other four implementations fell significantly short of the potential for BRT systems.
They concluded: “Indian cities are struggling to plan or implement the BRT projects and this puts a grave question mark on the capacity and sincerity of the Indian cities in implementing the BRT system.”
The review identified several institutional barriers that prevented the BRT systems from achieving their full potential. For instance, the local planning authorities in some cities lacked the ownership of the BRT projects. Once the projects were built, no local champions could be found in the existing planning frameworks.
In Jaipur, the debate about the choice between BRT and rail-based transit stalled the project. Despite the fact that the BRT systems in South Asia can be built at a fraction of the cost of rail-based transit, the political and bureaucratic leadership often favour rail over bus. These biases are equally prevalent among politicians in North America and elsewhere.
In Indore, issues related to land acquisition marred the project. In addition, the debate about operating the BRT in mixed or exclusive right-of-way further exacerbated the project. Public transit operations are effective and efficient when transit vehicles do not have to compete for space with other modes of travel. The operational success of the BRT in Lahore is partly owed to the exclusive right-of-way.
What irks the elite most
However, it is the exclusive right-of-way for the BRT that has irked the urban elite the most who have not been used to sharing.
The extreme income inequalities prevalent in South Asia are partly due to the system’s weak wealth redistributive capacity, and the elite’s unwillingness to share. Sharing the road space with the rest is an unexpected development for the urban elite.
In New Delhi, the news media and the privileged complained of the dedicated right-of-way for the BRT.
In Islamabad, suddenly, the elite have become champions of the environment as they protest the loss of green space to the BRT corridor – never mind that they built their own communities on environmentally sensitive greenfields in the Margallas.
Some BRT projects in India were built to serve individual corridors without any regard for an integrated transit network. This prevented the BRT system from offering system-wide relief. Public transit works better as an integrated network. Isolated BRT corridors cannot provide system-wide relief from traffic congestion, tail-pipe emissions, and noise.
Transit for the poor should come first
The Ahmedabad case study revealed the system’s inability to serve the mobility needs of the very poor. A survey of 1,040 BRT passengers in Ahmedabad found that fewer than 14 per cent of the riders earned less than $100 per month. More than 62 per cent of the passengers reported monthly household incomes of greater than $200.
Another survey of 580 slum dwellers near the BRT corridor revealed that only 0.4 per cent of the households ever used the BRT, even when the transit system was within walking distance of their community.
The inability to serve the mobility needs of the destitute is a significant challenge for transit planners in South Asia. The very poor travel shorter distances and increasingly rely on non-motorised modes of travel, i.e. walking and cycling.
The survey of slum dwellers revealed that the average trip length for women was 3 km shorter than the rest. Similarly, average trip length for men living in slums was 5-km shorter than the rest. The lack of affordable mobility options limits the ability of the very poor to conduct their socio-economic affairs and benefit from the economic opportunities offered by the urban economies.
The review also highlighted the fact that 47 per cent of the BRT passengers had moved from other public transit modes, which ceased to operate after the BRT started operations. Only 12 per cent of the BRT riders reported switching from private modes of travel, such as car or M2W.
Thus, in its current manifestation, the BRT system in India holds considerable unrealised potential – it is mostly serving as a substitute for public transit system it replaced and serves the needs of the transit-captive ridership.
Attracting commuters from private modes of travel will have the greatest potential for easing traffic congestion and reducing mobility-related externalities.
Transit experts across the world agree that the BRT is an effective and efficient mode of travel. Also, it is cheaper than rail-based alternatives.
The challenge for public transit planners in Pakistan is to adopt a network approach to develop BRT where the system is integrated with feeder transit networks. Secondly, the mobility needs of the very poor in urban areas cannot be met without targeted subsidies.
Instead of subsidising the transit operators, the government must consider directly supporting the very poor so that they may also partake in the opportunities that the cities have to offer.