PRT for the BRT.

[Public Relations Tricks for the Bus Rapid Transit.]

Government orchestrated PR campaigns are trying to con Delhi into saluting the rancid BRT project – to no avail, of course.

Anyone lately traveling the BRT route will chuckle at the plight awaiting residents of Lajpat Nagar and Defence Colony. Thought the Government has finally pulled the plug on the hare-brained idea of bus stations in the central verge and concrete separators for the BRT tracks, it insists on the fig leaf of executing these two insane aspects till at least the Sewa Nagar flyover after which of course sanity returns as we move into open access and bus stands on the left side. Curious case of governmental ego, this madness is now going to create hell for all those traveling from Nehru Place, GK, Defence Colony, Lajpat Nagar and Jungpura – broadly upper South Delhi – towards the city centre.

Now, expecting another backlash, as final preparations draw to a close on this section and the madness begins anew, the Government has once again pressed its PR corps into action and stared a series of feel-good antics like a I-love-BRT cyclists’ rally for public consumption.

I don’t know if you remember but the last time around it was reported that a PR agency was hired for a whopping Rupees 80 lakhs to mount a campaign and deflect public anger. We are not sure if that figure was true but taking into account that a number of prominent NGOs suddenly propped up on the scene or were pressed into service – we will never know.

As things stand, this ridiculous and childish – also peevish and boorish – behaviour of accepting defeat but fighting to continue with a stupid component which damaged the entire concept is unbecoming of the government. The better way would have been to accept that it floundered, fix accountability and move on to do the things we suggested some time back.

In an article I wrote outlining the failures of the BRT system and why it would never succeed in its present [then] form, I ended on a note of what needs to be done to fix the real problem of Delhi’s abysmal public transportation – and now looking back, I find that it still holds.

I am reproducing this article which was written in April 2008, with minor changes for a perspective you can respond to as well. [ see below]

[Remember though that the campaign we mounted against the BRT succeeded and the two essential points of dispute were redressed in all future BRT expansion viz. the removal of bus stands in the central verge and the removal of concrete separators for the track.]

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Why the BRT has Failed: and why it can’t be rescued. [April 2008]

Contrary to the pained refrain of Government, including the usually inaudible Transport Minister [has been removed and replaced since] and the unequally shrill Chief M inister, the BRT has neither stabilized, nor improved nor in fact approached any of those terms for the simple reason that neither of these were it fundamental objectives.

Surely, it was not conceptualized to merely run buses along a track, however magical it might be made to seem. Nor, surely that it was a mechanism to discipline the car-types. And not at all that residents of some area were in dire need of ‘rapid’ transportation to their destinations. The concept was initiated, it is confirmed officially, to encourage private vehicle owners to use public transport. On that, even the fiercest supporters of the BRT system will agree that it has drawn a cipher, but why it cannot be rescued, is argued as follows:

Conceptual compromise: The BRT was said to be created with the objective of ‘shifting’ people traveling solo in private vehicles into using public transport, namely Buses. But the brief was altered to suit a sadistic trio of transport planners who would rather ‘punish’ them into doing so – evidence: they did not allocate that a cyclist or a scooterist could be made to ‘upgrade’ to bus travel, but focused instead on ‘downgrading’ the car owner to bus travel, contrary to every established principle of human aspiration and growth theory. That is why they concretized the future of every cycle user [presumed permanently impoverished by the proponents] in the city by building indelible, high-grade cement pathways for them, which are rarely used by cyclists but frequently crowded by motorcyclists and scooter-ists. A very basic question remains unanswered: if you want people to shift to buses, why not start with the cyclist? Had they done that they would have upgraded the cyclist to a safer, more dignified ride around the city inside a Bus instead of branding him a cyclist for life! And before we step into the realm of arguing for cycling being eco-friendly and desirable, remember that the cyclist hates his life and wants to move up to a scooter as soon as he can!

Volume of traffic: Now the figures: the TRIPP report on the project gives a researched reading at ITO – one of Delhi’s busiest intersections – pegging road usage in percentage terms of a mere under 4% by cyclists and a little over 9% by Buses. The balance 85% is attributed to cars, scooters autos and every variety of vehicles we see on Indian roads. Having that document in view, they went ahead and carved the existing three lane stretch from Ambedkar Nagar to Moolchand into four parts with one quarter each for cycles and buses, which is tantamount to assigning 50% of road width to 15% of road traffic and left just a half for the other 85%. Positioned against their lofty aspirations of accommodating more people on buses, this may even seem logical, but without a transition time of at least five years, it’d be impossible and unachievable – for the reasons that it would take that long for the Government to scale up bus acquisition, increase fleet and introduce high capacity throughput and an equal time for proof of concept to set in and commuters to start shedding car-o-maniacal habits. They did not even think about it because someone was in a great hurry to claim some imagined electoral brownie points. Result: it goes kaput.

Transitional technology: The technocrats involved in the project got so involved in the calculations of their equations they forgot to account for human behaviour. Now, irrespective of what the socialist leanings of the proponents of this project may be, the truth remains that there are good reason that a car owner uses his car and does not use public transport. Figure this: A man living in Saket, if he has to use the BRT and leave his car back home, will first have to find another mode of public transport to reach the BRT line or station at Sheikh Sarai or maybe Ambedkar Nagar. So it has to be either a jam-packed morning Blueline for him or a surly auto wallah who will first refuse because the distance is too short then extort 10 times the correct fare. Now having subjected himself to either of the two humiliating experiences, after he has boarded the fancy air conditioned bus, he is caught in the same cleft stick situation when he gets off to go to a meeting in say, Defence Colony. First he steps back into a 40 degree environment; then if he survives crossing the road he stares vacantly for an auto to pass, or a cycle rickshaw to appear because the bus stops are not accessible to auto stands and vice versa. So either that, or he walks to D-Block in the sweltering heat with maybe a laptop tearing his shoulder down in the salubrious climate our country is well know for. Not happening, and you know it too. And if the protagonist in this case happened to be a lady… we can leave that to your imagination. And if this happened to be late evening…. you can add that too to the simple reasons why the switch will never occur.

Feed the Monster, don’t create another: In a curious reversal of argument, all the critics of the Metro have not cared to answer this simple question: why would a city invest its money in a parallel transport mechanism when it has already spend and continues to spend thousands of crores in, what they claim, is a white elephant. Logic would suggest that having done the deed, it would now be logical to work to integrate the transport mechanisms to assist the Metro reach a desirable ridership, which again the critics claim to be so low that it does not justify the expense. So your solution is to spend more money on a new project? Would it not be eminently more logical, not say sensible, to make the BRT project a feeder system for populating the Metro?

So here’s the thing they did not even think of [because they were proving a point- the supremacy of their model over the metro!]: Turn the entire BRT network to be at right angles to the Metro; in short, run it like spikes leading into metro stations and then you may actually see the white collar yuppy finally leaving his or her silver steed back in the garage and take the BRT to the Metro. Not until then, sorry.

The road to heaven is paved with bad intentions: But, as we know that was never the idea, was it. The idea was to spend, spend, spend to look good for an 11- day event, to expend the JNNURM manna so that our friends, the contractors, and their benefactors and every other of their linkages could use the cash! The incumbent Government, which has for nine and a half years presided over the deaths of an estimated 900 people in this duration only by state-lincensed buses and did nothing to stop those deaths, timed this project to reap benefits in the election year and to consummate project expenditure ‘commissions’. But you cannot impose projects on top of poor infrastructure – that is just the case with the BRT. The Government tried to transfer the problem into another realm to dazzle citizenry – but what a city needs for a basic transport system, it will always need, and the Government did not invest a Paisa into that. Well, it doesn’t work like that.

Problem Redux: The BRT was designed to help reduce traffic, it will not do so. It was designed to ‘cajole’ people into using buses, it will not happen. It was designed to reduce commute time, it won’t be able to get there for the pressure that will be caused on account of the first two. Unless….

The Solution: This is how it should have worked: First, overhaul the current bus system, adding new routes, deleting others until you have what can be called ‘effective coverage’ of the city through a basic Bus system that is penetrative enough. Then, replace all third rate wrecks called Blueline and DTC buses with high quality carriages, AC coaches and trained Drivers. Ensure that buses maintain 99.9% punctuality. All this will require the placing the DTC under a sensible management team: Do that. Nothing superhuman about that.

And what about the BRT? Redesign the BRT network to specifically feed the Metro, working in tandem with the DMRC for existing and proposed lines. Better still, hand it over to the DMRC to integrate it themselves and stay away from sponsored professors.

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