– Ashok Datar and Trupti Amritwar Vaitla for Mumbai Environmental Social network
Bus lane, bus priority or Bus Rapid Transit System (BRTS) are variations of a common theme. It caught the imagination of Indian cities in the last decade but not much progress has been reported. Pune was the first city to introduce this concept followed by Delhi, Ahmadabad, Indore, Bhopal, Jaipur and Vijayawada. Mumbai toyed with this idea for Western Express Highway in 2006 but the project was abandoned after a detailed study that concluded that elevated bus tracks were the best option.
There are two approaches for bus priority. One is to aim for the best in terms of quality of buses, bus stops, deployment of tech, level boarding, central bus lanes with a stop between the 2 buses going in opposite directions, etc. The alternative is to keep the volumes, speed, frequency and functionality in mind and introduce bus priority with basic features and benefits to begin with and then upgrade continuously incrementally.
We prefer the latter approach as it would take years to get the full-fledged BRTS approved and implemented and it will not cost materially lower than the elevated metro in terms of investment per passenger trip. We feel while we are busy considering mega metro and road projects which cost thousands of crores and several years to complete and are mostly car centric projects (eg: Coastal Road Project, cost – Rs. 13,000 crore to benefit 200,000 passenger trips in car per day with barely 10% bus trips). The Bandra-Worli Sea Link and the Eastern freeway are two mega projects that were completed in last 2 decades along with more than 30 flyovers. All these projects are used primarily by cars and this very heavy tilt in favor of car-centric projects is one of the reasons why modal share of public transport has rapidly declined. Furthermore, not only have we not levied private vehicle tolls on the Eastern Freeway, we are now eliminating tolls on the Bandra-Worli sea-link too. As if that is not enough, it is being proposed that tolls should be retained for buses and trucks.
In such a bleak scenario, we had proposed a bus lane for the newly constructed much needed east-west link of Jogeshwari-Vikhroli Link connecting the two expressways and with a length of 7 km in 2006. MMRDA agreed to a small feasibility study in 2008 when the road started attracting a lot of kerbside parking – missing in early days. Even then there was large traffic volume and the three lanes on each side were found “inadequate.” Hence the suggestion of center bus lanes – but with conventional buses as several long distance buses entered and exited from this link. This was an appropriate solution.
The volume of passengers was higher than 10,000 passengers per hour for the three lanes in each direction- a sizeable part of which was from bus transport. This report didn’t evince much interest from most of the agencies and it was quietly ignored. In 2011, JVLR handled in peak hour 54 BEST plus 90 other buses, 885 two-wheelers, 1930 cars/taxies, 1125 autos and 226 commercial vehicles. They together carried 13,000 passengers in 4 lanes. The share of public transport passengers was 58% but in PCUs (passenger car units), public transport was only 10%.
In 2014, Santa Cruz Chembur Link Road was completed. It was expected to provide a major east-west connectivity but it was designed mainly for cars. No thought was given for bus priority. Recessed bus stops were not provided. No space for restricted parking or for garages or maintenance of cars was planned in while designing Santa Cruz-Chembur Link (it was possible for example to provide garages under the flyovers). After commissioning of this link, traffic jams multiplied and became a nightmare for the great and shining BKC office complex. The MMRDA accepted bus lane as an interim solution though it seems like their real objective was to provide more links and more flyovers which would have taken 2 to 4 years and cost over Rs. 700 crores. This road has 4 lanes and carried only 139 buses (of which 100 were private employee buses) and 2373 total private vehicles consisting of 328 two-wheelers, 555 auto rickshaws and 1490 cars and taxies.
Before the Bus Lane Experiment the average time taken by buses to cover this distance of 3.5 km was 33 minutes. The time for cars was not counted but was not much higher than this. After the bus lane was implemented, the speed of buses more than doubled – bringing down the time of the journey from 33 minutes to 17 minutes. Similar increase in speed was observed for other vehicles. Total passengers carried per peak hour increased to 13,000 (a growth of 30%). There were some traffic violations despite which volume was quite high – 179 buses per hour. Most road users, including cars, were generally happy with the bus lane.
The reasons for success were identified as two – A narrow bus lane drove close to the footpath hence passengers didn’t spill onto the main carriageway and parking too substantially reduced gaining an extra lane. Secondly, non-bus lanes had almost homogenous traffic and vehicles moved faster and smoothly. This proved that a simple bus lane can perform quite well and create favorable image for the users.
Unfortunately, this remained a small and short pilot. If a full corridor is considered, the situation would have been even better as with just one well-protected bus lane, results have shown to be impressive. While passenger comfort is indeed important, the priority should be speed and output. An increase in the latter two would almost halve the fixed cost of bus operations. Further higher speeds and frequency would lead to better utilization and reduce the losses of the bus system. We do not have to be a pessimist in a high volume linear city and believe that bus lanes can compete with some of the outlying metros. We incurred a cost of Rs. 1 croreprimarily for barriers. The total cost of design, surveys, etc., was barely Rs. 10 lakhs.
This has given us confidence to try this mode on a long road like Western Express Highway (WEH) with 33 km and 5 lanes on each side. We should seriously consider bus lane on the WEH with features such as next bus arrival info system, level boarding, AC buses, etc. We are proposing a system which will have double-decker buses as well as articulated buses for WEH with every fourth or fifth bus turning at various key junctions/arteries. But with service frequency of 30 to 40 seconds, it is possible that the bus you want will not require more than 2 min of waiting- quite an improvement on the Mumbai Local.
Instead of being afraid that they may crowd out the cars and autos, we should consider mega cities first for buses. Of course they can even reduce the need for very costly Metros unless the volumes are really high (which may be difficult as the metros will be air-conditioned and their carrying capacity is limited). All world over, buses are cheaper than Metros. If we allow buses to double their productivity – very possible in mega cities –their costs will go down.
We also feel that we can adopt incremental approach rather than consider the buses as Metro (for budgeting, etc.) A reliable, frequent and high speed bus is the most important. Air conditioning and other frills then become a minor adjunct.
In spite of visible success there is not a great deal of enthusiasm in the city for its logical extension to the WEHthat presently has 5+5 lanes for cars for a road length of 33 km, carrying huge volumes round the clock.
We truly believe that the BKC experiment has opened up new possibilities for reversing the car centric development such as of freeway, toll-free journeys, flyovers, and expensive road expansion projects, and lessons learnt from this should be applied to plan better mobility for people in cities.