Requiem To A Dream: A Final Bus Ride In The BRT Shows Why It Never Stood A Chance

19/01/2016 1:03 PM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST
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NEW DELHI, INDIA - OCTOBER 18: Heavy traffic jam at BRT stretch on October 18, 2010 in New Delhi, India. (Photo by Jasjeet Plaha/Hindustan Times)

Devender Bhatia has been a bus driver in Delhi for 26 years now. He used to drive the Blue Line buses that got shut down for mowing down pedestrians. Now, he drives a Delhi Metro feeder bus from the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium Metro Station to Sangam Vihar. The route takes him through the Delhi Bus Rapid Transport lane.

Most of the public debate on the BRT since it was created in 2008, has been from the point of view of the non-bus using passengers, people who take the non-bus lanes on the extremes of the roads, especially car owners. It’s frustrating for car drivers to get stuck in the slow moving BRT traffic. But what is it really like for a bus driver?

“You will see,” says Bhatia, as I board his bus.

The Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium Metro Station caters to the CGO complex, a set of buildings that houses government offices. Many of this Metro feeder bus’ daily passengers are people who work in those offices in low-ranking positions, and live in Sangam Vihar, said to be Asia’s largest “unauthorized colony”.

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All seats are taken but the bus is not overcrowded when I board it at Pant Nagar, just one stop after its origin. As we climb down from the flyover above Moolchand, the BRT begins. “See the number of cars on the BRT lane. That makes it pointless,” says Bhatia. That’s why he’s happy to hear that the Delhi government would begin to dismantle the BRT from Tuesday.

Yet there was a time when he was happy about the BRT. This distance now takes him an hour and a half to cover. When cars were not allowed on the bus lane, it used to take him as little as twenty minutes.

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We climb the Central School flyover. It is 5:30 pm and for some reason, there are still school children waiting to board the bus. On every bus stop, there are dozens of people waiting to get the right bus. Men with their heads wrapped around in muflers, Kejriwal style, women with knitted cardigans over sarees, children in school uniform.

“So many people waiting for buses but they don’t get them,” says Bhatia. Why do you think the government isn’t bringing more buses to the roads, I ask. “There is no shortage of buses,” Bhatia says. “When cars were not allowed on the BRT’s bus lane, I used to do seven rounds a day. Now I do four.”

In 2012, the Delhi High Court had briefly allowed cars on the BRT. The government is not even clear about whose responsibility it was to make sure cars don’t enter the bus lanes. With the Delhi government, the traffic police and the Delhi Integerated Multi-modal Transit System passing the buck to each other, cars enter the bus lanes with impunity. Not even the CCTV cameras installed on the bus lanes have been used to prosecute offenders.

They could have created more space for cars. But it is not the BRT that increased the traffic on this route.

“They could have created more space for cars,” says Bhatia, “but it is not the BRT that increased the traffic on this route. It is Saket. The Saket malls and the sessions court there, meant that traffic from central Delhi began heading there in large numbers.”

We soon discover he’s right. After the Sheikh Sarai red light, from where traffic takes a right turn towards Saket, there was much less traffic on the BRT to Khanpur. Both in the bus and the car lanes.

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Yet, even on this stretch the bus was slowed down by intermittent traffic. A motorcyclist in Madangir crossed over to the bus lane. “This is the spot on the BRT where most accidents happen,” Bhatia tells me, “And not how it slowed us down when he crossed.”

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The consequence of slowed, mixed traffic on the bus lane is that there is no guarantee whether the bus will reach a stop at its scheduled time. “Sometimes when there is ‘t much traffic, you have buses coming one after the other and going empty,” Bhatia says, “And when people are waiting in large numbers, the buses get stuck in jams on the bus lane, caused by cars.”

Ahead of us are cars carrying one or two passenger each. The road space occupied by six passengers in cars is equal to the road space occupied this us, carrying nearly sixty people.

As we are stuck on a red light just before Khanpur, the vehicle ahead of us is a Grameen Sewa auto-rickshaw, a shared passenger vehicle the Delhi government allows on some routes. By the time the Grameen Sewa gets new passengers, the red light turns from red to green and red again. It’s everyday frustration for Bhatia to be slowed down by traffic that carries far fewer people. “It’s a pain for me to drive like this but it’s a greater inconvenience to the public, which keeps waiting for the bus to arrive.”

Will it take him less time or more on the same route once the BRT is dismantled, he is not sure. But the BRT was a good idea, he says, that wasn’t allowed to succeed.

Kejriwal would also have a better chance at selling it to the public, just as he has managed to make car owners happy with the odd-even scheme.

There were many problems with the way the BRT was designed and implemented. One of its greatest champions, Dinesh Mohan, has answered all the criticism of the BRT. More than the nitty-gritties, it is the idea of the BRT itself that was discredited – car owners kept saying the road shouldn’t be slowed down for them while the bus lanes looked empty.

The Arvind Kejriwal government says it will make an elevated BRT road, and that surely sounds like a good idea. Unlike his predecessor Sheila Dikshit, Kejriwal would also have a better chance at selling it to the public, just as he has managed to make car owners happy with the odd-even scheme without reducing pollution.

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