Monday, April 22, 2013

New Delhi's BRT Woes

The New Delhi BRT has been courting controversy in India since its inception in 2008. As yet another public interest litigation was filed a few days ago to scrap the BRT, I decided to take a look at the myriad controversies surrounding the BRT in New Delhi and introduce the Wall Street Journal’s take on why it might still be a good idea to have faith in a BRT system.

The first BRT line


The first line of the 14-line New Delhi BRT System opened in 2008, ahead of the 2010 Commonwealth Games, to tackle the increasing traffic problems of India’s capital city. With more than 7 million vehicles on Delhi’s roads, the city made public investments in the much-appreciated Delhi Metro and the much-criticized BRT, both of which are managed by the Delhi Integrated Multi-Modal Transit System Ltd.

BRT Station

The 9-mile long corridor between the Dr. Ambedkar Nagar area and the Delhi Gate area supports two bus lanes in the center of the ROW ranging from 90ft to 150ft. Poor management, lack of enforcement and several legal battles have delayed the expansion of the system. Currently, the BRT is heavily used by commuters, who are pleased by its service over the previous alternatives because of the overall speed and quality of service.

The Dark Side

The first lawsuit was filed by the NGO Nyaya Bhoomi challenged the legality of the BRT, to which the Delhi High Court temporarily ruled in favor of, allowing cars to use the dedicated bus-way. Eventually, the courts ruled in favor of the BRT and public transportation at large in 2012. The most recent legal battle is a PIL filed by the same non-profit a few days ago, alleging that the BRT corridor violates the minimum road width requirements of the 2021 Master Plan for the National Capital Region (the cities of New Delhi-Gurgaon-Noida-Faridabad) and further stalling the expansion plans.

A newspaper article condemning the New Delhi BRT

Apart from legal hassles, the BRT has faced much criticism that the traffic and safety situation in this area hasn’t improved as promised.  As such, the road continues to be extremely clogged and the introduction of the BRT hasn’t caused a shift away from car use. Road users, especially private vehicle users who are stuck in traffic longer than before, are furious that the Delhi government has prioritized certain users over others. Moreover, lack of enforcement resulted in several cars and auto-rickshaws misusing the corridor, resulting in further congestion.

Why BRT Matters

Despite the lawsuits and criticism, this Wall Street Journal article rightly argues that it is unfair to base the future of an entire BRT network on a single line. Studying ridership and traffic on a single line is not the most conclusive, in thinking about the entire network and the efficiencies it offers. Moreover, the article points out that the several feasibility studies and technical reports conducted by the city because of the lawsuits will only aid in fully understanding the ridership, traffic volumes and pedestrian flows on the corridor and actually determining the exact impact of the current line.

That said, I am rooting for the expansion of the system. With most of urban India currently enamored by suburbanization and car ownership, I believe a city trying to make its public transportation system efficient is a step in the right direction. I think public transportation should prioritize the safe and efficient movement of people, both currently and in the future (thinking about growth, etc.), rather than get bogged down by the politics of road user priorities. Someone rightly said, “A developed country is not one where the poor own cars. It is one where the rich use public transport.”

Other Sources / Interesting Reads:

Update: Thank you, Arthur Graves, for editing this post!


  1. I find this really interesting especially when contrasting it to the BRT line in Bogata. It is interesting that all this debate is over just the single line in a 14 line plan. I will be interested to see if the populous becomes more interested as the BRT lines grow to include more people benefiting from it. Are they trying to reach more users with the BRT that the current Metro is not reaching?

  2. You mention that India is enamored with suburbanization and car ownership. What do you think are the cultural factors that drive this motive? I've also noticed the phenomenon, especially in a recent documentary film on Mumbai that follows the story of a middle class family attempting to buy their first car. The film also follows story lines of transportation planners building highways and a citizen advocate for public transportation. Check it out if you have some time:

    Related question: compared to China, which uses a lot of autocratic, top-down planning to push through major transit projects, do you think India struggles to introduce transit because of a more democratic governance structure, which opens itself up to legal action and citizen opposition?

  3. Sravya, thank you for sharing this story. Like Daniel mentioned, it is interesting to think about India's BRT line in comparison to other, large developing urban cities. What made a BRT line work in Bogota or Mexico City and not in Delhi? One issue might be that they only implemented one lonely line, not allowing the real effects of BRT to take effect. Also, other forms of regulation/incentives to deter drivers could help make a bus line look more appealing to the nonbelievers of transit. Mexico City, for example, added parking meters, a bike program and removed low passenger vehicles from the road to make driving more of a hassle and active transit more attractive.

    Your last line really summarizes what I was thinking throughout your article; "A developed country is not one where the poor own cars. It is one where the rich use public transport.”It sounds like the rich in India want to hold on to the idea of owning a car because it is a symbol of a higher class structure. You did, however, mention that the BRT line was mostly used by commuters. Are these commuters going to office buildings or service jobs? The WSJ article does focus on the class struggles in India and its role in the BRT issue. I love that public transit has become the boiling point for the rich citizens who refuse to except that a bus may be better than driving.

    It will be interesting to learn more about the demographics of the ridership along the line. The studies that come out about the BRT line will surely clear up just who exactly is trying to rule the road in Delhi.

  4. Thank you, Daniel, Jamin and Brenda for your thoughtful comments. In response to your questions:

    Daniel - I think ridership is not the issue Delhi's transportation infrastructure is dealing with - it's congestion and overcrowding. Right now, Delhi is struggling to meet demand with supply. When I was working in Delhi and couldn't afford a car, the buses were my only option and the source for my greatest stress because of the overcrowding (I would have to skip several buses because there would be no place to even stand). Therefore, in my opinion, every extra bus on the road counts!

    Jamin - I think Brenda got to the heart of your question. For a very long time, Indians have been using buses, two-wheelers and cycles to get around. Back in the nineties, it used to be great matter of pride to own a car - a sure sign that you are no longer middle-class. With the new millennium and the economic boom that followed, owing one car puts you in the middle class - the new dream is a minimum of two cars and it's growing. And that's true for homes too - everyone now wants a bigger apartment, which are possible only in newly minted suburbs. So yes, car ownership is still a matter of great pride and joy for middle-class India. That documentary really captures the essence of the cultural underpinnings in India.

    As for your second question, I definitely think the democratic structure of the government does prove to be a hindrance but not for the reasons you suggest. I think the struggles with transit have more to do with corruption and the personal agendas of those in power. And, using the judiciary system is an effective way to stall a project. There is every possibility that a case like the one I mention in the post, could take a decade to resolve, by which time, the project is no longer relevant. Then, of course, are the continuous squabbles over jurisdictions that delay a project even further. In short, and completely in my own cynical opinion, democracy in India manifests itself in all the wrong ways. The collaboration and partisanship that would come with such a government are perhaps nonexistent or superseded by bureaucracy and corruption.

    Brenda – I think everyone uses a BRT. A lot of people in India use public transit because it is simply impossible to drive on the clogged roads. Even on a bus, I would never know if it would take me 20mins or an hour and a half to reach my workplace. I do think you really get the cultural issues behind public transportation in India. Let’s hope that any demographic studies conducted will be used to push for the expansion of this line!


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