How wide does a road have to be for a bus to pass?

One of the many problems with Delhi’s BRT is that it never went far enough

By Harper Sutherland
Published: Wednesday 08 April 2015

One of the many problems with Delhi’s BRT is that it never went far enough

public transport

The Delhi High Court has dismissed a plea seeking scrapping of the 5.8 km Ambedkar Nagar-Moolchand bus rapid transit (BRT) corridor in south Delhi. ´╗┐

Throughout March, newspapers have reported on the New Delhi government’s upcoming plans to dismantle the Bus Rapid Transit (BRT). “The BRT, a subject of heated debate between its few proponents and many opponents, was virtually a non-starter from the beginning” says a report published in Times of India. 

The BRT is a 5.8 km stretch from Ambedkar Nagar to Moolchand in South Delhi. The BRT installation process transformed this section of the road. Footpaths and non-motorised vehicle lanes were installed; happily, these improvements will stay when the rest of the road dividers are dismantled. The centre two lanes of traffic were converted into bus-only lanes which would permit the fast movement of buses through the corridor. Ideally, those with personal vehicles would shift their method of transport because bus passengers would be rewarded with easy passage through traffic. It was hard for the bus system to deliver on these promises when the project was limited to a 5.8 km stretch.

The problem with the BRT was that it never went far enough. A survey conducted by the Delhi-based non profit Centre for Science and Environment, in the early days of the BRT (roughly 2009) found that 88 to 91 per cent of pedestrians and bus commuters were satisfied with the BRT. Far from “few proponents,” the BRT was favourably viewed by 73 per cent of car or two-wheeler commuters. Many survey respondents with their own vehicles indicated a willingness to switch to bus transportation if the BRT went further. Research demonstrates that a BRT needs to be at least 15 km to demonstrate a clear, visible impact to consumers. But instead of following through on plans to expand the BRT network, plans were stalled and now seem to be abandoned. In the meantime, the number of vehicles in Delhi has increased greatly, a major greater factor in traffic jams than dedicated bus space. To dismantle the Delhi BRT corridor would show a terrible lack of foresight, consistent with the transport planning methodology that has created the now-jammed flyovers.

Government officials are hiding their lack of support for public transportation by blaming the BRT design. This is particularly disappointing given that most of these politicians, such as the MLAs who initiated plans to disassemble the BRT, are members of the Aam Aadmi Party. In Delhi, despite the loud protests of the media on behalf of traffic-jam plagued cars, the aam aadmi still does take the bus; approximately 60 per cent of commuters travel by bus. According to Times of India, sources in the Delhi government say that they are not opposed to the BRT as a concept, but if this is really true, they should commit to making the BRT function as designed where it is. The BRT was a massive investment in infrastructure, and it will be enormously costly to break it down.
By implying that the real problem is in the design and the selection of the roadway, Times of India writes, “With all traffic except buses crammed into a two-lane carriageway, the busy stretch saw massive traffic jams.” This is somewhat misleading; the road contains two-lanes in each direction, meaning that there are four full lanes dedicated to the movement of personal vehicle traffic. Furthermore, BRT infrastructure removed slow moving traffic, such as bicycles and pedestrians from the main road—as well as those frequently stopping buses, leaving four full lanes for cars and two-wheelers. How can that not be sufficient? Unsurprisingly, this newspaper opinion has been echoed in the conversations I’ve had with Delhi wallahs about the BRT. “The problem is the stretch of road they’ve chosen.” As a major travel corridor, there was a large population of commuters who could make use of improved and expedited bus service. This is exactly where there needs to be a BRT.

It raises the question, though, just how wide does a road need to be before motorists will (grudgingly) allow a bus to pass through?

I take the bus often between Greater Kailash and Sangam Vihar. Part of the route goes through the commercial and residential area of Kalkaji. The roads, particularly Rampuri, are often filled with parked cars. On several occasions, the bus is not able to pass because of the encroachment of parked cars. Rampuri is not nearly as wide as the BRT, but it is not a narrow road. Even if cars were to park on a diagonal in front of the store fronts, a bus—or any other vehicle—would be able to drive through without a problem.

Today, however, multiple cars had been parked in such a way that the bus was completely unable to pass at multiple points on the road. The bus driver was forced to stop the bus, turn off the engine, and honk the horn until the offending car owners could come and move their cars. Over twenty bus passengers waited ten minutes, a collective waste of at least 200 minutes, besides the time of passengers who waited at the bus stops ahead on the route for a now much-delayed bus. This also caused problems for motorists behind the bus, who could not pass through on this road. If motorists feel that it is acceptable to park their cars on a normal Delhi road such that the road becomes too narrow to allow a single lane of traffic to pass, how can there ever be a BRT corridor wide enough?

Where are the police authorities? Where are the fines for parking in such a way that obstructs traffic? Why is time only wasted—at least in a way that provokes government response—when cars have to wait?

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