Traffic diversion

July 17th, 2012

BRT Delhi (Wikimedia Commons: IncMan CC BY 2.0)Delhi’s traffic is a topic of national interest. Delhi is, after all, one of the very few cities in India, and certainly the largest, that comes without a big predominantly rural state attached. This city is a state, and can order its priorities by its own needs. It has the resources to do what it wants. (Let us pretend for a moment that 20 million people or more can have a single list of wants.)

So it is no surprise that Delhi leads the country in urban change. CNG-powered public transport, stricter emissions regulations, better buses, wider roads and new parking lots, cartoonishly big investments in a metro, expensive sports facilities, heritage-conscious cleanups of Connaught Place and other parts, endless exurbs full of empty flats, malls, malls, malls — all these landmarks of contemporary Indian urbanism either began or attained scale or visibility here.

What Delhi wants, therefore, is worth watching. Right now, Delhi appears to want to get rid of the Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) corridor. This is a 5 km stretch of major road between central and south Delhi that has been divided up between different classes of traffic: two lanes for buses, four for cars and motorbikes, two for cycles. There are more cars and bikes than buses, though more people travel by bus and bicycle than by private vehicle. By people numbers, then, the new road division is not unfair. As far as traffic flow goes, BRT is more or less disastrous. Unless they have no choice, private motorists do their best to avoid the BRT corridor.

The Delhi government was planning to extend BRT to other major arteries. But a recent study by the Central Road Research Institute says the BRT is inefficient at moving traffic, and wasteful of time and fuel. Meanwhile a court has ordered traffic authorities to open all lanes to traffic pending a final decision on the BRT corridor. It could well happen that BRT is struck down. People in cars will be happy. People in buses and on cycles don’t matter. Lefties will moan in the op-eds, but they don’t matter either — in fact, the city pages of the same papers will probably mark BRT’s demise with more positive coverage.

Oh well. A couple of important points to note. (1) BRT was so halfheartedly executed, and so limited in scope (just 5 km on one route over half a dozen years) that it was never going to achieve much. And (2) it would never have worked in Delhi anyway, because we Delhiites are terrible at putting our fellow citizens, or indeed a civic ideal, first.

For example: right from the start Delhi’s lawbreaking bikers took over the BRT corridor’s cycle lanes, and cars (especially government cars) bullied their way into the bus lanes. Pedestrians crossed wherever they wished to; it didn’t help that they had to cross the car lanes to get to the bus stops. At first the traffic police tried to fight all these (totally predictable) misuses with massive deployment. Naturally they could not keep it up.

Delhi’s citizenry is, of course, unusually useless at rubbing along together. Despite all the money and effort that the city government is expending on creating supposedly public and class-blind facilities, among which BRT, the new buses and the Metro are three big ones, the effect in this city will be to entrench rather than erode differences. What’s more, if other Indian cities wish to emulate Delhi by investing in similar systems — and they’re doing it already, from Jaipur to Chennai and lots of places in between — they should expect a similar result: a social Delhi-isation.

Invest in roads, there will be more cars. More cars means more atomised travel, more class separation. To balance the car, invest in buses and Metro (the Centre will pay part of the cost anyway). Bus and Metro will cannibalise pre-existing/ad hoc cheap public transport, and overall fares will rise. As fares rise, the pressure on long-distance low-income commuters will increase. Besides, not all low-income commuters are made welcome on “world class” systems like BRT and Metro — just watch the behaviour of security staff at the Metro entry checkpoints for proof of this, and compare bus and Metro commuters over the same routes.

More options is not a bad thing, but in Delhi, and in non-equal Indian society in general, more options allows the classes to segregate themselves by income and appearance. Since those options include a disproportionate dedication to the car and Metro user, who is disproportionately middle- or upper-middle-class, the result is not more social encounters between the classes but less.

The lesson? Government can spend on the best, most up-to-date mass transport facilities, but when there is no equality in thought or deed, and even the battles over public space are fought by unequal forces — well, then, the consequences are obvious even if unintended: more of the same.
(Image of Delhi BRT system: IncMan CC BY 2.0, Wikimedia Commons)

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