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Of “Killer” Buses and Car Lobbies: The Coincidental Death of the BRT

October 9, 2008

The sustained campaign by the elite press to jettison Delhi’s first mas transit bus system has been remarked upon and documented on Kafila. Today morning’s newspapers carries news of an accident in which 32-year old Poonam Sharma was killed as she tried crossing the road and was hit by an oncoming bus. Delhi’s record when it comes to road safety is abysmal and this is yet another instance of the the terrible and tragic fate that befalls many pedestrians every year on Delhi’s roads. What is interesting though is the way in which accidents on the BRT are reported compared to the reportage of other road fatalities. Here are some headlines from the recent past:

BRT Corridor Claims One More Life

BRT Delhi: Death Toll Continues, Pedestrians Blamed

Delhi BRT has it 10th Victim

BRT Claims another Life: Woman run over by Bus

This is certainly not the first time that an accident on the road has been atrributed to some uniquely malevolent quality in the BRT. This opposition to the BRT is a focussed version of the antagonism that extends to buses in general, even when its clear that private cars kill many more people every year. And yet the accidents on the BRT are presented as a result of inherent flaws in the structure of the road (it is the road itself that “claims” its victims), whereas car accidents, on other roads, are caused by human failure. So while BMW’s might have received some bad press, we don’t hear anyone saying private car ownership is a continuing and rising health hazard for the city’s residents, when in fact statistics show that in 2001 cars regularly mowed down over  2 and a half times as many people as buses, and in 2005 1,1717 people were killed on the road. Of these buses  killed only 106 people. So who killed the rest? Well, Pajero, Skoda, Safari and BMW to name only a few.

But do we hear the Chief Minister calling car ownership a “menace” even though clearly the blueline “killer fleet” is not a patch on the mayhem caused by cars every year. One would be excused for wondering if its safe to step out of doors at all with 4 million killing machines on the rampage on Delhi’s streets, and 963 being added everyday. At 6,500 in 2007, buses are an endangered species which still provide 60% of the city’s transportation.

It is no one’s case that steps do not need to be taken to stop the deaths caused by reckless buses. Road safety needs to improve drastically across the board. An appallingly large number of people are killed on the roads every year by cars, buses and motorbikes. But surely we must not confuse the solution with the problem. Buses are not the problem, cars are. More buses will mean less cars, less accidents and less pollution. And yet from the mid-nineties the image of the killer bus running amok on the streets of Delhi, mowing down terrified pedestrians in its path has been a staple of the mainstream press. The middle-classes were enraged when the BRT prioritized, as any sensible and sane transport system would, mass transport over private cars. One editorial in our favourite paper even asserted that the BRT was a nefarious leftist conspiracy to bring socialism to Delhi’s roads, worthy of Mao’s China no less, to “Ensure equal distribution of traffic and road space by “taking away” lanes from private vehicles to persuade (read force) car-owners to shift to public transport.” Wha..? We’re as bemused by this extraordinary statement as you are.

As we have had occasion to note earlier on Kafila, unless we all wish to be killed by asthama or insanity, this city desperately and urgently needs an equitable public transport system. There has to be a democracy of the roadways and we need to reclaim public transport for the public! Already the powers that be, having buckled to the petrol-guzzling-car-driving-screeching-middle-class are getting ready to axe the dedicated cycle lane in the next phases of the BRT. If the next CM doesn’t display some muscle and throw his/her weight behind the one project which might actually go some way towards solving the crises, I suppose they will have long hours to ponder the consequences of their pusillanimity as they hack into their respirator, nursing the arm some lunatic broke because they took his parking slot.

10 Comments leave one →
  1. Janaki permalink
    October 9, 2008 8:36 PM

    also interesting is that while it is the ‘private’ ‘blueline’ buses which have been demonised (of course rightly but the causes are in the privatisation and the resulting precarious work condition of the driver/conductor) this never translates into asking for a review of the policy of privatisation of public transport or asking for more DTC buses on the road (except for school buses!). instead it feeds to the demands of the car owners for flyovers, lesser traffic signals and as the BRT debate shows more traffic lanes.

  2. Aman Sethi permalink
    October 9, 2008 10:56 PM

    A particular problem has to do with the technocratic idea of “new technology” where the bus is considered the old way of doing things – as compared to the “newness” of the Delhi Metro.

    In New York – the pattern appears to be reversed where the buses actually display far more “technology” than the metro does .. the New York Metro is in many ways like the mumbai suburban train network – linear, crowded, and considered to be “So New York” – which roughly translates into the Mumbaikar idea of “thats Mumbai” or “the spirit of the city”. The “so New Yorkness” is a cover for the fact that most stations dont have display boards that indicate the time interval between trains … they actually have a conductor that calls out each station manually, and of course – there is no cellphone signal on the trains.
    It was however built in the late 19th century. At a stop on the “L” line – you can make out tiles that are dated “1862” – this is a reference i have been meaning to check – and will update once i do.

    The bus system by contrast is pretty gimmicky. New York has so called “kneeling buses” that actually – through a miracle of hydraulics – “kneel” at bus stops – so one side of the bus lowers till it is the same height as the curb; thereby facilitating wheelchair access.

    The appeal of gimmickry would explain why Delhi is sold on the idea of a “sky train” – think of the images it evokes – to paraphrase
    “Lightly o lightly we glide and we sing
    We bear her along like a train on a string”

    Even the name – SKY TRAIN – it evokes a sensation of lightness, flight, happiness. a feeling of rising above the squalor of the city. In fact it even sounds better than AIRBUS – and air buses are actually planes …

    If i didnt know what either was, chances are I would invariably choose a skytrain over an airbus.

    The other world of course is monorail – now how cool is that .. a Monorail – it sounds so indescribably advanced .. I feel like i would need to take a diuretic before i got onto a monorail, with a tripod in my hand … “Its great to be bipedal” I would say, “Are those signsboards made of Light Emitting Diodes instead of Liquid Crystal Displays?”

    Now what if we were to make it even cooler? I know – lets call a “world-class” “zero emission” “fully automated” “ergonomic” “monorail” “sky train”?

    Bus Rapid Transit? You must be kidding.

  3. Aman Sethi permalink
    October 10, 2008 9:38 AM

    The question of the privatisation of public transport is an interesting one. while it has been some time since i looked at the issue – my recollection of the situation is that post BRT – the Delhi government has actually ordered around 2000 new low floor and semi-low floor buses for an actual expansion of the fleet.

    While these are slightly old figures – the data from states that :
    “DTC was taken over by Govt. of N.C.T. of Delhi from Govt. of India in August, 1996. The DTC fleet comprised 3131 buses in 1998-99, which has increased marginally to 3200 buses in 1999-2000. A major fleet expansion is planned in 2000-01, with the number of buses projected to increase to 4600. DTC has also engaged 2623 buses of private operators under the kilometer scheme in 1999-2000. 87-90 percent of the DTC buses have been on road in the last two years, compared to a low of 53.7% in 1995-96. Fleet utilization has increased significantly since 1995-96.
    16. About 57% of DTC buses are overage (exceeding eight years), out of which about 24% are more than 10 years old.
    17. The DTC fleet comprised 8.9% of the total number of buses registered in Delhi in 1998-99.”

    The new orders thus imply an increase of about 75 per cent – however with old buses being phased out, you are probably right in assuming that the fleet size shall increase only marginally.

    I personally am not sure what a nationalisation of the entire bus fleet will achieve. It might be a positive in terms of better labour conditions for the drivers and conductors – but otherwise I dont know how it will improve service.

    Other ideas being talked about as late as August 08, revolve around handing over licenses on a zone by zone basis – where private coalitions will be paid a flat fee by the government and told to run the buses – this should, theoretically, eliminate competition within city routes and bus drivers will not be forced to race along city routes in an attempt to maximise passengers.

    As i have written before – the radial shape of the city presents peculiar problems for public transport as buses/trains do not have high density corridors that offer favourable passengers per kilometre ratios. The spread out nature of the city makes it conducive for car driving.

    In fact the best way to actually curb car use would probably be to raise parking rates and designate certain parts of the city – like markets for instance, car free zones.. This has been written about but never seriously pursued.

    It would be interesting to see how the auto industry fares in the next few years. Globally most car companies in the first world are facing severe losses – the Detroit motor companies – particular GM and Chrysler are lurching from bail out to bail out, and the onset of a recession has meant that auto sales in August 08 fell around 30 per cent. This is primarily due to the tightening of credit markets (most cars are bought on loan) – so we are going to see a far more aggressive growth strategy in Asia – particularly india and china.

  4. Sunalini Kumar permalink*
    October 10, 2008 7:20 PM

    and nobody bothers to establish the precise manner in which the BRT’s BRT-ness caused the accident. is it because the bus was going too fas? but of course buses on regular roads go fast and kill people. or is it that pedestrian crossings are dangerous. but er..pedestrian crossings on regular roads are practically non-existent and even more dangerous. i mean, doesn’t it need to be comprehensively proved how the BRT’s peculiarity somehow caused the accident? for fairness’ sake, accidents on regular roads should be headlined ‘regular non-BRT road claims yet another life’…

  5. Janaki permalink
    October 11, 2008 10:12 PM

    The present volume of buses in delhi, including the new AC and non AC low floor buses, is woefully inadequate. there are indeed many ideas to improve public transport in delhi and almost all of them involve putting more buses on the road, a revision of bus routes and better integration of different modes of public transport. even the great Sreedharan itself has consistenly advocated expansion of bus network and revival of the ring railway and integration of both with the delhi metro. a suggestion no one seems to be taking seriously. incidently recently the delhi metro feeder bus (the one run by the DMRC and not the private RTVs) killed a person and the news was not reported on lines of the BRT accidents.

  6. Aarti permalink*
    October 12, 2008 6:43 PM

    Thanks for jumping in Aman. I was talking to Pradeep Saha of CSE the other day and he said that when speaking of the environmental impact (such as cutting trees, digging up earth and mucking up groundwater etc) of rethinking the city’s transport we need to be making a distinction between projects like the widening of roads and flyover construction which are intended to ease up space for private cars, and projects like the Metro and BRT which are mass transit systems. In Delhi the government seems to be pursuing both with equal verve. From your reading of similar projects in the RTW, are these two visions necessarily antagonistic, or is there some happy harmony that is held out as the promise of the future? Has private car ownership actually fallen in any city after an effective mass transit system comes into being?

  7. Aman permalink
    October 13, 2008 11:25 AM

    It would actually be great to get someone like Gautam Bhan in on this and get his perspectives on the issue as a planner.

    The link between cars and public transport is an interesting one .. but the answer is one that no one seems to like.

    At some point in the who BRT media circus Dinesh Mohan was excoriated for saying that congestion is finally the only barrier to car utilization – it was interpreted as another “socialist” “quota raj” “license raj” type comment. But if you think about – and this was explained to me by another transportation expert – there is some truth to it.

    Lets assume that Delhi gets a great public transport system that can efficiently ferry people from one point in the city to another in moderate comfort and at reasonable cost. To incentivize it over the car – we offer dedicated corridors to buses and the metro of course has its own line. Thus the lure of public transport is that it gets you from say – patparganj to south ex without the trauma of battling traffic.

    The system is a great success – and after a point everyone starts using this fantastic system. They use to the point where people stop using cars. Thus traffic also thins out. After a point traffic will thin out to the point where it actually becomes more convenient to actually drive from patparganj to South ex again. Why stand and wait for buses or trains, possibly stand for 15 minutes before you get a seat, think about how you are going to get back, when the roads are relatively clear and parking is not a problem?

    So car traffic starts building up again until we hit a equilibrium point where the trauma of traffic is only just balanced by the relative convenience of cars.

    Hence we will have to learn to live with an equilibrium level of congestion.

    Now i would like to point out that i have not seen any data to substantiate what appears to be a seductively simple premise. I would be interested in seeing what our readers have to say.

    One caveat is that the model assumes that cars are fairly easy to own – which is true for the current scenario.

    Hence one way to alter the position of this equilibrium could be to make car ownership difficult – if you – for example raise the price of cars and make car loans more expensive – that would automatically reduce the number of new cars on the road.

    Or increase the price of petrol for example, and make diesel cars prohibitively expensive. Or as i suggested earlier – make parking far more expensive.

    I see an argument on why private transportation should not be the sole preserve of the elite – but I’m still not sure how to think it through.
    Would be interested in feedback.

  8. Gautam Bhan permalink
    October 16, 2008 5:23 AM

    Aman – meant to respond to this specifically from your comment above: “As i have written before – the radial shape of the city presents peculiar problems for public transport as buses/trains do not have high density corridors that offer favourable passengers per kilometre ratios. The spread out nature of the city makes it conducive for car driving.”

    This is actually not true. The question of supporting public transit is not a question of how spread out cities are, but actually one of population density. Though Delhi is spread out, no planner would argue that its density levels are not high enough to support economically viable public transport. The question, I think, is more political than topographical. It isn’t that delhi’s geography doesnt pose some challenges, but they are easily answerable by good design. cities with much harder terrains have much better connectivity.


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