Monday, 20 January 2014

South American transport revolution - BRTS

South America used to be famous – or notorious – only for political revolutions. But there has been a bus revolution there, orchestrated mainly by politically active mayors, which has been ignored by news media, industrialists, NGOs and intellectuals in general but taken note of by other Mayors, Chief Ministers and heads of regional governments. This has been a logistical Great Leap, not technological; it has come from politicians; it has resulted in dramatic improvements in public transport, at very low cost – phenomenal savings on public money. 

Usual road, cars crowding buses

The basic idea, is that buses are the cheapest, most efficient, most democratic form of public transport in cities: not cars, not local trains –either on land, elevated or in underground subways. The idea started in the Brazilian town of Curitiba, and has spread to several towns in South America. Its most vocal and powerful exponent has been Enrique Penalosa, Mayor of Bogota, Colombia, which used to feature in TV or newspapers only when drug cartels or left wing terrorists were newsworthy. Penalosa gave a long lecture in Madras a few years back, but here is an excellent brief TED talk by him. 

BRT in Bogota, Colombia
At that time it was received skeptically by the Madras audience, especially government servants, media, and academics, who argued that in India, such a scheme was not possible, because first VVIPs : PM & CMs, then Emergency services like Fire and Ambulance, then Judges, then every MP and MLA, then every government servant and Vice-Chancellor and so on would ask for special exemption to use the bus lane, and it would be as crowded as the regular lanes. These objections were social and political. The logistical objections were that there not enough broad roads, crowds in India are too big, what happens when buses breakdown, this will require high bus ticket prices, our contractors will dig up the roads etc. 

Penalosa’s arguments are:

Road space should be used democratically – a bus carrying 80 people should have 80 times the road space as a car carrying one person. His grand insight : “An advanced city is not one where even the poor use cars, but where even the rich use buses.”

The best way to do this is to have separate bus lanes, high speed buses, tickets issued at bus stops on the platforms, large doors, no stairs on the buses and platforms the same level as bus floors. The first two may be obvious, but the other points are vital – without them, entering exiting and ticketing times will severely slow down buses. All these are logistical ideas, no new technology is needed. To me, this is the great marvel of this system and so remarkable in its innovation.

Trains are a bad idea, because they cost a HUNDRED times more, require lots of planning and construction; take a long time to build. BRT transports as many people in the same time for lower cost than all metro trains, except one route in Beijing.


Since buses are not sexy, they must be promoted with suitable social incentives: calling bus drivers “pilots”, air-conditioning buses, making bus stops attractive and convenient.

A BRT bus stop
This revolution has since spread, to several towns across the world, with different levels of quality and effect. The best version in India, is in Ahmedabad in Gujarat. In Delhi, this caused chaos when Sheila Dixit implemented it, because the Delhi BRT buses had stairs, no ticket counters on platforms, narrow doors : simply regular buses with separate lanes. Imitation, without thought. Early on, a case was filed and the High Court allowed private cars on the bus lane, but a later judgment accepted the contention, that “a developed country is one where the rich use buses.”

BRT in Ahmedabad
I will write more on this. Also, Tamil Version tomorrow.

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