Can Bengaluru bus lanes reduce traffic pain?

Passengers in city Bus, in Bengaluru. Photo by S K Dinesh

In 1985, when Outer Ring Road (ORR) as such was at the conceptual stage, M S V Rao, an expert from the Indian Institute of Management, Bengaluru, suggested that the government build dedicated lanes for Bus Rapid Transport System (BRTS) and a circular rail network to support the growth of Bengaluru.

Rao was writing on the invitation by Karnataka State Council for Science and Technology, which was developing a compendium of expert opinions to plan and project the future of the city. He explained that BRTS can carry double the number of passengers when compared with buses operating in mixed traffic.

This piece of history serves well at a time when the government is rushing to launch a priority bus lane on a 20-km corridor between Silk Board and Vivekananda TTMC in K R Puram. While the necessity of such infrastructure is accepted by many, experts, and even officials, have questioned the hurried approach to implement the project.

Anxious countdown

Bangalore Metropolitan Transport Corporation (BMTC) is now caught in an anxious countdown as the last-minute rush to set up the lanes and the system has kept its officials on their toes. They fear that any setback during the pilot project will make the public sceptical of the bus lane idea.

Officials, preferring anonymity, said Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike (BBMP) has taken up the work without any relevant study on the traffic density, carriage capacity or effectiveness of single-lane bus corridors.

“We had said that a project-specific study was crucial before embarking on the bus lane. But our concerns were ignored. The estimates are based on previous studies by Directorate of Urban Land Transport (DULT) and World Resources Institute (WRI),” sources in BBMP said.

However, DULT officials deny their involvement in the planning process at the initial stage. “Our inputs for the bus lane work were sought recently. Since the project requires detailed design specifications, we have sought time for a study,” sources in DULT said.

Sources in the BBMP and the BMTC said the November 1 deadline for the launch of the project was impractical. “There are two sides to the problem. Besides the pending work on the ground, there is no awareness among the public about the project and its importance. They will simply blame us for taking away the road,” a BBMP official said.

BMTC, BBMP say all is well

However, BBMP commissioner B H Anil Kumar said the decisions on the details of the project as well as the launch date were taken collectively. “Officials of all the departments were present during the meeting. The decision was taken only after mutual agreement,” he said.

BMTC Managing Director C Shikha said a series of events has been planned to spread awareness among the public. “We are working with other departments as well as civic groups to reach out to the public. Consultation meetings will be held with Outer Ring Road Companies Association (ORRCA) and other companies interested in the project,” she said.

“We see the project as a win-win situation for all. It will not only increase the efficiency of our operations but also avoid any inconvenience to mixed traffic. Meetings will be held with,” she added. 

Meanwhile, the idea of installing iron bollards has also been questioned by officials. “Both Indian Road Congress and Ministry of Road Transport and Highways do not recommend bollards. In a high-density corridor like ORR, the bollards may do more harm than good. This should have been studied,” a senior official said.

Interestingly, at an event on traffic congestion last year, experts from WRI had recommended a two-lane corridor dedicated for buses. There has been no analysis of the effectiveness of priority bus corridor on a single lane separated by bollards. 

‘Route rationalisation crucial’

Urban mobility expert Ashwin Mahesh, one of the first persons to express concern over the project, said priority bus lanes should be seen in the larger scheme of BMTC operations, where many reforms were needed.

“To improve bus movement speeds, a number of interconnected measures should be taken up in a certain order of priority as each step depends on the previous one. Route rationalisation and removing overlaps on all radial directions and direction orientation are two crucial steps. This should be followed by an increase in the number of trips on the radial and circumferential arterial roads,” he said.

Shikha agreed that bus lanes can’t be a one-point solution to the issues troubling the corporation but said the BMTC would be better off working with the momentum. “Bus priority lanes are crucial for us at this stage. In parallel, we are working to fix the basics. Till a month ago, our intelligence transport system (ITS) was not effective as only 30% of the vehicle tracking units were operational. Now, 85% of the devices are working. Accurate data from ITS will help the route rationalisation process,” she said.

Causes of concern

Officials admitted that bus breakdown on the 3.5-metre corridor and traffic management at junctions where private vehicles take free left turns are two major concerns yet to be addressed.

“Two bollards were damaged in the first two days of the test drive. BMTC drivers are now being trained to operate the vehicle on the bus lane. Regarding junctions, we are still evaluating various technicalities to avoid a clash with mixed traffic,” an official from the BBMP engineering department said.

IISc professor and transport engineering expert Ashish Verma said officials should not have installed physical barriers on the road without knowing its effectiveness.

“System-level planning is required before moving ahead with such projects. Delhi BRTS failed because they did not do the much-needed homework and had no idea of origin and destination trips or the demand analysis. Plans like inducing a shift in mode share are much more complex than they appear. Rushing the project without working such details may permanently block the bus lane at a policy level,” he said.

A member of the Bengaluru Vision Group, which also recommended the bus priority lanes, said the present approach seems to be a cosmetic makeover. “The vision group meeting in 2016 discussed the idea. It was clear that radical changes are needed in the city’s mobility sector, starting from state funding of BMTC to disincentivising use of private vehicles in the city. Such makeovers require political will,” he said.

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