It’s been more than a generation since the Brazilian city of Curitiba pioneered Bus Rapid Transit. Since then this cost-effective and flexible transit system — which repurposes existing roadways into bus routes rather than constructing capital-intensive new railways — has become a worldwide model for urban mobility in both affluent and developing nations. A new addition to the BRT network was recently launched in India. Last year the northwestern city of Ahmedabad opened the first phase of the Janmarg — the People’s Way. Though still in its infancy, the system has already attracted favorable attention: early this year the U.S.-based Institute for Transportation & Development Policy awarded Janmarg its Sustainable Transport Award.
Ahmedabad, in the state of Gujarat, is India’s seventh largest and fifth richest city; it’s become a thriving commercial center — via industries including textiles, pharmaceuticals and construction — and its educational institutions attract a large student population. Currently almost five million residents are spread across 80 square miles; local officials estimate that 10 million will inhabit 450 square miles by 2031. Yet while parts of the city flourish, others continue to struggle with poverty. And like most Indian cities, Ahmedabad is grappling with the challenge of adapting existing infrastructure to increasing traffic. The city’s roads have become clogged as ever larger numbers of private vehicles — cars, scooters and motorbikes – compete with buses, trucks, rickshaws, bicycles, pedestrians, hawkers, cows, camels and the occasional elephant. Such congestion, along with rising levels of air pollution, has prompted the national government to encourage cities across the subcontinent to explore progressive transit options, and a few years ago it selected ten cities to receive funds to develop BRT services (these funds would then be supplemented by investment from state and local governments).
“The BRT projects are at various levels of completion, but some of the implemented systems have attracted criticism,” notes Manish Trivedi, director of administration and finance for Janmarg. “In Delhi, for instance, the system is not well integrated with other transport, so people are only assured of making it partway to their destination. In Pune, things moved too fast without enough comprehensive planning, and the result is merely a modified bus service. Here in Ahmedabad, we saw BRT as the first strategic intervention in a long-term, city-wide urban vision.”
To get the process going, the local governing body, the Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation, approached one of the city’s prominent universities, the Centre for Environmental Planning and Technology, to study options and propose solutions. Shivanand Swamy, a member of the senior faculty in urban planning, led the research team. The CEPT team quickly concluded that the existing municipal bus service didn’t provide the kind of timeliness and comfort that would make it a good alternative to private cars.
Focusing on socio-economic needs, the planners developed priorities: to provide poorer citizens good access to employment and education centers; to create a multimodal system of main and feeder lines that would serve both densely settled districts and more dispersed areas; and to safely accommodate cyclists and pedestrians. “We devised routes based on connections to key railway stations, industrial estates, recreational areas and colleges, with the goal of providing access for all Ahmedabadis,” recounts Swamy. “We approached NGO’s for their guidance on access and inclusivity for the disabled and disadvantaged.” Swamy notes that the proposed 55-mile BRT network was organized to integrate with conventional buses and rail lines and also with automobiles, so citizens could use the different modes for various legs of intercity journeys. The planners also incorporated cycle lanes and footpaths — far from ubiquitous in India — and these have been extensively landscaped to provide shade. “We opted for full BRT mode, including predominantly dedicated corridors for buses, rather than mixed-use lanes, as in some cities,” says Swamy. “Dedicated lanes are the key to making a bus system smooth and speedy — a real alternative to private vehicles.”
Working with local architects, Swamy’s CEPT group hosted public workshops and coordinated input from technology partners and civic groups. Prior to launching, they created a bus shelter prototype and invited public feedback. The shelters that were eventually constructed reflect a focus on multifunctional simplicity: backlit signage doubles as lighting at night; the passive solar design features cantilevered slabs and cross ventilation; external seating is integrated into the structure. And to ensure that funds would be sustainable, the planners set up public-private partnerships to handle various services within the system, from the provision of the actual buses to ticketing. Ahmedabad’s BRT is being implemented in phases, with about 11 out of the total 55 miles now in operation. The planning team continues to monitor criticism and identify challenges.
Janmarg officially started in July 2009, with three months of free ridership for all Ahmedabadis — a trial period to allow for solving glitches and for easing opposition sentiments. Indeed, in a city that juggles cultural tradition with globalized modernity, resistance to change runs high. On this count, the system scored a major success during Navratri, a nine-night Hindu celebration featuring folk dancing that is a highlight of the Gujarati festive calendar. To accommodate the large late-night crowds, extra buses were added — convincing many that Janmarg was truly a people-centric service. “Much of the success so far has been due to the fact that CEPT has been a trusted partner,” says AMC’s municipal commissioner I.P. Gautam. “They have been dedicated to ensuring that the project is about not just administering imported ideas but also adapting them for our city, our people.” And he notes that this user-centered focus has attracted attention from other Indian cities, “who are now seeking our advice.” Initial success has also earned the system an award from India’s Ministry of Urban Development, which cited Ahmedabad’s in-depth consideration of local factors, and which has deemed CEPT a center of excellence in urban transport.
Still, the creation of Janmarg wasn’t an entirely smooth ride. Longstanding cultural and behavioral factors proved to be challenges. About 200 religious structures fell within the proposed bus network. It required sensitive negotiation with communities to work out a solution in which the structures were relocated, and even then, two Hindu temples and a Muslim memorial resisted the removal efforts and were eventually incorporated into the bus routes — constituting a kind of tribute to enduring tradition within progressive urban development. Cycle lanes — a new concept in Ahmedabad — are being misused by carefree scooter and motorbike drivers, while they’ve yet to draw a critical mass of cyclists. Hence student groups are holding cycle rallies to build awareness of the benefits of cycling and the provisions already in place to secure cyclists’ rights-of-way. Rickshaw drivers were initially suspicious of competing transport developments; but they are now satisfied that their contributions to city mobility have been incorporated into the system with dedicated parking spaces near BRT routes.
On board the buses the most applauded feature is the provision of at-grade boarding — a hallmark of the best BRT systems, whereby passengers enter and exit buses at raised station platforms, without having to climb or descend stairs. Not only does this improve accessibility for the elderly, challenged and very young; it’s also been hailed as a plus point by many saree-clad female passengers. The span of income groups using the service is immediately evident and signals one of the BRT’s biggest impacts in Ahmedabad. Even motorists are being lured by the efficiency of Janmarg. Raju Schroff, who owns a local factory, now takes the bus to work. As a result, he says, “My daily commuting time has been more than halved, and I arrive at work calm rather than hassled from being stuck in traffic.” Jagu Desai, a tribal laborer, affirms her appreciation of its speed and comfort, and she seems pleased that her views were as much of interest to me as Schroff’s. Voice announcements and LED displays in both Gujarati and English — also a new feature for public transport in the city — are appreciated by the diverse passengers. As bus operator Panchal Kirti reports: “Not only can deaf people watch and blind people listen but people who can’t read are not excluded from being informed. So everyone on board can relax till their destination is announced.”
Ahmedabad’s comprehensive planning has pushed well past the mere concept of BRT — right through to encouraging physical resilience and solidarity amongst bus operators. Driver Jintendra Patel recalls that the two-month training included daily yoga sessions. “Yoga helps maintain calm and focus while driving,” he says, “and it counters the back problems that develop from sitting for long periods.” Consulting architect Meghal Arya applauds the breadth of the planning considerations, which accounted for users, providers and operators. “Janmarg is likely to raise the whole city’s value,” she says, “but best of all it raises expectations about civic services in India.” Arun Amrutla, an Ahmedabadi man who has been crippled since birth, seems to agree. “Its so easy for people like me to get on and off the Janmarg buses,” he says. This kind of system, he continues, can truly change people’s lives — especially those who are physically and financially challenged. “Janmarg gives us access to parts of the city that we couldn’t access before — for education, employment or enjoyment — so today it’s more our city now than it ever has been.”