Bus priority schemes must be designed for cities keeping in mind the local demand and preference. Making public bus transport appealing to city commuters again can go a long way in achieving transport sustainability

A robust bus transport system should essentially be the bedrock of any city’s urban mobility planning. Buses are sustainable, affordable and connect all parts of the cities. Because buses can carry around 50 people at once, they help decongest city roads by lowering the number of private cars. Still, they are not the preferred mode of transportation for urban commuters. This needs to be looked at seriously and the bottlenecks should be identified and removed promptly.

One of the persistent grievances of commuters in Indian cities has been the poor state of public transport. Most of the buses are in use without proper maintenance, causing heavy pollution and often they are not on time because of frequent breakdowns. This is leading to an exponential growth in the number of private vehicles. While the introduction of electric vehicles promise to reduce emissions significantly, they are still in the initial phase of mass adoption.

According to a recent government report on prioritising bus services, three out of the four metro cities surveyed have witnessed 50% growth in the number of private vehicles during 2012-18. The largest growth was in Delhi and Mumbai (50% each). They were followed by Bengaluru (48%) and Chennai (28%).

This rise in private vehicles increased congestion and resultantly a decrease in bus speeds. In Delhi, the average bus speed dipped from 13 kmph to 12.5 kmph during the six years. In Mumbai, the drop was from 13 kmph to 10.5 kmph. In Bengaluru, from 15 kmph to 13 kmph. And in Chennai, from 20 kmph to 17 kmph.

This slowdown resulted in additional time spent in bus travel per passenger per year between 11 hours and 59 hours. More time on roads meant more emissions, since the bus fleet in cities are largely run on fossil fuels (Although, a transition is underway to shift to electric buses, the progress can be accelerated).

Pic 1: How bus priority helps in improving bus services? Image via ‘Making Way For Buses: Guidance for Bus Priority Measures in Indian cities’ report

Based on the estimates, says the report, Bengaluru could have potentially saved 215 tonnes of CO2 in six years if there was no decline in ridership. The economic loss of passengers in the four metro cities was staggering: Delhi (Rs 368 cr); Mumbai (Rs 559 cr); Chennai (Rs 833 cr); and Bengaluru (Rs 3,153 cr).

To address these challenges in boosting bus ridership, bus priority measures need to be implemented in the urban centres across the country. For example, prioritising buses in Ahmedabad and Hubli Dharwad through Bus Rapid Transit Systems (BRTS), which is the highest level of bus priority, has increased the speed of buses to 24 kmph and 35 kmph, respectively.

Importance of Bus Priority Schemes in Urban Mobility

First, it is important to understand bus priority measures. What are they? Bus priority measures are a set of strategies to improve bus speeds leading to better efficiencies, better bus services, and reduced costs. These measures can be classified into three main categories:

  • Bus Stop Priorities: Reduce delays at bus stops by facilitating median lane movement of buses, level-boarding and alighting, rationalising the number of bus stops, and facilitating off-board ticketing.
  • Junction Priorities: Reduce delays at junctions by providing dedicated queuing space for buses and by altering traffic signals to facilitate movement of buses on priority.
  • Bus Lane Priorities: Improve the speed of buses by giving them dedicated road space or by reserving streets and lanes for them.

Success Stories: Bus Priority Systems in London and Singapore

Implementing bus priority measures in Indian cities can be a great force multiplier in moving towards sustainable or green mobility. There are examples in developed countries how these strategies have helped them boost bus transport and address sustainable mobility challenges positively.

London, for instance, boasts of one of the most elaborate and unusually decentralised approaches to bus priority systems anywhere in the world.

Pic 2. Bus only lane in London, clearly marked from other lanes. Image via Londra Gazette.

In order to draw in more people and reach net zero by 2030, Transport for London (TfL) developed a long-term action plan for buses in March 2022. It focuses on five areas – inclusive customer experience, safety and security, faster journeys, improved connections and decarbonisation and climate resilience. This is what they achieved:

  • 29% of the bus network has dedicated bus lanes.
  • 25% of the bus network has bus priority lanes reserved for 12 hours per day.
  • 54% of the bus network has peak hour bus lanes.
  • 30% of traffic signals are equipped with traffic signal priority.
  • 95% of violations are successfully detected by the enforcement agencies.

These measures resulted in about a 7% rise in bus demand and average reduction of 10 minutes in travel time.

Another example for the successful implementation of bus priority measures is Singapore, where the passengers’ boarding time decreased by 62%. The catchment areas of the bus network in the city-state are extensive with almost 90% of the population living within 300 m of the bus stop. In 2005, Transit Priority Corridors (TPCs), a network of 23 km, was introduced in the city centre. Currently, a 21.5 km TPC (North-South Corridor from Woodlands to the city) is being developed.

Public Awareness and Education for Bus Priority Schemes

Planning and implementing bus priority measures are only half the job done. Arousing public interest and creating awareness is the next big step. Marketing and outreach programmes are important tools for Urban Local Bodies, public transport agencies and traffic police to popularise the initiative and ensure acceptance among stakeholders. Without such programmes, the bus priority measures risk becoming unpopular due to ignorance or fear of the new system.

Developing a strong brand identity for the bus priority scheme is as important as designing the scheme. The next thing to do is educating the public about bus priority corridors, new routes, improved frequencies/schedules, median lanes, median bus stations, benefits, etc.

For enforcement, cameras must be installed on roads and the buses themselves. Separately, automated number plate recognition systems are needed at regular intervals and on busy stretches. Colouring the pavements so that the bus lanes become clearly visible is also important as it highlights the prominence of the transit system. Another way of ensuring compliance is restricting private vehicles’ access to bus lanes, but it would be wiser to encourage voluntary public support.