Bengaluru-based couple Bharathy and Jayprakash have lived in the city for over 15 years. Bharathy still remembers how, during her first pregnancy in 2005, her husband had rushed back from Marathahalli in east Bengaluru to JP Nagar in the south within 25 minutes, when she had to be admitted to the hospital. "Imagine trying to achieve that today -- it's close to impossible" she says as they stand in line to board a bus from Silk Board Junction towards Marathahalli.
Impossible, because from 1.4 million vehicles in 2000, today the city has over 8 million vehicles on its streets. Every second Bangalorean owns, and uses, his or her own vehicle. A reason why, over the last couple of years, the cry for an efficient, fast and reliable public transport system has been growing.
It's no wonder then, Bengaluru and Gurugram, the bustling business hubs of the country, have been grabbing headlines for having the worst infrastructure that are hampering their growth. Gurugram for its polluted air and Bengaluru for its never-ending traffic jams.
Three weeks back, the Bengaluru Metropolitan Transport Corporation finally implemented bus priority lanes (BPL) in parts of the city's most grid-locked roads. All vehicles are supposed to keep off the extreme-left lane of the roads.
The pilot project took-off on November 15 along the Silk Board-Marathahalli-Tin Factory route -- and has yielded some good results now. Commute time on an average has been reduced by 15 minutes, when citizen activists got together with officials to do a status check of the plan and tweak it better.
In an attempt to raise awareness and encourage compliance, citizen volunteers from the Citizens for Bengaluru (CFB) along with the Bus Prayaneekara Vedike (BBPV), Whitefield Rising (WR) and Bellandur Jothege (BJ) embarked on the #NimbusExpress Bus Yatra. Volunteers hailed buses from Silkboard junction, while few others took a ride from Marathalli and headed towards Ecospace on the ORR.
"Usually, this same commute would take an hour or more but today we managed to get here in under 35 minutes. This should be reason enough for people to choose bus over sitting in their private vehicles," exclaimed Yogeesh Prabhuswamy, an IT professional working with Marvell Tech.
Yogeesh was tired of spending two hours every day to get to work in his office cab. Wanting to make a difference, he decided to ditch the cab and instead travels from his home in Vijaynagar to Baiypanhalli by metro and then takes a bus towards global tech park on ORR. He says the bus journey not only saves him time but also allows him to socialise with fellow commuters, conversations that he looks forward to.
According to Bangalore Metropolitan Transport Corporation (BMTC) MD C Shikha, in just three weeks, services have witnessed 12,000 more passengers on the route. "The idea of a bus priority lane was proposed in 2014, but we have finally managed to implement it. This is different from the Bus Rapid Transport System (BRTS) as here, we are only asking people to keep the left lane free for BMTC buses".
But is it as simple as that? Will people stick to the rules? Are the traffic police equipped to man such lanes? The Bengaluru Traffic Police will impose a fine of Rs 500 for first-time offenders and Rs 1,000 fine for subsequent violations. But is it enough?
"People keep breaking traffic signals, if the police can install cameras to check on those and have electronic enforcement along the route with strict and massive fines, it should act as a deterrent for those violating the bus priority lanes as well," said Tara Krishnaswamy, a citizen activist and member of Citizens for Bengaluru.
But the chances of getting caught and punished for violations are extremely low. An earlier proposal of setting up a bus priority lane on the Old Airport Road was struck down as the police department didn't have adequate budget. While city police commissioner Bhaskar Rao was enjoying his bus commute on the ORR stretch, he didn't divulge details on how his agency was planning to meet the costs.
BBMP Mahadevpura Zonal Commissioner D Randeep was more gung-ho about the initiative. "We have started with the ORR because BPL needs a wider carriageway. There are 11 high density corridors across Bengaluru, including roads like Bellary Road and Tumkur Road, which we can look at in the future. We have started getting requests from many inner zones, so if people make this a success it could be considered.”
While explaining why the bus priority lane is the next best option knowing that a BRTS, metro and suburban rail are far from reality, Srinivas Alavilli, of Citizens for Bengaluru, feels if people see the speed of buses going faster than cars it will work as an incentive for them to switch to buses instead. "A bus occupies the same space as three cars, but carries a load of 40 cars, which is why giving buses a priority lane will get more people to use public transport".
But many are of the opinion that bus priority lanes aren't a long-term solution. One of the telling factors is the fact that this lane will cater to only the BMTC buses, keeping all private/school/inter-state buses left to ply on the other lanes. The ratio of these mass transport vehicles outnumber BMTC buses plying on bengaluru's roads.
HSR Layout Resident Kamlesh Rastogi believes that the bus priority lane could be a step in the right direction, but without feeder and shuttle services to get one on to ORR, this service can't be optimised. "Our objective should be to minimise the number of private vehicles on the road, this will not only reduce traffic but also lower pollution".
Nagesh Aras, a Bellandur resident, points out how various authorities have not considered the practical difficulties in implementing this project. "If the left lane is left for BMTC alone, what are the alternatives for offloading passengers in the middle of the general lanes? This will only push people to use the service road instead, which could lead to the mother of all traffic jams".
The project has its pros and cons, but it will be left up to Bengalureans to decide whether it succeeds or fails.