Bogotá, the capital of Colombia, was once the battleground for drug lords, and is still instinctively associated with drugs. But to 24-year-old Madhav Pai, who heard about Bogotá’s urban planning from its former mayor, Enrique Peñalosa, the city is an inspiration for what it did with urban transportation. It was near the end of Pai’s postgraduate course in transport planning at the University of California, Berkeley, when Peñalosa was invited to lecture.

Pai took in all that Peñalosa said, about how Bogotá gave priority to public transport over private cars, and built hundreds of kilometres of sidewalks, bicycle lanes, pedestrian paths, and greenways. “He [Peñalosa] deliberately left roads unpaved so that cars could not be used on them,” says Pai. And it worked.

TransMilenio, Bogotá’s hugely successful bus rapid transit (BRT) system, became the first large transportation project to be approved by the UN (in 2006) to generate and sell carbon credits under the Kyoto Protocol. (The buses travelled on unpaved roads.)

For Pai, who had grown up in Mumbai, where overcrowded trains and buses are a way of life, Peñalosa’s lecture was an eye-opener. He was studying transport planning because he wanted to go back to Mumbai and improve public transportation there. In 2008, back in Mumbai, he helped set up Embarq India, the India branch of Embarq, a not-for-profit initiative of the World Resources Institute (WRI), an environmental think tank in Washington, D.C. Embarq India works with local transport authorities to improve urban transport systems, among other things. The local chapter of Embarq is the only non-profit that works on just BRT in India.

Pai’s 35-member team includes architects, engineers, and city planners. It is looking at bus transportation rather than Metro rail, since it is cheaper for a city to build roads than special railway lines. While it costs around Rs 10 crore to Rs 12 crore to build a kilometre of BRT, the same distance will cost almost 167% more for a Metro or a monorail track if it is overland, and 1,600% more if underground. “Delhi spent Rs 30,000 crore for Phase 1 and 2 [190 km of the Delhi Metro], while building 140 km of BRT in Ahmedabad, which ferries half a million people every day, cost just Rs 2,000 crore,” says Pai.

“The lifecycle costs of a metro are much higher than BRT,” says Pai, adding that even affluent countries such as Britain and the U.S. are turning to BRT, realising what it costs to maintain metros. But what about the failed BRT experiment in Delhi? “There were problems in its planning, which can easily be resolved,” says Pai. His tip: extend the Delhi BRT. With Mumbai and Bangalore in the initial stages of planning their own BRTs, the next few years are likely to be a “tipping point” for the expansion of the system in Indian cities, he says.

The concepts of BRT are the same globally; only implementation differs because of local conditions. For instance, Embarq Brazil has been active since 2005. Although the Brazilian government pioneered the state-of-the art BRT system in Curitiba in the ’70s, there wasn’t much success with BRT otherwise. However, Brazil is now spending around $18.6 billion (Rs 1.05 lakh crore) to upgrade its urban infrastructure for World Cup 2014 and the Olympic Games in 2016. And BRT is a big part of this. Brazil is already less car-dependent than other countries, with urban mass transit accounting for 60% of all motorised trips.

Embarq provided technical assistance to Indore, which launched the trial run of its iBus BRT in April this year. The BRT includes an 11.4 km corridor, 21 bus stops, and custom-designed buses, which are expected to serve 70,000 passengers daily.

Pai’s team is also helping the planners of New Raipur, a city that is being set up as the capital of Chhattisgarh.

With more cities realising the benefits—in terms of lower cost, lower pollution, greater safety, better coverage—of BRT, there may be more Bogotás. Peñalosa, take a bow.

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