The 130,000-odd commuters who use the Bus Rapid Transport System (BRTS) corridor every day in the western Indian city of Ahmedabad get more benefits than reaching their destinations in record time. A new study has shown that the air they breathe in is less polluted than the air breathed in by the car and two-wheeler users stuck in traffic in the lanes alongside.

And this is despite the fact that only 10% of the buses plying the corridor from one end of the city to another are air-conditioned (AC), according to Akhil Brahmbhatt, deputy general manager of Ahmedabad Janmarg Limited (AJL).

The Centre for Environment Planning and Technology, based in Ahmedabad, recently studied commuters’ exposure to PM 2.5 – minuscule bits of carbon emitted by vehicle engines which are breathed in and lodge in the lungs. Quoting the results, Brahmbhatt told it “proves that exposure on BRTS is minimum. AC car users have lower exposure than two wheelers. However, non-AC car users face more exposure, probably because of users being in a confined space. Only 10% of the fleet is AC. Even then BRTS users face low exposure.”

Having transformed commuting habits in the busy capital city of the state of Gujarat, the Ahmedabad BRTS is now one of the showpiece projects of the Momentum For Change initiative launched by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) late last year. The system, which celebrated its third birthday this October, is run by AJL, a body fully owned by the Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation. The corridor where only buses are allowed has grown from 12 kilometres to 45. On the first day, it carried about 18,000 passengers. That figure has grown to around 130,000 now.

The system has become the backbone of public transit in the city, said Brahmbhatt. “Ahmedabad is reaping benefits in the form of faster and safer commuting, mitigation in impacts of air pollution and an overall positive impact on urban development. Based on monthly surveys, it is observed that of the total ridership, 20 to 22% of the commuters shifted from their two-wheelers (motorcycles) to the bus. With an average trip length on the bus of seven kilometres, this translates into a saving of almost 200,000 vehicle kilometres per day.”

The plan is to lengthen the dedicated bus corridor to 85 km over the next six months and then to 135 km over the next two years. The system is expected to carry over 500,000 passengers by the end of this year and over 700,000 passengers by the end of 2014.

Ahmedabad residents say the BRTS has meant increased visits to relatives and friends, because it is now so much easier to get around the city. An AJL document says off-peak afternoon hours have seen a marked rise in women travellers. “Almost 40% of commuters in the afternoon are women.”

Ahmedabad is a city with large swathes of waste land where textile mills stood till the 1980s. Brahmbhatt said because the BRTS now connects these areas to the rest of the city, new real estate developments have started there, and factories are being set up too.

The BRTS is now part of a larger regional plan for Ahmedabad, where more transit corridors have been identified. The bus system will also be integrated with a proposed rail based transit system. It is turning out to be a model to improve public transport, and thus reduce car use, with consequent benefits in reducing carbon emissions. That makes it important in a world with ever growing carbon emissions, which are greenhouse gases that are causing global warming. The phenomenon of global warming is already affecting farming worldwide, and making floods, storms and droughts more frequent and more severe, according to experts from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

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