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C O V E R  S T O R Y

P U B L I C   T R A N S P O R T

Urban transportINDIA

It got almost buried under the Wimbledon bulletins…but did any one of you notice the news items in the national dailies, announcing the central government’s new Urban Transport Policy, recently? Missed it, huh? Well, in a nutshell, it is all about what the government plans to do to provide better ‘mobility’ to the bustling billions who live in the Indian cities.

Mobility…it is our ability to get from one place to another. Do we really need official policies for this simple task? Yes, indeed we do. Because, mobility means transportation. And believe it or not, transport is the most important ingredient of development. Both in cities and in the villages. It may be a highway or a footpath or a rail track—carrying fancy cars or handcarts or trains—our lives and livelihoods depend on it.

Think about it. It is not enough for a farmer to grow crops, he must also make sure that his produce reaches the nearest market or at least the local buyer. So does a trader in the city! Lets go even closer home…your family. Getting to your school (or is it college?), or your parent’s workplace, or the grocery or the chemist’s—aren’t these absolutely essential activities of your life?

Actually, we think and talk about ‘transport’ all the time. Very often without even realising how important it is to us. Its time we take stock of how we, the Indians, have managed our mobility—that is, our transport—so far.

Cities…attack of the autos
Lets look at our towns and cities. What is the most striking feature here? Population of course! They now have over 300 million people living in them—a number that is expected to shoot up to more than 400 million in the next five years. There is only one thing that is growing faster than this…the number of private cars and two wheelers plying in these cities. Don’t believe me? Here are the figures. A study done by the World Bank in 2001 has found that ‘motor vehicle ownership and use’ in developing countries like India is growing faster than population. There is more. Between 1951 and 2000, while the total urban population in India increased just 4.6 times, the number of vehicles bounded up 158 times!

The trend is clear enough. City folks are opting for private vehicles to move around in the streets of this crowded country. So is that good or bad? After all, owning cars is a sign of prosperity, right? Wrong. Because despite the soaring number of automobiles, India’s vast majority continue to depend solely on the state-run bus services to move around…

Lets take our capital Delhi for instance. Though buses make up a tiny 1.2 per cent of the total number of vehicles here, more than 60 per cent of the daily commuting done by Delhiites is through these buses! So what does that indicate? That only a minority of Delhiites can actually afford private vehicles. The rest still take the bus.

The crawling car—aholics
Rather confusing, isn’t it? Here is a city that has the largest fleet of autos, as compared to any other metro or town—the registered vehicles in Delhi alone amount to the total number of vehicles running in Kolkata, Mumbai and Chennai. On an average around 200 cars and 150 two wheelers get registered here every day. But less than 25 per cent of its total travel demand is met through them!

urban population

Between 1951 and 2000, while the total urban population in India increased just 4.6 times, the number of vehicles bounded up 158 times!

And, now, look at the price that Delhi is paying for this explosion of auto population.

First, on the front of space—the most rare and valuable commodity—in urban India. Cars need road space—more and more of it. Again lets look at the latest figures. Over the last decade flyovers have mushroomed in all our major metros and big cities. Thirty two of them have come up in Delhi in the past five years! But have they been able to spare the citizens of their daily traffic trauma? Think about it… You own the fastest and the fanciest car in the world, but can you zoom around town at any time of the day or night? Of course not…In fact, most of the time you are crawling.

Listen to what Enrique Penalosa, former Mayor of Bogota, Colombia, who has launched a massive bus transport system to reduce car use, has to say, "International experience has made it clear that trying to solve traffic problems by building more, bigger roads is like trying to put out a fire with gasoline. In the United States, for example, time lost in traffic increases every year despite enormous highways."

Also, roads take away more and more land from other, extremely essential, uses. And our cramped cities struggling to provide shelter to the teeming millions can barely afford to do that!

Vehicles in delhi aloneSorry, all you auto lovers, there is more bad news…scientists say that slow-moving vehicles emit far more pollutants. So as traffic snarls reduce speed, autos belch out more hydrocarbons and carbon monoxides—a deadly cocktail that play havoc with our health.

But, hold on, the problem of pollution cannot be solved just by improving traffic flow. Far more drastic actions are required. Like reducing car use. There is no doubt about it…. personal vehicles are one of the most inefficient ways of moving people around.

So what is the option? Going public, of course….

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