It got almost buried under the Wimbledon ulletins…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 popu- lation 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! 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.
Between 1951 and 2000, while the total urban population in India increased just 4.6 times, the number of vehicles bounded up 158 times!
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.
Vehicles in Delhi alone amount to total number in Kolkata, Mumbai and Chennai.
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! Sorry, 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…
Public transport …the indian way
Indian cities are traditionally known to be great users of public transportation. In fact, pedestrian ways and bicycles were the most common features of a typical Indian town. This is in sharp contrast to the car fetish of the West. But all that has changed—thanks to our current obsession with autos private-owned ones, of course. Pedestrians and cyclists have practically lost their share of the road. If you live in Delhi you already know that trying to find a footpath to walk on, in any part of the city, is like playing a game of treasure hunt! And next time you curse a cyclist who suddenly appears in front of your car, remember he would not have had to risk his life everyday just by riding to work if we had provided him a separate lane to drive on!
But now lets get back to buses. First lets get the facts straight. A public transport bus occupies two times the road space of a car but can carry 20-40 times the number of passengers. So it pollutes less per passenger carried.
But today, public transport system is one of the most neglected sectors in our country.
Sample this. Only 12 cities— out of the 35 with million plus population— in India have formed city bus undertakings to provide dedicated bus services to the people. The big metros have a. The big metros have a combination of different forms of transport systems buses, subways, suburban rails. But most of the municipal authorities of the smaller cities have no public transport policy at all! People have to make do with vehicles that come in all shapes and sizes. From taxis and mini buses to threewheelers and cycle rickshaws.
Buses — going bust ?
What is the most unpleasant chore in an average city dweller’s daily schedule? Surely, her trip back and forth from home to workplace, riding in an over-crowded bus. Yes, it’s a nighmarish experience. The buses are crammed far beyond capacity. They mostly negotiate extremely congested, narrow streets, with no separate rightsof- way, and drive their way through a mixed array of animaldrawn carts, minivans, cars, taxis, two and three-wheelers. Oooffff!
Why is the situation so desperately bad? Because the government has paid too little attention to these vehicles that ferry the mammoth entity called the Indian Public…
The impact of this short-sightedness is quite frightening. Every city has recorded a steady decline in the fleet of buses that are available for public use. Lets take Ahmedabad as an example. In 1990, it had almost 800 buses, or roughly 23 buses per 100,000 people. But by 2003, the city had barely 400 operational buses. The ratio now is less than 9 buses per 100,000 people.
Big metros have a combination of different forms of transport systems – buses, subways, suburban rails. Smaller cities have no public transport
A pretty dismal score, don’t you agree? The scenario is as bad in all other cities. Even in the metros. With the exception of Delhi, city transit companies in the other four metros have less than 3,000 buses catering to the swelling millions. Add to this the agonisingly slow speed of these buses. You see, buses are the worse hit when roads get more and more congested and the traffic mixed—like I mentioned earlier—a confusing medley of cars, two wheelers and even bullock carts.
They require longer time to complete one journey. And the frequency and efficiency of the service suffer. The problems are now beginning to show. While travel demand in cities has grown phenomenally, number of passengers availing city bus services is on the decline. In Pune, for instance, bus occupancy has dropped from 64 per cent to 45 per cent in 2001. Which means nearly half of Pune Corporation buses are running empty!
Crossing over — a deadly trend
Now this is really dangerous. Why? Because people saying ‘no’ to public transport services can only mean that they are being forced to opt for private vehicles. Therefore, more cars or two wheelers on the roads—more congestion—more pollution. This flow has to be stopped. And reversed.
That is, the public must be encouraged to use public transport…and those who are moving away from it must be lured back into the fold. In other words, a whole new transport strategy has to be hammered out. But before we discuss that, lets take a look at two of India’s most crowded metros to figure out the strong and the weak spots in our present system.
Mumbai: winner or loser?
The Mumbai Suburban Rail system carries an amazing 6.4 million passengers per day. There are three suburban tracts—Central, Western and Harbour—that link the central business districts of Bombay Island with the suburban areas in the north of the city.
But this system is a winner mainly because it blends in smoothly with the other forms of transport in the city. Bus services within Mumbai is provided by a public company, BEST, and carries over 4.5 million passengers per day. 60 percent of them use both the rail and the bus. A passenger can hop from one to the other, without having to travel long distances or waiting interminably for the next bus or train to appear. The two services take care of 88 per cent of the city’s travel demands.
So is everything hunky dory in amchi Mumbai? Nah… In fact, rail congestion there has reached crisis levels. And the rail authorities are not in a position to make the huge investments required to upgrade the infrastructure. This inspite of the fact, that the trains carry three times more passengers than their actual capacity. You see, suburban rail fares in Mumbai are among the lowest in the world!!
Delhi: DTC blues
In 1992, Delhi became the first Indian city to allow private operators in public transport. So now, Delhi Transport Corporation (DTC) — the state-owned operator—runs 3,200 buses from its own fleet, and contracts around 2, 600 buses from private contractors.
Yet, the public transport system in the capital remains one of the most haphazardly-managed ones among the metros.
DTCs woes are many. It has a gigantic band of employees, whose salaries eat up….hold your breath…91 per cent of its earnings! Does DTC require all of them? Experts say four persons per bus is enough, but the staff ratio in DTC is eleven persons per bus!!
Also, being a government-run agency it has to be politically correct and keep its fares as low as possible. So while, the private operators rake in as much as Rs 2,700 per bus, per day, DTC makes a paltry Rs 1320!No wonder, DTC is on a slippery slope, forever...
Curse of ‘Immobility’— can we ward it off?
It is obvious that all our cities are in a pretty critical shape. And conventional bus or rail systems are clearly not strong enough to ward off the crisis. The transport demand is too high—passenger load too gigantic. Also, the government agencies that handle urban transport now are hardly in a shape to take up the challenge.
Towards Mass Transit Systems
So where do we go from here? Experts recommend Mass Rapid Transport Systems (MRTs). These are specifically designed to carry a large number of passengers rapidly at one time. They come in various shapes—metro, sky bus system, mono rail and also bus based rapid transit systems. They operate on fixed tracks, exclusively made for them and ply on fixed routes or lines.
A ‘combo’ of old and new
The problem is that our cities have started too late. MRT options should have been planned when their sizes were smaller and when they had less people to cater to. Again, lets take our capital as an example. Delhi authorities have been pondering over the concepts of MRTs for decades. Then after the city grew impossibly big and its population crossed the 14 million mark it began to experiment with the metro. In the rest of India, barring a few cities like Mumbai, Kolkata and Chennai, MRTs have remained non-starters.
We cannot afford to experiment anymore. Because the costs are too high—both in terms of money and effort. The metro rail, for instance, needs huge investments and a great deal of time to start operating. If it fails to deliver the goods, that is, transport large volumes of passengers— comfortably and at an affordable price— the people will simply not use it. And the blow will be crippling …
So experts say that cities should integrate the rail and the bus transit systems. And make sure that they blend in smoothly. The scenario will be something like this: suburban rail networks, or metros would be supplemented by fast moving feeder bus systems. Their tracks and routes would be coordinated in such a way that a regular passenger would not have to cross several busy streets to catch the connecting bus once he gets off a train. His journey from home to the workplace and back again, would be a seamless interchange between buses and trains.
Only then can the government hope to combat the onslaught of private automobiles…
Rethink the Road code
Wait… there is more! Indian citizens will be truly‘mobile’ only when they sort out their road space. That is—they ensure that every form of transport—from personal vehicles to bicycles and pedestrian ways—has the freedom to move safely on the roads. Too perfect to be real..did you say? Not really. We just need to relearn the rules of the road. In the rush to get moving we seem have forgotten them.