Expert Speak Urban Futures
Published on Apr 16, 2020
Public transit in post COVID19 India: where do we go from here

As India geared for a lockdown from the midnight of 24 March 2020, its lifelines were grounded too, with the Indian Railways announcing suspension of all interstate, city and metro train services. Several states had already announced their own lockdowns or sealed their borders even before the decision for a nationwide implementation was made. What followed was panic amongst the salaried middle class and unprecedented hardships for migrant daily wage labourers in India’s megacities. In absence of efficient transit systems and with closure of interstate borders, many migrants had to walk hundreds of kilometres home to their villages, as the city they lived in no longer had jobs for them.

As the government mulls over its decision to extend the lockdown, the empty coaches of trains are being equipped to function as coronavirus quarantine wards. The Indian Railways has also planned to resume its services in a phase-wise manner once the lockdown is lifted. While the railways have stopped over 13,000 trains services, other transit operations in India’s cities are also affected – city buses, paratransit like autorickshaws and taxis and cab aggregators have stopped operations altogether. Bus transit in certain cities have essential services going, for frontline workers.

What does this mean for the public transit sector in India?

  1. Zero fare revenues, despite the onerous task of maintaining fleet, having to pay its employees and continuing to fund new projects.
  2. For paratransit workers – auto, taxi, minivan and private bus drivers – most of whose wages rely on the daily trips they make, no wages and salaries for the entire lockdown period.
  3. Private cab aggregators such as Uber and Ola have announced relief packages for their workers; however, these typically big players in the sector also have the cash reserves to do so. Taxi and auto rickshaw unions, on the other hand, were not able to create a safety net for their workers.
  4. In smaller towns, where transport is largely the domain of private bus operators, the pressure to pay monthly installments on their fleets falls largely on private operators. These small business owners will still have to pay the entire loan and interest amounts, despite the moratorium announced by the central government, which merely allows operators to defer payments.

Overall, with the number of coronavirus cases and death toll rising, and no certainty as to when business will get back on track, the picture remains grim for the transit sector in India.

Before getting to the point for restoration of public transit, we need to understand the shifts in commuter behaviour and align them with larger demographic and economic shifts in cities. So far, with most countries engaged in damage control and disease prevention, China is the only country, which has resumed transit operations in a post-Wuhan virus-infected world. From the experience of various Chinese cities that have dealt with a lockdown and subsequent resumption of operations, we can understand the following:

Changes in commuter behaviour:

  1. Last mile connectivity options:

There has been a huge increase in the number of cyclists in post-COVID Chinese cities. Along with embracing cycling, commuters have also shown preference to cycling for long distances, as much as three kilometres, in some cases. According to an ITDP report, “in Beijing alone, bike share systems saw user increases by roughly 150%.” While several transport policies in India such as the National Urban Transport Policy (NUTP), the National Road Transport Policy (NRTP) and the Green Urban Mobility Initiative (GUMI) talk about inculcating a ‘green transit behaviour’, Indian commuters have so far resisted walking and cycling in favour of polluting options like autos and taxis for their last-mile connectivity. Perhaps increased health and pollution awareness during the COVID 19 lockdown will push Indian commuters to adopt ‘green transit’ options too.

  1. Transit over cab aggregators:

The experience of Chinese cities points to a decline in the demand of cab aggregators such as Didi and Meituan. The reason for this being adoption of stringent sanitisation measures by public transit agencies, which private aggregators are not forced to adopt. In recent years, Indian public transit agencies have lamented declining ridership due to increase in private transport and private cab aggregator options. The COVID 19 crisis, then gives the public transit agencies an opportunity to put in place strict practices for cleaning and sanitising their fleet and providing commuters with an overall positive experience at much lower price points than cab aggregators. This measure can be easily adopted by upcoming metros and AC train routes.

  1. Flexible but reliable transit over unreliable options:

A World Economic Forum Report on transit lessons from around the world during the coronavirus crisis stresses that to battle the current and next crises, our cities need to have reliable transit options with seamless mode changes. One way to achieve this is through adoption of technology and better integration amongst existing transit agencies.

It is clear that after the lockdown is lifted, to come to 100 percent of pre-COVID operations, transit agencies will have to wait for a significant amount of time. This phase-wise resumption of operations provides public transit agencies with an enormous opportunity from streamlining operations to creating business practices that enhance efficiencies in every form – cost, sustainability, reliability and passenger outreach. And as this opportunity is presented to all transit operators from the smallest bicycle taxi operator to a behemoth public transit agency such as Indian Railways, which can adopt a version of these below-mentioned guidelines. Public transit agencies and officials involved can adopt a three-fold action plan:

1. Regain lost revenues Ensure that business lost is regained through increased revenues and better operating practices in the days to come. At the same time, transit should ensure it provides a safe and accessible passage to the hardest hit, the daily wage labourers and migrants in our big cities. Several different measures can be adopted for this – stronger marketing, intensifying ‘adopt public transport campaigns’ and increase in fares for the higher classes of transport, along the lines of Indian Railways’ class-based ticket structure. On long distance trains, the Indian Railways has a fare structure where subsidies are varied based on the comfort level of the ride – different fares for different speeds, classes and comfort levels. Similarly, local transport can differentiate based on paying capacity, speed of the ride (express/ limited/ hop on hop off) or comfort level (AC/ Restricted passengers / drop off only rides). Other means, like adopting transit efficiencies through technological interventions can also be useful to regain lost revenues. 2. Creation of Unified Metropolitan Transport Authority (UMTA) Adopt policies that put all public transit agencies within a city or a metro area on the same page and push for the adoption of cleaner and greener means to make transit sustainable and affordable. In a post- COVID world, transit needs to be aligned and accessible for people to prefer transit over private cars. Thus, speedy directives from the Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs to enable creation of a composite and comprehensive transit agency that brings all transit authorities in a metropolis under one umbrella will be useful. Hence, it is imperative to create UMTA for every metropolis, under the NUTP, which has been delayed for long due to several administrative and political reasons. 3. Respond to changing commuter behaviours Embrace the post-COVID-19 changes to improve public transit behaviours of commuters and respond to commuter demand. Ensure safe, sanitised commutes by adopting clean and hygienic practices. This can be done from both ends, from the side of the transit agency, by focusing on periodic and thorough surface cleansing practices. The post- COVID transport will help in re-setting commuter attitudes to transit if timely measures are taken to disseminate information. Ensure stringent measures like no food is transported on passenger trains and buses, coaches are litter free with heavy fines and social stigma for offenders. We can incorporate private providers and leverage big data like China is doing,  to provide access  and improve accuracy of real-time ride details through technology.

The COVID-19 health emergency presents significant challenges for the transit sector in India. However, it presents several opportunities too. The lockdown provides a much-needed respite to the public transport sector to repair, revive and reinvent best practices to keep India moving.

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