Expert Speak Urban Futures
Published on Sep 28, 2018
There is an urgent need for breaking the vicious cycle to improve the quality of life in Indian cities.
Re-visioning urban transport in a smart India

The arterial roads of all large urban centres in India are choking during morning and evening peak hours. Many of them remain gridlocked, to the chagrin of vast multitudes of commuters, who are always in a great rush to reach their destination. The consequences of this phenomenon are catastrophic for the health of public transport in all of these metropolises. According to a media report, “The average peak hour speed of BEST buses (in Mumbai) has dropped by nearly half in a decade, from 16 kmph in 2008 to 9 kmph today!” The situation in the peak hour must be even more asphyxiating. There is a concomitant loss of clientele, with over 1.7 million commuters opting out of bus travel daily in the same ten year period.

Not surprisingly, therefore, people are steadily shifting towards other modes of transport — be it rail, auto rickshaws, taxis or private vehicles both two-wheelers and four-wheelers. The fact is that India’s public transport system is being crushed under the impact of the auto boom and an indifferent government. The malaise is endemic across the country. Another media report states that the share of passenger trips by public transport across major Indian cities has dropped from a level of 60-80 percent to 25-35 percent.

India’s public transport system is being crushed under the impact of the auto boom and an indifferent government.

All of this does not bode well for the future of quality of life in all these major Indian cities which are on cusp of a vicious cycle of congestion leading to pollution, increased usage of private vehicles resulting in further congestion on the roads and increased emission of GHG and other polluting gases contributing adversely to climate change. This will evidently lead to enhanced issues of health — both physical and mental for the residents.

There is an urgent need for breaking this vicious cycle to improve the quality of life in these Indian cities and bring India at par with the developed world in various indices deciphering quality of life in them. For finding solutions to this puzzle we must first find the culprits responsible for bringing in the current situation. A study by global consulting firm AT Kearney has showed that two-wheeler and four-wheeler population has registered a steady eight to 10 percent annual growth from 2014 to 2017, while there is a flat/negative growth in the bus fleet all over India. The modal mix is skewed towards cars and motorbikes/scooters. The length and area of the arterial roads in all such cities is static over all these years due to lack of space and, hence, is woefully inadequate to cope up with it.

These statistics reveal the magnitude of the problem, but any solution is possible only if we understand the psychology of an average commuter. How does one choose the preferred mode of commute? Any commuter’s primary requirement is to reach his destination at the earliest. So the average speed of the mode of transport is the most important parameter for this selection. The next important factor in the mind of the commuter is the frequency of the services. As the saying goes: “You are always late for the previous train and early for the next one.” Hence the interval between two trains/bus is very important for the commuter to decide the preferred mode of transport. The frequency of services per hour is the second most important factor for selection of a mode of transport by the commuter. A high frequency level ensures that the commuter does not waste time in waiting for the service he wants to utilise. The third factor that may cloud his decision is the cost of the service. If the cost is not affordable, the commuter will be constrained to shift to a cheaper mode, overlooking the comfort parameter. We can hence surmise that frugality of the service is the third and the comfort of commuting is the fourth parameter on the mind of the commuter while selecting his preferred mode of commute.

Any solution is possible only if we understand the psychology of an average commuter. How does one choose the preferred mode of commute?

The huge popularity of the suburban rail network in Mumbai is primarily because it satisfies the first three of the above mentioned parameters adequately. It is the fastest way of commuting in the city. It has a frequency level of three to four minutes on each of its corridors, and it is the cheapest mode of city travel anywhere in the world! So, who minds if one has to travel in ‘super dense crush load’ scenario in either a first class or a second class compartment?

It is on these very parameters that BEST, Mumbai’s municipal bus transport service, is steadily losing ground. As the average speed of the bus has plummeted down to 9 kmph during peak hours, commuters are abandoning this mode in hordes. At the latest count, around 1.7 million commuters, as mentioned above, have daily shifted to other modes in the last decade alone. This has put enormous pressure on the remaining modes of commute viz. rail network and the other road-based transport like taxis, private cars and motorbikes. In the last five years the population of four-wheelers registered in Mumbai has increased at a CAGR of 8.18 percent and that of two-wheelers at 9.4 percent. It is no surprise that the roads in Mumbai remain choked even in non-peak hours.

Given the linear geography of Mumbai, the city is constrained of its growth by the Arabian Sea on three sides. While the growth marches ahead at the northern end, the peninsula of the southern and central Mumbai remains choked, making smooth movement well-nigh tortuous as well as torturesome. An intensive use of public transport alone can retrieve Mumbai from this morass. Maharashtra government has embarked on a very ambitious programme of metro rail construction at a frenetic pace. There are 12 projects at a cost of INR 1.25 trillion (1,25,201 crore rupees) which will inject 276 kilometers of metro routes in the city. The average cost of these projects is INR 4.54 billion (454 crore rupees) per km. However, a rigorous exercise of calculating the financial returns on all of these 12 routes seems to be lacking. And while the full expanse of the metro network will take at least a few decades to bear fruit, it may suffice to say that no effort is being made to find solutions to improve the average speed of BEST buses who have been left to their plight of jostling with the teeming milieu of private cars and bikes, kali-peeli taxis, encroachments and hawkers, not to talk of blue light, amber light and red light carrying cars with wailing sirens. The BEST authorities have come out with a surprising solution of going in for smaller size buses! They seem to have given up their fight even before firing any salvo.

Given the linear geography of Mumbai, the city is constrained of its growth by the Arabian Sea on three sides.

It is high time that the local government starts mulling over the suggestion of reserving separate ‘bus only’ lanes on all the major arterial roads of the city. Experiments for introducing Bus Rapid Transit System (BRTS) have been tried with remarkable success in a number of metropolises world over, but the experience of trying it on the lawless roads of Indian cities has indeed been dampening.

The government is, instead, proceeding with alacrity on constructing metro lines in every major city of India. These are either underground (Metro III line in Mumbai) or mostly elevated. If the same elevated kind of structure is used for introducing Bus Transit, having its own ‘right of way,’ the cost of civil construction as well as the cost of rolling stock can be substantially reduced. ‘Elevated Bus Rapid Transit’ is the panacea for all ills of urban transport in India. Air conditioned buses on elevated roads can easily clock an average speed of more than 40 kmph at a frequency of less than a minute. It can reach a level of 18,000 pphpd (passengers per hour peak direction) easily and will be a cost effective solution. Moreover, on narrower internal roads, as the width of the carriageway would be required only for a single bus passage, a looped one-way elevated bus-only mode of transit can effectively overcome the incontrovertible ‘last-mile connectivity’ problem. A win-win situation for all stakeholders.

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Rgis Gourdel

Rgis Gourdel

Rgis Gourdel PhD candidate Institute for Ecological Economics Vienna University of Economics and Business

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