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Public transport vs personalised transport

The JNNURM initiative, under which the central government funds a substantial part of the costs of city public transport systems, has begun to show some results. The most talked about examples are the Bus Rapid Transport System in Ahmedabad and the public-private partnership in Indore, writes Kalpana Sharma

When you arrive at Geneva airport in Switzerland, a sign just before the exit urges all visitors to collect a free bus pass to take them into the city.  If you do that, you find yourself riding in a pleasant low-floored bus to the heart of this relatively small, but nonetheless important Swiss city.

Once you check in to your lodging, irrespective of whether it is a youth hostel, budget hotel or a more luxurious one, the check-in clerk will hand you a free pass to be used on public transportation – trams and buses – to cover the entire duration of your stay.  And the day you leave, all you need to do is wave your plane ticket at the bus driver and you get to ride free back to the airport.

It was not always like that in Geneva, I am told.  But at some point, alarmed at the growth of private vehicles that had begun to crowd the roads and foul the air, the government decided it was worth its while to invest in efficient public transport.  And as the city attracts many visitors – tourists and people attending scores of international conferences through the year – it also made sense to make the public transport system irresistible even for a short-stay visitor.

Unfortunately, given the trajectory of urban development in India, it is highly unlikely that we will see a replication of this kind of model in this country in the foreseeable future.

No one will argue anymore that one of the most important components of a liveable and environmentally sustainable city is a properly designed, efficient and affordable public transport system.  The National Urban Transport Policy, launched in 2006, does lay down some guidelines and accepts that “public transport occupies less road space and causes less pollution per passenger kilometer than personal vehicles”.  Recognising that public transport is a much more sustainable form of transport for cities, the central government has decided to push for greater investment in “high capacity public transport systems” in state capitals and other million-plus cities.  Such an intervention from the centre is essential as otherwise public transport is handled by state governments and municipalities, many of which either have no funds, or no expertise, to undertake such a task.  The result is already evident in the majority of Indian cities.

As part of the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JNNURM), the central government has offered 50% of the cost for preparing comprehensive city transport plans, equity participation and/or viability gap funding up to 20% of the capital cost of any public transport system and 50% of the cost of projects that are public-private partnership.  The rest would need to come from the state government, city development authority -- if there is one -- and the project developer (as stated in the NUTP).

This intervention has already begun to show some results. The most talked about example of this is the BRTS (Bus Rapid Transport System) in Ahmedabad.  Although still at a nascent stage, it seems to have been accepted even by those who never travelled by bus in the past. On a recent visit to Ahmedabad, when some of us travelled on the BRTS over a considerable distance, two men I spoke to said that in the past they always took their motorbikes to work. Now they take the BRTS to the  point nearest their workplace and then an auto-rickshaw to reach their destination.  They found this not just cost-effective but also a much more agreeable way to travel.  One of the passengers, a middle-aged Muslim gentleman, told me that one of the main benefits of taking the bus was not just a break from breathing in polluted air but also freedom from constant harassment from traffic police who haul up people on motorbikes, check their papers and fine them for even minor discrepancies. Creating a system that is attractive to those who have got used to personalised transport is a very big plus point and is a model that is being followed by several cities.

The BRTS has not been a uniform success in all cities where it has been implemented.  In Delhi, for instance, where BRTS has been tried out in limited areas, the story is a mixed one.  Those who backed the BRTS argue that it could have worked well but for the negative media campaign which seemed to take up only the issues of car owners and the kinds of problems they faced rather than doing an objective assessment of how many people it actually benefitted. 

By way of contrast, the Ahmedabad BRTS has had very positive media coverage. However, it is already evident that it has not made a dent on the number of cars on the city’s roads.  As one passenger ruefully commented, “It will take a lot to get these car-wallahs to take a bus!” Of course transport experts do point out that the BRTS’ success in Ahmedabad is partly due to the specificity of the city. It is one of the cities that has remained compact and dense even though its population has grown.  This is unlike Delhi, or Mumbai, where typically the people who depend on public transport are either the very poor, who have been forcibly relocated in distant suburbs or the lower middle class who cannot afford housing closer to their places of work because of high real estate prices. The BRTS may not be the best way of transporting them into the city where their jobs are located.  These cities would clearly need to pursue other options.  Mumbai already has its suburban rail network that is stretched to the limit and Delhi now has a metro system that seems to be functioning well. Interestingly, as with the BRTS in Ahmedabad, those who use the Delhi Metro the most are owners of two-wheelers (284,433) according to 2005-06 estimates.  The number would be higher now.

Another success story of investment in public transport that has yielded dividends is the case of Indore, Madhya Pradesh. Writing about it in The Indian Express (August 25, 2010), Isher Judge Ahluwalia and Ranesh Nair suggest that this is a good example of public-private partnership (PPP).  In the past, the only form of so-called ‘public’ transport, if you did not own your own vehicle, was a choice between privately-owned mini buses (550), or tempos (500) or one of 10,000 or so auto-rickshaws.  Today, the city’s transport system is managed by a single agency – Indore City Transport Services Limited (ICTSL) – which has a PPP with private bus operators and marketing agents.  Starting in January 2006, ICTSL contracted six private bus operators, worked out routes and schedules they had to follow, insisted on proper maintenance of buses, worked out a uniform fare structure and monitored the entire system through an expensive but effective GPS tracking system.  The city now has 104 buses, with another 124 soon to be added, and 24 routes benefitting around 100,000 passengers every day.

Mumbai poses a difficult challenge.  In the 1960s, the city had a good functioning public transport system with a combination of trams, buses and the commuter railway.  The BEST (Brihanmumbai Electric Supply and Transport) is often cited as an excellent example of an autonomous body tasked with managing bus transport in the city.  Although it is part of the municipal corporation, it functions independent of it.

Today Mumbai is a victim of a hotch-potch uncoordinated policy where all kinds of things are being tried out such as BRTS along the Eastern and Western Express highways, metro rail corridors initially linking the eastern and western suburbs, strengthening of the existing commuter rail system, adding more buses, and a monorail in one part of the city. Perhaps all these are needed but somehow one does not get the impression that this has been thought through as a comprehensive policy.  What is missing in both Delhi and Mumbai is a determined policy to reduce the number of personalised vehicles, and particularly cars.

In Mumbai, for instance, fortunately the idea of granting builders additional FSI to build multi-storied car parks has been set aside for the moment.  If it had been pursued, we would have encouraged even more cars to enter the city, bringing movement on the packed roads to a virtual standstill.  Instead of making car parks, there should be a limit on cars entering the city through a system of high parking fees or congestion tax as has been tried in cities around the world.

If higher taxes on personalised transport coincided with better public transport, we might make a dent on the number of cars driving into the city, sometimes with no more than the driver and one passenger and hogging a disproportionate amount of the limited road space.  This is the kind of proactive strategy that needs to be followed in cities like Mumbai and Delhi.  There’s no point investing in multiple forms of public transport while at the same time facilitating private cars by building flyovers and sea links for smoother travel for this minority.

Creating sustainable cities – or rather reversing the trend of unsustainability in all Indian cities – is a daunting challenge. Plans to enhance or introduce public transport in our cities should have been put in place decades ago.  Today, some cities have almost reached the point of no return. 

But it is still not too late.  What we need are more citizens’ lobbies that will push for environmentally benign and cost-effective public transport systems that benefit the greatest number of people.  This would mean scrutinising and questioning the plans that the government doles out, and working on alternatives.  Apart from additional funding and planning, such citizen awareness and participation are an essential component for the future, especially in India where the tendency to go for capital-intensive big ticket projects without considering the views and needs of the majority of people has virtually become an accepted norm.

Infochange News & Features, August 2010