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We can’t miss the bus for metros and bikes

India urgently needs a mega bus initiative that provides affordable and easy service

Firstpost print Edition

Greater London, home to nine million inhabitants, has 9,300 double-decker city buses, the equivalent of around 15,000 standard-sized buses. Shenzhen, a megacity of 12 million residents, has 16,000 standard-sized buses.

Bengaluru, a city of similar size, has a mere 6,600. And Bengaluru is the only one that meets the government’s benchmark of 600 buses per million inhabitants. Chennai is next but falls well short with less than 400 buses per million. The figure drops precipitously for Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata, Hyderabad, Ahmedabad and Pune—the only cities with public fleets of more than a thousand.

The sum total of all government-supported city buses across India is less than Greater London and Shenzhen put together. So how do urban Indians travel? As per the 2011 Census, only 1 out of every 20 work-related trips in urban India was in a personal car. Motorised two-wheelers accounted for just a fifth of all trips.

Having said that, ownership of and trips in cars and on motorised two-wheelers is growing rapidly. In the past decade, cars and motorcycles grew seven-to-eight times faster than the population in cities with a million residents or more.

Good for the automobile industry, but bad for cities as personal vehicles, especially cars, make inefficient use of road space. A car passenger, on average, occupies ten times the space of a bus passenger, not to speak of pollution and road safety concerns. Uber and Ola serve only a few million people daily, yet have a disproportionately high impact on traffic in large cities.

Though walking is the primary mode of travel in urban India, a large section also depends on informal public transport. These include autos, e-rickshaws, vans and minibuses. While definitive ridership figures are hard to come by, it is estimated that over a hundred million passenger trips occur daily on these unrecognised modes.

The phenomenal growth in informal public transport is a consequence of inadequate bus services in cities. These modes serve a large percentage of the populace, but largely with poor service quality and safety. They also aggravate pollution and traffic issues even as they represent the only travel option, thanks to the state having abdicated its responsibility of providing affordable mobility to citizens.

It is in this context that we must assess India’s love affair with metro rail projects. In the last two decades, national and state government agencies have cumulatively spent more than `1.4 trillion on constructing 640 km of metro rail lines. Metros are expensive undertakings. However, the ridership on all metro lines put together across India is under four-and-half million trips daily—about the same as the ridership of buses in Delhi, Bengaluru or Chennai each.

Even the Delhi Metro, held up as the poster child of efficient public transportation, carries three to four times less passengers per kilometre compared to Tokyo, Beijing and Moscow among others for whom the numbers range from 20,000-25,000. The lone operational lines of Mumbai and Kolkata are the only ones that match the best in the world in terms of ridership per rail-km.

The ridership on Chennai’s metro rail—that has a sizeable network of 45 km—is very poor: around 50,000 trips daily. Meanwhile, its 4,000 city buses serve a hundred times more passenger trips! The issues which plague metros range from unaffordability to poor intermodal connectivity. They are also more suited to longer trips while most trips in urban India tend to be short.

Despite these issues, metro rail projects have become the favoured option even as investment in city bus services has lagged behind. The last time the latter got a boost was under the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission, which ended in 2014. While the urban population continues to grow daily, the bus fleet has remained stagnant.

In fact, cities like Jaipur and Lucknow now have metro rail lines but barely any bus services. While a metro rail project may be a suitable solution for a few large cities, it alone cannot solve the mobility woes of urban India. Buses are a big part of the solution.

To put things into perspective, the amount spent on metro projects till date could have helped procure 150,000 high-quality buses to serve 120 million passenger trips daily—enough to meet the mobility needs of people in India’s hundred most populous cities.

India urgently needs a mega bus programme that gives every citizen access to frequent, affordable and comfortable bus service. For this programme to succeed, we must bring together three flagship national programmes: Smart Cities, Skill India, and Make in India.

We need ambitious citywide transport plans and capital to make them a reality through the Smart Cities Mission; capacity development of officials in planning and managing bus services as well as that of private sector in operating services under public oversight through Skill India; and lastly, a big push for manufacturing buses, especially e-buses, under Make in India.

This must be accompanied by a paradigm shift in how the state views transportation and rewards those who make most efficient use of public infrastructure. BRT is a much-maligned phrase in Delhi, but that is because it was poorly implemented. Cities need high-quality bus rapid transit that puts passengers in the fast lane. Car use should be controlled through pricing mechanisms like road and parking pricing. Only a holistic approach predicated on buses and discouraging car use can unblock urban India’s choking transport arteries.

Shreya Gadepalli leads the South Asia Programme of the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy

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