Hate your commute? Combining 'green' and 'cheap' in public transport can get you a great ride

Climatically speaking, globally, transport is the second largest sectoral contributor to human-caused greenhouse gas emissions

Mridula Ramesh July 08, 2017 10:44:11 IST
Hate your commute? Combining 'green' and 'cheap' in public transport can get you a great ride

Editor's note: From May 2017, Firstpost is featuring this fortnightly column by Mridula Ramesh, titled 'Climate Conversations'. In this column, we take a look at pressing issues pertaining to climate change — in an accessible way.

Movement is such a fundamentally defining aspect of life. Dead things rarely move. Living creatures rarely stay still.

Climate and Transport

Climatically speaking, globally, transport is the second largest sectoral contributor to human-caused greenhouse gas emissions, spewing out 7.3 billion tonnes of CO2-equivalent emissions in 2013. This is more than double India’s total greenhouse gas emissions in 2013. This is a hard number to visualise: it’s like putting 42 million Boeing 747s up into the sky because of us wanting to get ourselves and our stuff from place to place. And transport-emissions are growing fast. Take the US – the world’s second largest emitter of greenhouse gases. While greenhouse gas emissions from electricity generation in the US have been falling in the past few years, emissions from transport are still rising – given the average American’s penchant for big cars.

Hate your commute Combining green and cheap in public transport can get you a great ride

Vehicles stuck in a traffic jam in Mumbai. Reuters Image

Coming to India, transport is much less of a big deal from a global warming perspective. Electricity, manufacturing, agriculture – all beat transport handily in terms of the amount of greenhouse gases they emit. This is important to keep in mind, especially since transport is maligned as being climate-unfriendly. This “climate villain” image is buttressed by the tailpipe emissions from diesel vehicles that contain black carbon — a fancy name for soot. This is said to cause warming at the local level — and diesel vehicles, diesel generators and cooking stoves that burn solid fuels are all rich sources of black carbon. The tricky thing here is the high uncertainty around just how much global warming black carbon causes.

But there is near certainty around how bad tailpipe emissions are for our health. Air pollution is known to cause or worsen heart disease, stroke, lung cancer, asthma and causes more than a million deaths per year in India alone

So transport is considered a climate villain and is a big deal for human health. But before we get to “What should we do?”, there are other points to consider: comfort and affordability.

Comfort and Transport

Let us begin with comfort.

Comfort has two elements: perceived and actual. Perceived comfort has a lot to do with status. Does your car represent you and what you have achieved? Advertising agencies have done a heck of a job tying a man’s ego to his mode of transport. Take a recent ad for a luxury car in India — in the 30 seconds it pans through a man’s life from a swaddled baby to an old man. As a young man, he is shown wearily using public transport, and a voice asks “When do you want to enjoy the drive?”, and the image pans to more confident, sexier version of himself driving a sleek looking automobile. The implication is only too clear. Joy/Sex/Cool = Car and public transport = Loser.

That’s perception, what about actual comfort?

Many of us tend to confuse perception with reality. We sit in a vehicle that represents the best trade-off between affordability and sexiness, painfully inching our way to our destination.

Boiling down comfort to a single dimension — time — actual comfort while driving in India is non-existent. Accidents abound. Congestion is one of the big killers of our productivity. Traffic jams cost Bengaluru Rs 3,700 crores a year in lost hours and extra fuel — without bringing any additional value. Congestion has more than halved average driving speeds in many metros in the past 10 years.

Keep in mind, most trips in India tend to be short, and we need a solution that addresses this point. But we need to ask: are trips short because it is just too expensive (both in money and in time) to make longer trips? And would more affordable and convenient long-distance commute options lower the ridiculous real estate prices in the centre of big cities? An interesting thought.

A 2016 study by TRIPP in IIT-Delhi sheds some light on what works in various distances. When comparing door-to-door commute times, congestion destroys the argument for using a car or a motorbike in any distance above six km. And in shorter distances, i.e. less than six km, travel time differences between cars/motorbikes and bicycles falls to a couple of minutes — which is essentially irrelevant.

So, what is the perfect transport system that could combine actual comfort and affordability?

What are the options?

There are four suggestions that appear to have captured the public thinking in terms of a climate-friendly, convenient urban transport:

1. Electric vehicles
2. The sharing economy — specifically taxi aggregators
3. Bicycles.
4. Public transport — specifically the metro.
5. Let us consider each of them in turn.

The electric car, as the name suggests, runs on the electricity grid. In a coal-heavy grid like India’s, the electric car is rather than an expensive stab at greenwashing — especially when considers the emissions associated with manufacturing and disposing the batteries. Hybrids do better at controlling emissions, and there are other kits in the market that use braking energy to supplement the driving power.

The sharing economy holds some potential — especially if it manifests in a carpooling avatar. Until it manages to lower the number of vehicles on the road substantially, the sharing economy does little to address the “comfort” attribute of time and air pollution.

Bicycles can be a meaningful alternative for shorter distances. But there are real barriers to bicycle/walking adoption in scale. One is space. Bike lanes are workable in a city of a million people like Zurich, but in a city of millions more like Bengaluru, we may need bike corridors not lanes. This is unlikely to happen, without a change in societal perceptions. The second issue is one of climate and air quality. The air in Zurich is crisp, cool and clean — a bike ride becomes invigorating. But in most Indian cities, a cyclist would be drenched in sweat and reeling under the midday sun for longer trips. The third barrier is psychological: Bicycling is perceived as either a poor man’s transport or a Utopian dream. Most Indians ride bicycles because they can’t afford anything else. After getting the infrastructure in place, if we can get some “cool” people to take up cycling on a regular basis — they can become role models for to popularise this as an alternative for shorter distances.

Public imagination in public transport immediately leaps to a metro system. The biggest cities in India have a working metro system while many others have a metro system in construction or in planning. The metro is a powerful tool, but sadly, the wrong tool for Indian cities of today.


The reason is cost, and cost.

First there is the fixed cost. Metros cost about Rs 200 crores per km to build and about Rs 8 crore/km/year to operate. Other rapid transit systems — buses or trams are significantly cheaper — costing Rs 27 crores per km for a bus rapid transit system and Rs 100 crores (and often less) for a light rail rapid transit system.

This cost matters because of one sweet word: network. Being comfortable means arriving somewhat close to your destination – not miles away, needing to fend for yourself. This means any transport system needs an extensive network.

Metros in many Indian cities function as tourist attractions. Take Chennai, for example. We need to trudge many hundred metres from the arrival gates at the airport to the metro terminal. This prospect in Chennai heat and with luggage is unappealing. The metro then deposits us very many kilometres from our destination (although the recently opened blue line has improved things). We then hail an auto or a taxi to get home. It would have been cheaper and quicker to take a car (or auto) from the airport to the house. The metro here is an oddity – an amusement for tourists and a check mark for politicians on progress. Ditto the Jaipur metro. Ditto the Bengaluru metro. I write from personal experience as a mother of a son who views the metro as being THE reason for visiting any city.

Hate your commute Combining green and cheap in public transport can get you a great ride

View of the deserted Chennai metro station. Image courtesy Mridula Ramesh

The recent popularity surge of the Delhi metro underlines my point. Ridership really took off only after the network crossed a meaningful 100 km mark in 2010-11.

Slow progress in construction and small networks mean Metros don’t solve the problem in even after spending thousands of crores.

Now come to the second cost — the marginal cost of travelling an additional kilometre. This is the relevant when asking if a motorcycle owner will ride her bike to place B or opt to take public transport (apart from time, status etc.) The marginal cost of using a motorcycle is so low that for many taking a metro makes no financial sense unless it is for longer distances. For instance, in the Delhi metro, average trip lengths are about 20 km.

These two reasons explain why actual ridership in metros is glaringly lower than projected ridership.

So why do pursue an expensive and useless pipe dream? And what might we do instead?

Let us answer the second question first.

Lessons from Zurich

One of my favourite sayings is a Chinese proverb: “To know the road ahead, ask those coming back”. And in this case, there are several cities where bus and metro or tram and rail work hand-in-hand to provide people with affordable, convenient transportation.

I just experienced it in Zurich.

Travelling in Switzerland is a dream — if you choose public transport. As a tourist in Zurich, I took a cab once in the city — it was expensive and slow. The tram in contrast was cheap, fast and dropped me at my doorstep on both ends of my journey. For longer distances, I took the train. I could get some work done, watch the glorious scenery outside and eat. In no small part, the train journey helped me, in more ways than one, get ready for the destination.

Hate your commute Combining green and cheap in public transport can get you a great ride

A general view shows the tram junction at Bellevue square in Zurich, Switzerland. Reuters Image

The tram system in Zurich is fabulous. For starters, it is reasonably priced (compared to alternatives). There are ticketing meters in the tram stops. The tram stops frequently often every few hundred metres and trams (or buses) come by every few minutes, meaning one never needs to wait long. Also given that the tram tracks are flush with the road, the capital costs are much lower than for a metro.

The trams, buses and trains are bound together in the central stations, and the entire network functions efficiently in a hub and spoke arrangement.

There is additional icing on the cake.

Trams are powered by electricity, and thus have no tailpipe emissions, meaning no air pollution. And because the electricity grid of Switzerland has low carbon emissions, this is really an example of green transport. The Swiss grid is powered by a combination of hydropower and nuclear plants. The Swiss grid emits about 143 grams of CO2 per unit of electricity vs 820 grams of CO2 per unit in India or 630 grams in Europe.

Cycling in cities is a pleasure as well. There are dedicated cycling lanes and even serious men, in suits with leather satchels over their shoulder, cycle to work. Cycling is not seen as ludicrous — it is seen as cool. To test the veracity of my statement, visualise a corporate honcho cycling to work in Mumbai. Some of this has to do with the lack of cycling infrastructure and climate. But some definitely has to do with image.

Hate your commute Combining green and cheap in public transport can get you a great ride

A very young cyclist in Zurich. Image courtesy Mridula Ramesh

This is sad. Because of the slightly more active lifestyle cycling/taking public transport engenders, my step count in Zurich easily crossed 10,000 steps a day. In India, even with a walk in the evenings, crossing 7,000 is not very easy. So good for the wallet, heart and environment.

What are the barriers?

So why are Indian cities, with their short-trip-heavy transport needs, not going with a tram/bus and cycling centred transport infrastructure?

There are three possible reasons that spring to mind.

The first is image.

The “mine is bigger than yours” mindset pervades the world today in every dimension imaginable. Public infrastructure projects are no exception. When Bengaluru has a metro why not Hyderabad? Why not Lucknow? It offers plenty of media coverage, ticks the boxes and is perceived to be “cool”. A bus, on the other hand, is many things – efficient, effective and even climate-friendly — but it is not perceived to be “cool”. Given a choice, most Indian politicians would love to have his or her image emblazoned on a metro rather than a bus (or a tram).

In Switzerland, politicians work differently. I was surprised to find that many people in Switzerland (including the Swiss) would be hard put to identify the president of their country. So, photos on public infrastructure projects don’t count, and by extension, that is not a criterion for decision making.

Hate your commute Combining green and cheap in public transport can get you a great ride

The second is that large contracts work better in the rent-seeking environment of some governments. 10 percent on a Rs 10,000 crore contract is a heck of a lot more than 10 percent on a Rs 1,000 crore contract.

The third reason is the lack of discipline on Indian roads. Bus or Light Rail rapid transit systems often fail if random people dash across the rails, increasing the chance of accidents. This is one of the reasons that Indian urban planners like to cite for preferring the elevated or underground metro. Of the three, this is easy to surmount.

An underlying reason beneath all of these is a fraying social contract — something we will explore another time.

So what?

Indian cities are nowhere close to the upper echelons in any ranking of great places to live and our broken transport systems are a key reason. A comfortable and affordable commute is worthy of pursuit. Indian city dwellers currently travel (mainly) short distances and have a high two-wheeler ownership. These two facts rule out the metro as a good solution for our cities.
Zurich — with its trams, buses and cycles — shows us what is possible. The choice is up to us.

The writer is the founder of the Sundaram Climate Institute, cleantech angel investor, teacher and author of a forthcoming book on Climate Change and India. Follow her work on her website; on Twitter; or write to her at cc@climaction.net

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