Indian cities may not get another chance to prevent mobility debacle and high cost of congestion and pollution; act now, says CSE

  • After experiencing clear blue sky and traffic-free roads, Indian cities cannot return to business-as-usual
  • CSE’s rapid ongoing perception survey of middle- and high-income groups in Delhi-NCR cities indicate rapidly changing public mood
  • While use of public transport may reduce in the short run, long-term shift towards public transport, walking and cycling preferred if systems improve.
  • Globally, governments are framing bailout packages for transit systems; India too needs economic packages to rebuild transport reforms
  • Globally, priority is being accorded to contact free walking and cycling infrastructure and street-based mobility strategies
  • This combined with strategic adoption of work from home and related strategies are needed to reduce unnecessary travel and to reduce pressure on stressed public transport 

New Delhi, May 27, 2020: As Indian cities get ready to reopen the economy, public transport is becoming an urgent necessity. “The future and the ‘new normal’ that we will be faced with post-lockdown,” says Anumita Roychowdhury, executive director-research and advocacy, Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), “will demand steps to rebuild confidence in mass transit systems while improving it, contact-free walking and cycling, and measures to cut unnecessary travel to reduce pressure on already stressed public transport systems.” 

Roychowdhury was talking at an online international expert discussion organised by CSE on May 25. Besides her, the discussion involved Alok Jain, managing director of the Hong Kong-based Trans Consult Asia Ltd and Laghu Parashar, senior technical advisor of GIZ (find the discussion content here: 

On this occasion, CSE laid out the key findings from its ongoing analysis of the impact of the pandemic on mobility and transport in India and globally to highlight the next steps needed not only in the immediate emergency period but longer-term strategy for the new normal. The Centre has done a perception survey on changing commuting choices post-pandemic. The first flush of results, based on the survey of middle and high-income groups in Delhi and surrounding cities in the National Capital Region (NCR), show public mood is changing. While use of public transport is expected to reduce in the short run, there is positive shift in attitude towards high quality public transport, contact-free walking and cycling and lifestyle adjustment to reduce unnecessary travel trips in the longer term. 

Says Roychowdhury: “This is a strong signal for policymakers. Cities urgently need to leverage the solutions emerging from this crisis to control overcrowding in buses and metro, maximise fleet utilisation to improve services, plan for augmentation, make massive shift towards walking and cycling to give options of contact free travel to all income classes and also re-engineer workplace to reduce unnecessary travel needs to take the pressure off the stressed public transport systems. We cannot miss the bus now.” 

Key highlights of CSE analysis: 

Massive collapse of transit and drastic change in travel pattern: While in India public transport ridership has come to a halt due to complete lockdown, in countries that did not lock down and kept their public transport functional, have faced drastic reduction in ridership – as much as 70-90 per cent -- and massive financial losses. In India, there are serious concerns around increased fixed costs of all transit (bus and rail based), high taxes on buses, and plummeting revenue. Even intermediate transport and shared mobility has started to repurpose for emergency health services, deliveries of groceries and essentials; courier service; and fixed route services. So far, there is no financial package for rebuilding public transport systems.                                         

Need to address stressed system: Reopening buses and metro is essential for the opening of the economy and livelihood security. But at reduced occupancy, there will be huge deficit in services and therefore complimentary strategies will be needed to control travel demand from commuting that have alternatives and also adoption of strategies that will maximize service capacity of the existing fleet. 

A ballpark estimate by CSE shows that from the pre-lockdown time, Delhi has 5,400 buses with a total service capacity of 741.6 lakhs km per day (total carrying capacity of all the buses multiplied by their daily operational kms and carried approx. 45 lakhs of passengers everyday). With new physical distancing norm at 20 persons per bus, the service capacity has reduced substantially to 211.9 lakhs km per day. If looked at from the service capacity perspective, to regain the original service capacity level of pre-lockdown time, the city needs an additional fleet of 13,243 buses. Only if protected bus lanes are introduced immediately, the same fleet can provide more kilometers of service and reduce the additional requirement to 10,049 buses (at current physical distancing norm). 

Even with higher occupancy in time to come but with controls on overcrowding city will need more buses quickly. But creating traffic free lane for them will still be needed for operational efficiency and speed of mass transit. This is what global cities are doing. In fact, BMTC in Bengaluru has started creating bus priority lanes to improve carrying capacity of the fleet. 

State transport corporations and metro have begun to adopt guidelines on hygiene and sanitization and physical distancing through reduced occupancy, cashless transaction, boarding alighting norms, health checkup and communication. This requires disciplined enforcement. But this also creates the opportunity to improve overall service conditions of the systems. 

CSE survey provides policy pointers for rebuilding mobility and public transport systems

The first set of results from the CSE’s ongoing perception survey in Delhi and the neighbouring NCR cities highlight the changing commuting choices and attitude post pandemic. This includes the perception of the middle to high-income groups in the region. Perception of the lower income groups is being separately assessed and will be available later. The initial results are insightful. 

Health safety tops the rank:  The overall ranking of the factors that will influence the preference for using public transport shows that health safety is now the top concern. This is followed by road safety, availability of mode options, comfort, distance of trips, cost of journey and environmental consciousness, in that order. This ranking is expected to change when responses of lower income groups will be analysed. More granular analysis shows that the high-income group ranks comfort above all else. 

Preference for car ownership and usage to increase in the short run but declines in the longer term: Among the respondents 64 per cent already own vehicles (car, two-wheelers including multiple ownership) and 36 per cent do not own any vehicles. Among all respondents about 28 per cent have said they may want to buy a vehicle for safety reasons in the near future. However, among the 36 per cent of those who do not own any vehicle, about 43 per cent of them have said they do not wish to own any vehicle in the near future. It is not clear to what extent family support or economic recession or conscious choice is responsible for this decision. 

Long term positive sign positive for public transport and walking and cycling: This survey has assessed preferences for modes during initial six months post locked down, and over 1-2 years and longer term. Within six months of post lockdown metro ridership will decline from 37 per cent at pre lockdown level to 16 per cent. But cars and two-wheelers share will increase from 28 per cent to 38 per cent. Encouragingly, walk and cycling share will increase from 4 per cent to 12 per cent.  In the long term, (1-2 years and beyond) total bus and metro share will regain and increase from 45 per cent to 47 per cent. But intent to use personal vehicles shows an arrested trend – reducing from 35 per cent to 31 per cent. Walk and cycling share will also increase from 4 per cent in pre-lockdown to 9 per cent in long terms. Policy needs to respond to this intent and stimulate the dormant demand for good quality public transport, walking and cycling and reduce dependence on personal vehicles. 

Preference for high quality public transport increases in the long run: The good sign is that the majority of the respondents – as many as 73 per cent have preferred to move to public transport if it meets high quality standards for services. About 22 per cent has said that they will continue to use personal transport and the rest will move to cab and shared mobility. 

About 38 per cent have preferred public transport for the reasons of connectivity, 23 per cent each for cost effectiveness and sustainability, and 16 per cent to avoid traffic. This is a clear indicator for the policy makers that massive shift towards public transport, walking and cycling is possible if good quality and convenient public transport systems and well designed walking and infrastructure are available.    

Travel distances will influence immediate mode choices: As expected average commuting distances have a profound influence on intended mode choices especially in the short run - six months post lockdown. In the distance range of 5-10 km for work trips, use of cars is expected to increase from 20 per cent at pre-lock-down level to 33 per cent, Metro will decline from 30 per cent to 10 per cent and para transit will increase from 10 per cent to 15 per cent.   

But below 5km distance range, walk and cycling is expected to increase from 14 per cent to 43 per cent; car usage reduces from 23 per cent to 16 per cent, and metro usage reduces from 16 per cent to 5 per cent. But there is dramatic increase in interest in walking and cycling within 5 km distance – increases from14 per cent during pre-lock down to 43 per cent within six months after lockdown. If city authorities intervene immediately to provide the infrastructure, dramatic shift in that distance radius is possible. This will also help to reduce pressure and burden on public transport. Census data shows that substantial proportion of about 60 per cent travel trips in the region are below 5 kms. This is a great opportunity.  

Current level of access to public transport modes is a dampener – improve infrastructure to improve access immediately: One clear impediment that is evident from the survey is that the majority does not have convenient access to formal public transport nodes in this region. At Delhi-NCR wide level, close to 40 per cent do not have access to bus stops within 500 meters; and 69 per cent do not have access to metro stations within 500 meters. This will vary from city to city. But clearly, this makes using public transport inconvenient and people become captive user of personal transport. 

However, about 34 per cent have access to a bus stop within 200 mts and 11 per cent have access to metro within 200 mts. Only para transit – autos and shared mobility etc are available more widely and closely.  It is important that economic reconstruction packages in cities need to be linked with transport and street-based infrastructure to improve access to transportation modes along with walling and cycling infrastructure. This immediately requires local area plans and appropriate infrastructure along with public amenities and public parks within neighbourhoods to enhance the experience. 

Majority opting for substantial behaviourial change that can reduce unnecessary trips: The middle to high income groups have shown strong preference for work from home. As many as 54 per cent have opted to work from home and 34 per cent for flexi timing. Smaller numbers have preferred to work from offices. There is a growing consensus that some of these strategies need to be institutionalized. While this can work for health protection, it can also alleviate pressure on highly stressed bus and metro system. 

Drastic change in activity pattern: CSE analysis of Google data report shows that activities in residential areas during lockdown has increased by 29 per cent while visit to workplace reduced by 60 per cent and to retail and recreation by as much as 84 per cent. But going forward as the survey data shows activities related to essential services and medical requirements will continue to remain high at 42-65 per cent. For essential and other purchases around 28 per cent have shown interest in online marketing. About 25 per cent may completely stop trips related to recreation. This change in commuting choices needs to inform infrastructure planning.    

Global learning curve

CSE has reviewed the global learning curve. This global crisis requires learning from each other while customising solutions to local needs. 

Fiscal and bail out packages to revive public transport: To revive public transport other governments are building trust and confidence by adopting stringent hygiene and cleanliness for protection. However, for revival an to overcome immediate concerns, it is reported that governments are working towards bail out packages; for example London is working towards a bailout package of emergency fund worth 1.6 bn UK pound along with Loan package, while reducing cost burden through various other measures. 

Hong Kong is already providing a broad range of financial support, benefiting both customers as well as public and private operators. They are providing 20 per cent fare subsidy to its commuters for 6 months. They have also introduced employment support scheme for transit operators where govt. is providing 50 per cent wages, capped at HK$ 9000 per month for 6 months. Further they are providing fuel subsidy to franchised buses, ferries, trams, taxi, public light bus operators. This also includes one-time subsidy to private bus, school bus and hired car owners.  These strategies linking economic recovery with the transit systems and associated reforms have to begin immediately in India. 

Mobility recovery based on street based programme -- walking and cycling: This is being widely promoted across European cities, US cities like New York, and Asian cities as contact free active transportation and also to contain shift towards car usage. It is evident that city bike count has increased by 74 per cent to 470 per cent in cities like Melbourne, New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, Shenzhen, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Manchester, and Wuhan. Rapid increase in usage and sale of bicycle has been reported in UK, European countries, and the US. As an emergency measures pop up temporary bike lanes are being demarcated by soft methods and by repurposing traffic spaces.  Big investments have been planned for bike lanes in Australia, California, France, among others. 

London is taking the lead: London has experienced 10 fold increase in cycling and 5-fold increase in walking during pandemic. The Mayor’s plan aims to fast track change by transforming streets with wider footpaths, pedestrianisation of streets and reclaim parking spaces. Simultaneously, to restrain car usage there is a proposal to increase congestion charging from June 22 - from 11.50 UK pounds to 15 UK pounds. This is being complemented by travel restraint strategies like work from home.  

Need immediate action agenda to move forward

It is clear that Indian cities cannot go back to chaos of congestion and pollution. This humanitarian crisis that must end quickly, has also presented an opportunity to rebuild and redesign the way we move in our cities and reduce overall health risk and toxic exposure for all income groups in the longer term. CSE survey has shown that despite immediate preference for personal vehicles for reasons of safety, the long-term positive trend among the middle class is towards good quality public transport, walking and cycling and shared mobility. This is the opportunity to redesign our mobility strategies for health and convenient access for all income groups including urban poor.    

  • Rebuild public confidence in safe public transport with stringent implementation of hygiene and social distancing measures
  • Design reform based fiscal package and fiscal instruments to support revival of transit systems and reduce cost burden on bus based systems. Allocate more protected lanes to buses to maximize fleet utilization and carrying capacity. Implement long term strategies to augment integrated public transport and services
  • Adopt measures like work from home, staggered timing etc to reduce unnecessary travel trips and move short trips to walking and cycling as much as possible to alleviate pressure on strained public transport systems and prevent conditions that push people towards personal vehcles.
  • Need emergency scaling up of protected footpaths and cycle lanes with flexible barriers to enable all income groups to access workplace and meet other needs within a reasonable radius of residence. Leverage the growing interest in contact free and safe commuting.
  • Need a strategy to leverage emergency measures adopted like work from home, staggered timing and roster based attendance etc, to cut down unnecessary travel and reduce pressure on strained public transport.


For more details: Sukanya Nair,, 8816818864.