Transit conundrum

We never expected public transport to catch the political imagination in the car maniacal city of Delhi. So we were pleasantly surprised by the recent budget of the Delhi government. The transport sector has hogged the biggest pie of the total budgetary allocation – nearly one-fourth of the total plan outlay.

Apparently this is spurred by its commitment to complete all public transport projects in the pipeline – high capacity bus system, and electric trolley bus system within three years.

Delhi’s move stirred larger questions. All our cities need good, affordable public transport to check the menacing rise in personal cars and scooters, cut local air toxins and greenhouse gases, and tame congestion. But city governments rarely pay attention. Suddenly we heard a regulator comment – do we have enough demand for public transport in our cities to plan for more buses?

Barring a few state capitals that have several thousand buses and mass transits catering to nearly 60 to 80 per cent of travel demand, other polluted cities – Lucknow, Ahmedabad, Kanpur, Pune, with populations ranging from three to more than seven million, have only a few hundred buses each. Bus transit has not developed into a popular mass mode in these severely polluted cities. In Lucknow for example, public buses carry less than five per cent of person trips. Intermediate public transport (three-wheelers, vans, etc) and personal vehicles seem to have saturated the demand. Why then should city governments get more buses?

Such is the power of a dumb question that it actually saw us scurrying for all city action plans that have piled up in the Supreme Court, promising to cut air pollution in several polluted cities. It was indeed quite naive of us to expect that public transport -- the direct responsibility of the state governments -- would be the prime lever in city action-plans to cut pollution. Public transport, we found, was a mere add-on and partially linked to alternative fuel programmes or technology upgrade (Euro II). Only a couple of cities have plans to add a few more buses. Public transport in most states is moribund and is not perceived as a means to engineer rapid transition to sustainable transportation.

The odd question about the demand for public transport continued to nag us. Transport experts know that demand for mobility grows relentlessly. But policy makers ignore transit solutions to the mobility crisis. The missing piece in the jigsaw is that public transport concerns do not make or break governments! City administrators have sensed that too -- easy options of owning personal vehicles weaken the political angst in cities. So there is no reason for city governments to really care.

Amidst this confusion, the central ministry of urban development has completed the process of soliciting public comments on the draft National Urban Transport Policy. The draft has collected policy thoughts that could work as a framework for urban transport planning in cities. The policy actually weaves in some important elements of mobility management, including tax policies to discourage personal vehicles and restrain their use. It also underscores the importance of low-cost bus systems in cities that state governments can easily implement.

The policy however prescribes, and quite predictably, that any city with a population of more than 5 million that is bound to have a few corridors with traffic levels exceeding 40,000 peak hour peak direction trips (phpdt), must plan for a rail-based transit system. At phpdt levels lower than this, the city can do with buses. This means many million-plus and polluted cities should now begin to plan for rail transit options when only 17 cities out of 35 million-plus cities in India have only a modicum of dedicated city bus services!

The draft policy does disturb. Why? The policy outlines a financial plan for metro rail development, the Metropolitan Transport Fund, supported by a surcharge on petrol, diesel and CNG. Even state governments have been encouraged to set up special metro funds at the state level and raise revenues through dedicated levies on vehicle registration and by a surcharge on fuels. This fund is entirely earmarked to only fund metro rail projects. The policy justifies this on the ground that expensive urban rail-based systems would need public management.

But linking local fund mobilisation for transport to only the metro rail initiative can distort investment decisions in cash trapped cities, block other cheaper and multiple transit options, and lead to over-centralisation and erosion of local decision-making processes.

If cities in India require balancing short, medium and long-term targets to augment public transport facilities, they have to combine a variety of transit modes dexterously to maximise mobility benefits. A resource crunch may make it difficult for many cities to implement their transport management plans. As there is nothing like a ‘best fit’ transit solution for all cities, the policy should widen the net of the Metropolitan Transport Fund to support locally appropriate public transit options tailored to a city’s needs.

Such fund mobilisation for improved public transport services offers a good opportunity for effective travel demand management in cities as well. As the growing need for mobility does not necessarily translate into demand for public transport, cities can easily lull themselves into thinking there is no demand. But fiscal policies linked to the creation of these funds can be effectively used to dampen demand for personal vehicles and travel.

This hopefully will stir up the dormant demand for public transport and resolve the dilemma of our baffled regulator!

-- Anumita Roychowdhury
Right To Clean Air Campaign