THE SUNDAY STORY Improved mass transport in terms of capacity, safety, comfort and reliability should be a key priority

What would it take to convince city dwellers to use their cars and other personal motor vehicles less, at a time that the government is talking of austerity measures for automotive fuels?

The share of transport in energy consumption in India is rising. Research published last year shows that passenger transport has a higher share of energy use than freight, although both are growing.

In fact, the rise in energy consumption by road-based passenger transport in India between 2001 and 2007 is 46 per cent, say Piyush Tiwari (University of Melbourne) and Manisha Gulati (WWF South Africa), whose paper on the subject appeared in Research In Transportation Economics, 2012. Increase in energy use for goods transport by road is half that much. Again, cars hog the fuel in the passenger segment, and are projected to do so even more into 2030.

Real fuel prices have increased over time, and have stayed at a high level due to several factors. A depreciating currency, rising demand and patterns of global oil prices have had an impact on pricing, and international tensions mainly linked to the Middle East translate into painful spikes.

Reducing dependence on oil, and moving to more insulated public transport systems is an attractive option. The problem in making this ‘modal shift’ from personal vehicle to public transport is rooted in the neglect of India’s urban mobility infrastructure for decades.

India today has a fragmented transport system — comfortable air-conditioned cars for a big middle class segment, luxurious cars and SUVs for the wealthy, risky rides on two-wheelers for millions, and agonising travel by antiquated public buses and legacy urban railways for the majority.

Improved mass transport in terms of capacity, safety, comfort, reliability and passenger information systems should be a key priority, but enjoys little political support.

For the whole of urban India, the UPA government provided funding assistance for about 15,000 buses as stimulus funds for industry, and even these did not meet modern standards because purchasers arm-twisted the Ministry of Urban Development into watering down design criteria. Another stimulus round has been announced for 10,000 buses, and it remains to be seen whether these will be better.

Compare this with London, a global city that runs primarily on a reliable public transport backbone. It has an operational fleet of 8,500 buses, of which 6,000 are modern double deckers, complementing a famous urban ‘tube’ rail network. A decade and half ago, there were 5,500 buses in operation. The city plans for an annual traffic growth of about five per cent.

India’s populous cities, by contrast, struggle with far fewer, badly designed and maintained buses, with no comparable rail networks in place. London’s buses cater to 6.7 million passenger trips a day, along with four million on the ‘tube’, says Shashi Verma, Director of Customer Experience at the operating agency, Transport for London.

“The transport service has to reflect the people’s needs,” says Mr. Verma, whose department handles a budget of 204 million pounds and focuses on payment systems, multi-modal Oyster travel card and information systems for passengers.

Unlike in India, only about two per cent of passengers buy cash tickets on board London buses, while the rest have cards; the underground rail system has a ten per cent share of cash-based tickets because of tourist traffic. Fares in London are kept above the rate of inflation.

Capacity addition

Adding capacity to meet demand is a constant effort. After a long spell of Thatcherite neoliberal policies that did little to augment public transport and prioritised road building to encourage personal motor vehicle use, the UK began to invest again in this area under Prime Minister John Major. Today, it is building a new rail line connecting East and West, between Paddington and Liverpool Street and upgrading other lines (there is a train every 107 seconds on some lines).

The London lesson would only be half learnt without looking at its congestion charging system, and parking tariffs.

Also significant is the use of information technology combined with global positioning systems, which provide passengers with accurate information about arrival of buses at stops, and over mobile phone applications.

This presents a case for comparison for Indian cities. Standards of comfort and reliability in urban transport must be written into a law, eliminating the discretion available to individual operators (including State-run agencies) to convert truck frames into buses that people find hard to board. If India’s cars can be world class, why not its buses and trains?

An annual transport survey for all cities and towns based on passenger feedback should become a legal requirement. New regulatory frameworks to augment urban taxi services are vital. As things stand, States have tacitly allowed unapproved or loosely regulated taxi and share auto networks to proliferate in cities.

All bus fleets in the million-plus population cities should be fitted with GPS systems and the data output made available for real time display. As experts have pointed out, portable GPS devices are inexpensive and can easily be deployed with drivers.

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