Increasing fuel consumption, the resultant pollution and inefficient urban sprawl caused by incessantly expanding private motorised transport are all compelling reasons for prioritising public transport. Investing in public transport is now imperative. In this context, the recently announced Metro Railway Policy by the Ministry of Urban Development encouraging cities with more than two million population to plan and implement high-capacity and high-speed metro rail systems is a welcome directive. Since these large cities would accommodate the bulk of the burgeoning urbanising population in future, planning for their growth and mobility is necessary. The metro rail, which takes on an average about 10 years to plan and fully implement, could play a significant role in shaping their future. The successful Delhi experience has also strengthened the case of metro rail as an important urban transportation option and places such as Kochi and Jaipur have already commenced implementation. However, planners should not make the mistake of treating the metro rail as a panacea for all their urban ills. There are a few caveats and notes of caution they need to consider before taking the plunge.
The usefulness of a metro rail project would depend on how well it is integrated with the spatial and functional planning of the city. Cities often tend to crowd development around metro rail corridors to take advantage of the high-capacity system, but this, in the absence of a comprehensive development plan, could result in lopsided urban growth. For instance, Chennai has pushed for intense building activity along the already crowded rail corridors to enhance ridership — at least 20,000 people travelling during peak hours in the peak direction — to make the metro rail network economically sustainable. This move may increase the number of rail users, but the question is whether it is desirable. Second, many cities with a population of two million have a large number of medium-demand transport corridors, which can be well served only by a bus system with affordable travel fares. Hence, a city cannot limit itself to developing only metro rail, and other transportation modes are equally critical. Even for the metro rail to function well, it needs a good feeder bus network, connecting pedestrian paths and seamless modal transfer. Unfortunately, the Working Group on Urban Transport for the Twelfth Five Year Plan, which has recommended Rs. 1, 30,726 crore for metro rail projects in 19 cities, has only provided Rs. 22,519 crore for bus transport for the entire country. It is important to expand transport options, but without comprehensive development, mobility within cities would not be efficient and convenient.