The Delhi High Court order dismissing a challenge to the Bus Rapid Transit System in the national capital is praiseworthy for its assertion that the urban commons, represented by road space, is a public good. The judgment correctly observes that governments pursue the principal purpose of promoting welfare of the maximum number of people, rather than distributing public goods in a restrictive manner. Delightfully, the court makes short work of the NGO petitioner’s elitist argument, that wealth creators who ride in cars deserve special consideration — in the form of more road space — over those who take public transport. In Delhi, the opening of the 5.6 km section of the new bus system has met with fierce resistance from car users on the ground that they now have less space. It is now for the Delhi government to remove any road engineering bottlenecks in the system that threatened to overturn the egalitarian BRT idea. But another important part of the court’s order pertains to the evidence on lopsided official transport priorities. Delhi has deployed most of the funds from the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission to create facilities for cars and private motorised vehicles. This is the national pattern now and it is starving public transport, walking and cycling facilities of investments. What this exposes is cynical contempt among policymakers towards the needs of the largest number of road users. Clearly, they have been failed by the UPA government which announced the National Urban Transport Policy six years ago.
In what now appears to be nothing more than a pious declaration, the NUTP said it would bring about “a more equitable allocation of road space with people, rather than vehicles, as its main focus.” Central funding would be offered to encourage more people to use public transport. But very little action has followed. It is time the Centre took its own policy seriously and introduced firm conditions that the States must meet while accessing funding under JNNURM and other Plan schemes. Integrating various modes of transport for seamless city travel covering train, bus and feeder systems is an important NUTP goal. Again, hardly any progress has been made on this. Enhancing comfort and safety is important to shift commuters from personal vehicles to public transport. The way forward is to introduce a congestion charge for personal cars and use the funds to cross-subsidise modern public transport in cities. The idea is not new, and remains on the list of gridlock-reducing measures for Delhi since last year. Car and two-wheeler users do have a point about poor quality and supply of public mobility options. Integration, sensible fares, adequate infrastructure and pedestrianisation can win them over.