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Sustainable system needed to solve transportation woes

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S. Anil Radhakrishnan

With the number of vehicles on its roads increasing to unmanageable levels, Kerala is already in the grip of a transportation crisis. Unless imaginative measures and innovative practices are adopted, the State might find it impossible to provide an efficient transport system.

THIRUVANANTHAURAM: A well-developed and efficient transport system promotes economic growth by allowing efficient trade and commerce, attracting new business and providing citizens easy access to far off places to meet their daily needs. It opens up hitherto undeveloped or underdeveloped areas for economic development. However, the present course of transport development, marked by over-dependence on motor vehicles, is pushing the three leading main cities of the State into a major transportation crisis. Increased use of motor vehicles, especially in areas unable to afford proper facilities, comes at both a heavy economic and environmental cost. Thiruvananthapuram, Kochi and Kozhikode have already begun to feel the adverse effects of rapid motorisation, congestion, increased levels of air pollutants and environmental degradation. Motor vehicles are turning out to be the worst offenders in spoiling the environment and natural beauty of the State and causing health hazards to the road users.

Development of road infrastructure has not kept pace with the rapid increase in the number of vehicles in Kerala. The number of all class vehicles in the State went up from 1,19,720 in 1975 to 36 lakhs in 2006. This was accompanied by increase in road length from 14,870 km to 21,347 km. This shows that like other cities in the country, the cities of Kerala too have responded to transportation shortfalls by expanding the road network. Although development of road network is important, roads comprise only one component of the entire transport system. "Focusing on a single sub-system component rather than the system as a whole leads only to piecemeal solutions. Such approaches lead to unsustainable transport system," say transportation planners.

Energy intensity of various transport modes is a key factor in determining transport related environmental impacts. Energy consumption per passenger km by bus is the least and is highest for cars among road based personalised vehicles. On an average, a car consumes six times more energy than a bus, while two-wheelers consume 2.5 times and three-wheelers 4.7 times more energy (see table). In terms of fuel cost per passenger km, a three-wheeler is about six to seven times costlier than a bus and two-wheeler is at least twice costlier than the bus. Thus, transport planners say, bus transportation is not only favourable in terms of environmental consideration but also in terms of energy efficiency and effective use of road space in urban areas.

Although the traffic density on the roads has increased manifold over the years, the improvements in transportation network have not kept pace with the growth of population and motor vehicles. Transportation problems, experts say need to be tackled in a co-ordinated, multi-nodal system of road, rail and water transport and also using the latest trends in engineering.

Some initiatives have been taken up by the Government to improve the public transport system and to discourage the entry of private vehicles.

The Delhi Metro Rail Corporation (DMRC) that explored the possibility of Mass Rapid Transit System in the capital has suggested High Capacity Bus Systems and Mainline Electric Multiple Units of six coaches in Kollam-Thiruvananthapuram sector to cater to the increasing travelling needs.

Works for introducing Elevated Light Rail Transit System (ELRTS) in 22 km stretch from Aluva to Thripunithara has commenced. The AC Electrical Multiple Units on elevated rails put up on pillars along the central median would be able to carry 25,000 passengers per hour in one direction.

Walking and bicycling have negligible environmental effects. However, they are affected by the environmental impact of motorised transport. Walkers and cyclists are turning to be a rare sight in the three cities. "There are no walkways in most of our towns and cities. This is a disincentive to all those who wish to their destinations after parking their personal vehicles at parking lots, which are also a rarity in our cities," said Padmanabhan Nair, a retired civil servant, who has made it practice to walk to most of the city destinations, rain or shine.

A sustainable transportation system, besides controlling air emissions, traffic congestion or excessive fuel use, must balance the present and long-term needs for the environment, economic growth and equity. The ultimate goal of transport is to provide mobility to people and access to goods and services. Transport sector is the major consumer of petroleum products and is totally dependent on crude oil. While demand for mobility continues to grow rapidly, fewer and fewer sources of fossil oil deposits are being discovered. Transport planners say the mobility of people and goods must, therefore, not be allowed to depend exclusively on crude oil that is depleting. There are several alternative fuels available for transportation, including bio-diesel, gaseous fuel (CNG, LPG, Propane), Alcohol fuel (Ethanol, Methanol), solar power, fuel cells and electricity. LPG is increasingly used in personalised modes of transport, especially cars, in the State. But, lack of adequate filling stations is a major hindrance faced by motorists.

Recently, battery operated vehicles have come into the focus because of their oil-free and pollution-free transport operation. The batteries can be recharged at night. Incentives like cheaper power tariffs during off-peak hours and night could encourage the use of such vehicles. "It is necessary to experiment with different technologies available and address the whole issue of energy security so that the dependence on imported crude oil is minimised," says T. Elangovan, Director Grade Scientist, National Transportation Planning and Research Centre (NATPAC) here.

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