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Clearing the way for multi modal transport

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Peak hour traffic on a Chennai street. Photo: K. Pichumani.
Peak hour traffic on a Chennai street. Photo: K. Pichumani.

V. Jayanth

The basic approach should be to link train and bus services to reduce congestion on the roads.

GIVEN THE explosion of vehicles on the roads, the question before planners is: can any urban centre handle the projected growth in traffic, especially of private cars and two-wheelers. Sustained economic growth and creation of high-end jobs has meant more men and women buying vehicles. This has meant more traffic. And, the number of people using public transport does not appear to have come down either.

Mumbai is perhaps the only metropolis that uses a multi modal transport system: Trains bring commuters from the suburbs to the business district; buses, three-wheelers, and taxis provide links to the rail network.

Unfortunately, not much of this culture has spread to the other metros. Kolkata's underground railway and New Delhi's Metro rail have provided a new dimension to the flow of traffic in these cities. Kolkata's Rapid Transit System took a long time to take shape but has over the years emerged as something special to the city.

Delhi's Metro will have to demonstrate to the rest of the country the viability of such a high-investment mass transit system in the Indian context.

The heavy investment to build both an underground and an elevated structure, over a long gestation period, means pricing of services will have to be high to ensure the system does not incur huge losses. Success depends on finding the right balance in tapping the willingness of commuters to pay more for better services.

Now urban centres such as Chennai, Bangalore, and Hyderabad want one model of the metro or another. It may be time for the Centre and the State Governments to join hands. One option could be to set up an Urban Transport Authority to handle the public transport systems in a city. Instead of the Railways managing the suburban train services, a State undertaking operating the buses, and private transport operators functioning on their own, such an Authority could ensure coordination of the entire system.

With public transport, the issue of subsidies becomes important. While the Railways subsidises suburban services to an extent, especially the season tickets, the State transport corporations too offer concessional fares to some sections. It becomes very difficult for the State transport undertakings to increase bus fares as it is considered an "unpopular decision."

Especially in the context of the frequent increase in fuel prices, most State transport undertakings have been forced to absorb the costs just like the Railways. They have all been asked to prune operating and other costs to ensure the fuel price hike is not passed on to the consumer. Of course, this may be a welcome move as far as the commuters are concerned, but officials say "costing and pricing become even more skewed." The subsidy burden on the public transport system rises and so do operating costs.

Urban planners argue that a certain element of subsidy in urban transport may be inevitable as it is necessary to protect at least some sections of commuters. But the urban system needs better coordination and integration to collect, transport, and disperse the traffic without a bottleneck. That is why an Urban Transport Authority becomes imperative. A single agency may be able to better coordinate the rail and road transport systems to provide immediate onward connections to commuters. A feeder bus service in the suburban colonies could bring people from their homes to a railway station for mass rapid transit. Urban bus services could carry commuters from the train stations to different parts of the city centre.

A former Chief Planner of the Chennai Metropolitan Development Authority said: "Some kind of a circular bus service may be ideal for such an integrated system and such as service must start and end at every railway station inside the metropolis. Where the State transport undertakings cannot provide the required volume of services, the private sector may be encouraged to operate these circular routes with smaller buses and vans."

Unless the Central and State Governments, along with the Railways, sit together and evolve such an approach, the mismatch in urban transportation will persist - and so will the congestion on the roads.


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