India walks to work: Census

Over a fifth of non-agricultural workers in India commute to work on foot, followed by commutes by cycle, moped or motorcycle and bus, new data from the Census shows. Fewer than three per cent take cars or vans, and over half travel less than five kilometres.

On Thursday, the office of the Registrar General of India released data on commutes for the 200 million working Indians who are neither employed in agriculture nor in household industries. The data shows that nevertheless, nearly a third of these workers do not commute, meaning that they live in or adjacent to their workplaces. Commuting for work is even less common among women workers - 45 per cent of women do not commute for work - and higher in rural than in urban areas.

Among those 140 million workers who do commute for work, the distances tend to be quite small. A quarter of commuters travel less than 1 km to work, and another third travel between two and five km. Just 30 million people travel more than 10 km to work, and just 17 million of them have a commute over 20 km. Women commute shorter distances on average than men; the largest category of women commuters travels less than 1 km, while for men, the largest category travels two to five km.

“In India, traditionally cities developed in ways that required small commutes. Transport is essentially a derived demand,” Amit Bhatt, strategy head - urban transport at EMBARQ India explained. However new towns and extensions are being built in the North American model, requiring long commutes which the poor struggle to afford, he said. "People, especially the poor, choose to live close to work because long-distance commuting is expensive and impacts their ability to earn. That is why attempts to shift the poor to the peripheries through slum rehabilitation schemes are so misguided," Shreya Gadepalli, India Regional Director at the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy, said.

A 2005 World Bank study of commuting in Mumbai found that the poor travelled shorter distances than the non-poor.

Planning in most cities does not take into account the realities of Indian commuting, the experts said. Among those who do have to travel for work, one-third commute on foot, the Census data shows. Another 10 per cent use bicycles and 16 per cent travel by bus, while 18 per cent use scooters or motorcycles. More people take autorickshaws or taxis to work than private cars. “Most planning reports don’t even account for pedestrian movement,” Mr. Bhatt said.

For commutes up to 10 km, walking is the most common means of transport, but as commutes grow in distance, people move from travelling on foot to taking buses and two-wheelers. This pattern is however significantly different for women; two-wheelers and cars are rare for women, who commute mainly on foot up to 10 km, followed by buses.

Even in India’s megacities, walking is the most common mode of commuting. In Mumbai, an equal proportion (31 per cent) take the train, while in all other cities buses come next. Chennai and Bengaluru have a high proportion of two-wheeler users.

Given the length of the average commute, transport priorities are skewed, say experts. “"The metro is no doubt an important mode, but buses are even more important. They provide cheap and flexible services that require shorter walk connections. They are more efficient for short and medium distance trips that constitute the majority of urban trips, even in large cities,” Ms. Gadepalli said. “Metros make sense only on very high demand corridors and to serve long distance trips—a small proportion of all trips even in megacities. They are expensive to build and operate. They lose their utility when it comes to Tier II cities which typically have shorter trips. Even in a city like Delhi, which requires a 600-800 km rapid transit network, metro doesn't make sense on more than a fifth of the network. The rest should be developed as a high-quality Bus Rapid Transit. And then, don't forget the city bus," she added.

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Printable version | Oct 17, 2021 3:16:41 PM |

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