Climaction Travel

Catch a bus

My son’s current ambition is to be a metro driver. This was sparked off by a recent trip on the spanking new Chennai metro with grandmother in tow. He loved it. She loved it. There were apparently tons of people around taking selfies. It was a novelty. It cut the travel time from Alandur (near the airport) to Koyambedu to about 20 minutes from the earlier 1 hour or so. But my driver made, what to me, was the clinching remark: “Too expensive at Rs. 10 per stop”. My driver makes the daily commute from Tambaram to Gopalapuram in Chennai (about an hour’s train journey) Assuming there was a metro-option available for such a commute, the one-way price would exceed Rs. 70. The very-real conveniences of the metro come with too high a price tag. There’s the rub.

Suggesting what India should choose as urban public transportation modes for her cities is beyond the scope of this column. But as the public, we should understand how such choices are to be made. Let us start with what should be the first question: What is the problem? The problem encompasses increasing congestion, pollution and the climate impact of urban transportation. How can we measure this problem? Possible metrics could be average vehicle speeds in cities for congestion, PM (or particulate matter) levels for pollution and CO2 emissions for the climate impact.

What does the data say?

In a study conducted by the Consortium of Traffic Engineers and Safety Trainers and reported by The Hindu shows that average vehicle speeds in Bangalore fell from 35 kmph in 2005 to 9.2 kmph in 2014. Data from IIT Madras, shows that vehicle speeds in Chennai (SP Road) fell from 49 kmph in 1992 to 20 kmph in 2014. Congestion is increasing in every city.

What are the ways by which congestion can be reduced? One is by lowering the need for transportation, or by collocating places of work with residences. Another is by reducing the number of vehicles in any given time; this can be done by reducing the number of vehicles overall, reducing the distance per trip or time spent by the vehicles on bottleneck areas or by spreading out the timing of commute. Well then, how can we reduce the number of vehicles? By accommodating more people per square foot of vehicle space. This is where rapid transit systems come into play. Hold that thought, while we consider the data on climate impact.

CO2 emissions by vehicle type (from IPCC data pertaining to US and Europe) varies from a low of buses (25-140 gCO2/passenger km) or passenger train (40-105 gCO2/passenger-km) to a high of motorcycles (85-220 gCO2/passenger-km) or cars (85-210 gCO2/passenger-km). So it seems a no-brainer to switch from individual to collective transportation, especially in cities where the number of passengers and congestion make it a viable argument.

So what’s coming in the way?

Many factors: I took up a quick survey of my staff, many of whom commute to work by either public transport or two wheelers. The survey results were fascinating. Cost is a primary determinant of the commute mode. The marginal cost of operating a two wheeler is Rs. 0.7-1 per km at 2005 prices as reported in a study by Dr. Dinesh Mohan, of IIT Delhi. This determines the ceiling of public willingness to spend on public transport and essentially rules out the metro as a viable alternative for the two wheeler driving population. A dirty and overcrowded bus running on an erratic and perhaps infrequent schedule presents an unappealing choice to induce a person driving a two wheeler to switch. A car driver has a marginal cost of consumption of somewhere between Rs. 10 to Rs. 20 per km, so a metro is a viable solution, especially over longer distances. Here conveniences – comfort and the ability to use the time for something meaningful, and a well-developed network are drivers of substitution. Projects like the Bangalore Metro, with limited networks, are wonderful only for tourists like my son.

So what can we do? As many have said before, a rapid bus transit system (BRTS) makes eminent sense. A well-functioning BRTS requires, at a minimum, the following: Clean, attractive buses, predictable and frequent schedules, some form of right-of-way and a political will to see this happen. There are barriers to this, starting with our narrow city roads that make dedicated lanes for buses difficult, and the political penchant for metros. But when metro systems cost as much as ten times as a BRTS, and our congestion and pollution continue to mount, we owe ourselves to try to make them a success. There is a Chinese proverb: “To know the road ahead, ask those coming back” – next time we will consider those cities that have made the BRTS a success.

Climaction is a fortnightly column that is published in MetroPlus Weekend on alternate Fridays. The views expressed in the articles are those of the author.

The next article in this series will appear on August 7.

Feedback and questions may be e-mailed to

(Mridula Ramesh is the Executive Director of Sundaram Textiles. She is also a student and teacher of global warming)

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Printable version | Oct 31, 2020 7:57:09 AM |

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