Good for the economy, bad for the environment?

Irrespective of fuel costs, investing in a robust public transport system alone can save the day

December 06, 2014 11:37 pm | Updated April 07, 2016 03:29 am IST

Whenever news about a fall in oil prices hits the headline, the first to cheer are car users. “I can save up to Rs. 2,700 every month now. That means I can put this money to better use elsewhere,” a journalist-friend recently said with a sigh of relief when asked to respond to the recent steep fall.

Despite more pocket-friendly modes of transport available, my friend prefers to use her car to travel from her house in suburban Chennai to our workplace, which is a good 26 km away. Nothing can beat the comfort of hopping into a car right outside your doorstep compared with walking a good 10 minutes to reach the nearest bus stop or trekking up two flights of stairs at the local MRTS station (as the lifts are mostly dysfunctional) to get to work, is her argument for not patronising public transport.

But given India’s climate change concerns — it is the third largest emitter of greenhouse gases — and the rising levels of pollution in our cities, can we afford to remain oblivious to the environmental costs of neglecting public transport?

“You can no longer depend on the economic argument alone when you discuss something like transportation. Private vehicle usage globally contributes to huge equity issues,” Sujatha Byravan, adviser, Centre for Study of Science Technology and Policy, Bangalore, said.

Citing a World Development Report brought out by the World Bank, she said switching from SUVs to fuel-efficient passenger cars in the U.S. alone would nearly offset the emissions generated in providing electricity to 1.6 billion more people. “What that means is switching over to less fuel-guzzling modes of transportation can greatly reset the global imbalance in resource consumption.”

For Chennai-based wildlife conservationist Shekar Dattatri, the news of oil prices crashing the world over gave a sinking feeling, as it would inevitably lead to more profligate use of motorised vehicles. “Cities like Chennai desperately need a much better public transport system,” he said. Though many comfortable new buses have been introduced in the city, Mr. Dattatri feels that Chennai still has a long way to go. “Even if one wants to take a bus or a local train, there is no proper feeder connectivity to make the experience seamless. The minibuses launched by the Tamil Nadu government for connecting inner roads to main roads is a step in the right direction, but this service needs to be expanded,” he said.

He recalled how the Mayor of Bogota, Enrique Peñalosa, revolutionised public transport in his once-congested city to the point where even affluent car owners are happy to take buses rather than drive, dramatically decongesting the roads and improving everyone’s quality of life. “I’m still waiting for that to happen here,” he said.

“The government should realise that oil prices are not going to go down indefinitely,” Sudhir Chella Rajan, Professor at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Chennai, said. “From a sustainability and reliability point of view, policy measures have to be made to encourage the use of public transport. Whatever benefits the current low prices of fuel provide must be actively invested back in improving amenities in local bus depots and railway stations and this must be done at the level of the city by the local government.”

Geetam Tiwari, Professor, IIT, Delhi, and expert in urban transport and traffic planning, said, “From a planner’s perspective, in urban areas, land is a scarce resource. Therefore, you cannot encourage unlimited demand for transport corridors. In a city like Delhi, you cannot devote more than 20 per cent of the area for travel. Therefore, whatever land area we have for travel must be used to accommodate more people rather than more vehicles and this can only be done by creating comfortable public transport.”

Referring to the Bus Rapid Transit System (BRTS) in Delhi, a dedicated six-km corridor which was conceptualised using her research in the area of socially beneficial transportation, she said there was an elite bias towards the project as it did not benefit car users.

“The corridor has helped decongest the roads. However, the concept of an exclusive bus-only lane has not been well-enforced in Delhi by the traffic police as they allow cars to enter the lanes,” he said. She pointed to the 2012 court judgment delivered in favour of the BRTS to argue further why exclusive corridors for public transport ought to be encouraged. “Given the way in which the number of cars on roads is increasing, we cannot do without exclusive corridors to ensure buses can maintain decent speed while plying so they enjoy patronage,” she said.

“In Delhi, only 15 per cent of trips are by cars,” she said which shows how it is those using public transport that constitute the majority. “Nevertheless, car users form a vocal minority whose concerns dominate the press as well,” she said. Addressing the element of aspiration often used to justify switching from public transport to cars, she said a day would come when private vehicle usage would be rendered unaffordable as we did not have enough space on the roads to expand any further.

And we do not even know how long the oil price drop euphoria is going to last…

0 / 0
Sign in to unlock member-only benefits!
  • Access 10 free stories every month
  • Save stories to read later
  • Access to comment on every story
  • Sign-up/manage your newsletter subscriptions with a single click
  • Get notified by email for early access to discounts & offers on our products
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide by our community guidelines for posting your comments.

We have migrated to a new commenting platform. If you are already a registered user of The Hindu and logged in, you may continue to engage with our articles. If you do not have an account please register and login to post comments. Users can access their older comments by logging into their accounts on Vuukle.