The urban public transport debate

The urban public transport debate
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First Published: Sun, Aug 29 2010. 09 15 PM IST
Updated: Sun, Aug 29 2010. 09 15 PM IST
Ensconced in your car behind a hundred-odd vehicles, sometimes for as long as half-an-hour, even as buses zip by intermittently on the two-thirds of the road reserved for them, one would, on the face of it, have the right to feel peeved. After all, you pay taxes and are probably forking out a costly EMI to fund your mode of transport.
It seems unfair, especially in Delhi if one includes the frustration of living in a city that resembles one recovering from a bombing reminiscent of what Germany inflicted on Britain during the World War.
Not really, if you know some basic facts of road transport in Delhi. A survey by RITES (Rail India Technical and Economic Services) of Delhi in 2008 showed that 13.92% people used cars. On the other hand, 14.72% used cycles/cycle rickshaws and a staggering 34.67% simply walked—they don’t own any transport, can’t afford public transport and hence simply walk!
So while about one in three people in Delhi walk, a little over one in 10 use cars to commute. The transport corridor does not reflect this reality, though. Pavements are continuously shrunk for expanding roads, in turn to accommodate the burgeoning vehicle population in cities.
The same RITES survey found that 40% of the roads do not have a sidewalk. Clearly, going by democratic rules that govern India, this is patently unfair. And yet, this element of the political economy of road transport in a metro such as Delhi is often ignored. Not surprisingly, most of the media reporting on the BRT (Bus Rapid Transit) experiment in Delhi, minus these facts, skewed the debate against the project from the very beginning.
It is my case that this information was suppressed. The authorities must surely have been aware of the RITES survey, but never employed it to educate what was always a rhetorical debate over the introduction of a BRT.
The bad handling and half-baked execution of the project only compounded the problem, as it were.
And this can’t be passed off as the usual incompetence that we have become used to with respect to the execution of public projects.The big question, then, is why so? One is not privy to the inner goings-on of the deliberations among the political powers; yet one can hazard a safe guess.
The logic will lead to the second aspect of the political economy of road transport in a metro. It lies in the cost difference between projects. A BRT as opposed to a metro rail or the addition of scores of flyovers do not simply compare. The current stretch of BRT must have cost less than Rs1,000 crore—a trifling compared to what is being invested in attempts to shape up the city (it is another matter that this is unlikely to materialize) ahead of the Commonwealth Games in October. The builder-developer-politician nexus knows this very well—and this is not just something exclusive to India (some of you would have read about the road-to-nowhere in Alaska).
To put it very bluntly, the opportunity to skim the pickings in a BRT kind of project is limited. So it is not surprising that it comes low in the order of priorities in any discussion on public transportation. This is rather strange for two reasons.
Firstly, since the BRT kind of projects, given their relatively lower cost, have an inherently more robust underlying revenue model. And secondly, given that most users of public transport, particularly in India, are from the relatively lesser well-off demography—a key constituent—it is rather surprising that the politicians have not factored this into their response; maybe the fact that an election is not due for another three-and-a-half years in Delhi could offer a clue.
Going forward, it is time the politicians and public policy experts revisited the debate on public transport in India. If urban areas are going to house 2/3rds of the country’s population, then public transport is a key element without which we will be heading for a disaster. And it has to be something that acknowledges both India’s scale and the fact that it has users who can barely afford public transport, implying that copying what works in New York won’t do.
Anil Padmanabhan is a deputy managing editor of Mint and writes every week on the intersection of politics and economics. Comments are welcome at
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First Published: Sun, Aug 29 2010. 09 15 PM IST