A recent study reconfirms the disruption of urban mobility, with peak-hour speeds of 10, 15, and 18km per hour in Bangalore, New Delhi and Mumbai. Peak-hour speed in metropolitan cities has long been back to the “horse carriage" age.

Photo: Ramesh Pathania / Mint

The reality is that the urban transport gridlock in India’s million-plus cities is worse than the findings of the above study. With rapid demographic and economic growth, Indian cities will be grappling with increasingly serious transport problems. Unfortunately, the government across levels in India does not seem to be doing much to ameliorate this issue. In developed countries, cities with a one million population start planning for metro rail; by the time the population reaches two million, these metro rails are complete! In the Indian context, cities having three million-plus population urgently need the development of metro rail. By 2011, it is estimated that the contribution of cities and towns to India’s gross domestic product (GDP) will increase beyond 70%. Urban growth requires metro mobility, and we need to start now.

The scale and speed of metro rail construction in China, by comparison, is instructive. In recent times, China has developed 10 times the route length of metro rail compared with India. By 2015, three dozen Chinese cities will have more than 1,700km of metro lines — a gigantic feat by any standard. The key learning for us is that China had already adopted a national urban transport policy by 1995, with metro rail and buses as the primary focus. Its metro rail mission used a simple criterion — 12% economic rate of return. Metro rail plans were not constrained by available funding sources; rather, funding was seen as a “problem to be solved". Agreed that China’s is a separate paradigm, but there is a way forward for India.

First, change the mindset of perennial denial and accept that urban mobility stands disrupted. In today’s car-centric paradigm, the poor suffer most with their mobility needs underserviced. Even if the next generation will pay for the cost of pollution, the congestion cost to GDP today is unsustainable.

Second, set clear policies to get the urban transport structure right — metro rail, modern bus (with or without the Bus Rapid Transit System, or BRTS), bicycle and pedestrian — with seamless integration of routes, ticketing and interchanges. It took six decades after independence to have an urban transport policy, which still needs fine-tuning for a world-class urban transport system that can compete with ever-improving individualized transport. Urban mass transit authorities have been talked about for decades but are yet to arrive in even metropolitan cities.

Third, accept that massive investment in urban transport is unavoidable. There is no proven alternative to metro rail to transport 30,000 persons per hour, per direction. Even the Colombian capital, Bogota, eminently successful with its BRTS, has learnt this lesson and has started constructing a metro rail. The most recent study by Wilbur Smith Associates puts India’s urban transport financing requirement at Rs4.35 trillion over the next 20 years. The consequences of not finding the money are frightening.

A substantial part of it can come from traditional and innovative sources, particularly by slightly increasing the burden on petrol guzzlers by making personal vehicle purchase, ownership, usage and parking fractionally costlier, without overstraining the exchequer. The fast growing base of 15 million vehicles, including two-wheelers, in cities and towns holds the key to urban transport financing.

How should we develop metro rail systems? There is now a debate on two approaches. First, the proven Delhi Metro Rail Corp. Ltd, or DMRC, way, which is a special purpose vehicle (SPV) of the Union and state governments. Second, the promised Hyderabad way, through public-private partnerships, or PPPs, with substantial land given by the government to the private developer. This debate is putting fresh projects in limbo and, in the process, leaving unaddressed the issue of moving people affordably,sustainably, speedily and comfortably. The collateral damage of inaction is huge, and it is time the “microargument" gives way to “macroargument" for ensuring sustainability of cities.

Indeed, a single, ideal model may be the proverbial Holy Grail.

Globally, PPP for metro rail development has had a troubled history, with Kuala Lumpur, Bangkok and Manila of the 1990s proving unmitigated disasters. It is premature to predict the success or failure of the second-generation PPP metro rail projects such as Beijing Line 4, Seoul Line 9, Mumbai Line 1 and Hyderabad. Our own recent experiences offer divergent examples. Bangalore, a DMRC-style SPV, has not much to show, with three CEOs in three years. On the other hand, Mumbai Line 1, being developed through PPP, is still crawling two years after award. By contrast, New Delhi, by 2010, will have nearly 200km metro rail — neck and neck with Beijing.

It is time for the great elephant to awaken.

The metro is not a cure-all. While for cities with three million-plus people, it is likely to be metro time with complementary modern bus services; it is metro planning and bus time for two-million cities, but time for innovative planning in million-plus cities to purposely delay the costly metro rail. What is needed in all our major cities is a comprehensive and integrated approach to urban mobility, using metro, buses and other modes, including non-motorized transport.

The requirement is so huge that all development options taken together may prove unequal to the task. We argumentative Indians need a crash course in next practices of DMRC, regardless of which mode of transport we are implementing, viz., reverse clock counting, ethics par excellence with cascading effect, tenure certainty of key resources, optimization of construction and operation and maintenance cost, revenue maximization — both operational and non-operational — contractors as partners and benchmarking with the best. Tomorrow will be too late and future generations will not forgive us for inaction.

Akhileshwar Sahay is president, Feedback Ventures. These are his personal views. Comment at theirview@livemint.com