Cities need a sustainable transport update

Public transport can easily be the cheaper, faster and economical alternative if policymakers plan for tomorrow's problems today

The car has been the signifier of the aspiring Indian for decades. Starting in the 1980s, the democratization of car ownership with the explosion in sales of the humble Maruti 800 heralded an emergent middle class.

Every year, governments across the country lay down fresh tar on any available city space to welcome the latest entrants into the coveted league of car owners. Meanwhile, the millions who don’t own cars—and are sidelined to the narrow footpaths that lead to the distant bus stop—continue to aspire to own their own car one day.

The government is now beginning to see why this is a problem. Bengaluru is engulfed in a never-ending traffic jam, Delhi’s pollution is at world-beating levels and Mumbai was never famous for its fast roads. This decade has made it resoundingly clear that the present model of urban transport is unsustainable, and the only way out of the cycleof rising incomes and more wheels on the road—is an efficient public transport alternative.

In light of this realization, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s inauguration speech for the Magenta Line of the Delhi Metro was on point. Using a city’s public transport should be a matter of prestige, he said. Modi made a fine attempt to persuade people to choose public transport over private, but persuasion only goes so far. India is stuck in a collective action problem: It’s not rational for anyone to switch to public transport until everyone else also follows. An individual will stop using his car if the bus is faster, but that is possible only if others also get their cars off the road. Unfortunately, city-development plans have failed to create the right incentives, as is borne out by the preference for private transport.

For example, Bengaluru has seen an increase in the number of private vehicles from 2.7 million in 2008 to 6 million in 2017. The growth in roads cannot keep up with this. Meanwhile, roughly half the city’s passenger trips (5 million) are via a fleet of 6,000 Bengaluru Metropolitan Transport Corporation buses.

The problem starts with the way cities are governed in India. The lack of adequate devolution as per the Constitution (74th Amendment) Act, 1992, and consequently, effective power vested in a city-level governance mechanism, exacts a heavy toll. Chief ministers, whose remit should be the state, are inevitably involved at the city level. Municipal corporations lack adequate transparency and accountability, and urban governance is a tangled web of overlapping jurisdictions. This becomes abundantly clear every time a major city floods or faces some other upheaval, like the Elphinstone Road railway bridge tragedy in Mumbai earlier this year. Urban planning is a mechanistic process that pays little heed to evolving urban landscapes. Taken together, this means band-aid solutions to congestion, i.e. building more roads. That is what the Jawaharlal Nehru Urban Renewal Mission did, as it allocated 80% of the budget to building roads and flyovers.

The urban transport policy must rethink the hierarchy of needs; pedestrians and cyclists must be on top, followed by buses and then motor vehicles.

It is absolutely clear that there isn’t enough space for everyone to drive a car, and the government must pivot the policy to delivering reliable public transport. The metro project is a step in the right direction, but it needs complementary changes that improve the citizens’ experience.

For starters, the metro system needs a bus system to provide last-mile connectivity. If people have to take buses, they need pedestrian paths to walk on the roads. The bus system also needs to be reliable. Mysuru has managed to achieve that because of a centralized monitoring system that tracks buses using GPS. monitors driving speed and ensures that they stop at every bus stop.

Second, the government must resist using attractive-sounding propositions, like pushing electric and hybrid buses, to give the impression that there is political will to improve urban transport. Changing the fuel of the bus will reduce emissions, but there will be dramatically bigger gains if we are able to prompt even a quarter of the private vehicle-using population to use public transport.

Third, India has plenty of assets that are decaying due to poor maintenance. Policymakers will do well to make space for depreciation accounts in their budgets to pay for maintenance and replacement of public assets.

As a positive step towards reforming urban governance, the Centre has proposed incentives worth Rs10,000 crore for meeting certain defined parameters. This should, hopefully, empower municipal bodies, encourage states to delegate more powers to them, and improve the delivery of services. There are other reforms as well, like lateral entry of officers and giving local bodies greater flexibility in urban planning. However, it remains to be seen whether these reforms will be able to change the conventional ways of the bureaucracy.

India is a growing economy, and census data suggests that only 31% of the population lives in urban centres. Another 300 million people will be added by 2050 and the planning for carrying those people in our cities must begin now. Public transport can easily be the cheaper, faster and economical alternative if policymakers plan for tomorrow’s problems today.

How can India improve its public transport system? Tell us at