As the country heads towards a gradual easing of the lockdown, one question looms large: How much will the absence of public transport impede work? Most large cities, including all main metros, are classified as red zones. All public transport services here, including bus, metro and trains, stand suspended and are unlikely to resume anytime soon. Even transport services that are private but are regulated (quasi-public transport), such as autos and cabs, remain suspended.
Just how important public transport is in India’s largest cities can be gauged from a Census 2011 dataset on the mode of transport that those not engaged in household industry or agricultural occupations use to commute to work and the distances they travel. In the 53 cities with a million-plus population each, commuting patterns, particularly of those using public transport, vary widely.
The absence of public transport will be felt but it might not be a breaking point in the resumption of economic activities, the data suggests. Only in 20 cities, 20% or more workers use public and quasi-public transport as the others either did not have to travel, or walked, cycled, or used a private vehicle. However, public transport is a lifeline for women workers, who are likely to be hit harder because of its suspension. The 20 cities where 20% or more of workers use public transport include all major cities. Mumbai leads this list and will be the worst affected because of the unavailability of public transport. As many as 44% of workers in Mumbai and its northern suburb Vasai-Virar use public transport to work, as they are able to travel large distances quickly due to the extensive suburban rail network.
This figure is 30% for Chennai, 27% for Delhi and Bengaluru, and 26% for Kolkata. At the other extreme, in Chhattisgarh’s capital city of Raipur, only 6% of workers use public transport to commute to work.
As many as six cities of Kerala are among the top 10 with regard to the use of public transport. Tiruchirapalli and Chennai from Tamil Nadu are also in the list. Both these states have an extensively developed bus transport network, which carries 28.5% of the workforce in Kerala and 23.3% of the workforce in Tamil Nadu, much higher than the all-India share of 11.4%
When it comes to the commute distance, even in the five largest cities, over half the workers either do not commute or commute less than 5 km to their workplace. In smaller cities like Srinagar and Allahabad, this proportion rises to over 70%. Therefore, a large section of the workforce that resides relatively close to their workplace will not be greatly affected by the lack of public transport.
Another statistic that stands out is the large proportion of workers who either cycle or walk to work. In the cities of Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh, such as Dhanbad, Raipur, Durg-Bhilainagar and Jamshedpur, more than 50% of all workers either walk or cycle to work. Even in the five largest cities, this number ranges from 25% in Chennai to 40% in Kolkata. In the absence of public transport and lack of access to private vehicles, a larger proportion of the urban poor may be compelled to walk or cycle to work.
The share of workers commuting by private vehicles also varies widely across cities, ranging from 5% in Kolkata to 36% in Rajkot. A total of four cities in Gujarat, including Ahmedabad, Surat and Vadodara—all cities with a high number of active cases—have over 30% of workers commuting by private vehicles. The data also shows that access to private vehicles is often gendered. In Rajkot, which showed the highest use of private vehicles for the work commute, 40% of male workers commuted using private vehicles, as opposed to just 15% of all female workers. This disparity is also observed across the five biggest cities. However, the figures are different for public transport.
In Delhi, 33% of all female workers used public transport to commute, as opposed to 27% of all male workers. So, absence of public transport might pose a problem for women in commuting to work.
On 6 May, Union road transport minister Nitin Gadkari announced that public transport may resume soon, with measures related to physical distancing and hygiene in place. However, this would still constitute a great risk. In cities such as Mumbai, where coronavirus has spread across all wards and public transport is usually packed to the brim, any resumption might lead to greater transmission. The challenges in other cities might be less. However, even without public transport, cities can reopen to a fair degree.
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