City dwellers are guarded in taking public transport for travel within cities due to the pandemic, and have preferred to rely on private vehicles so far
More and more people are stepping out on the streets as cities unlock and economic activity recovers. Yet, mobility patterns so far are yet to reach normalcy, an analysis of data across major Indian cities suggests.
People are still skipping the weekday commute around which much of urban life revolved. However, the return to streets on weekends is approaching pre-pandemic levels. More people seem to be stepping out of their homes for reasons other than work.
The stronger recovery on weekends coincides with a dip in the covid-19 caseload over the past month. At an all-India level, daily recorded infections have declined from about 95,000 in mid-September to 40,000-50,000 now. Amid this decline, Indians are moving around in the main metros in progressively greater numbers and seeing traffic levels and commute times creep up. However, more than public transport, private transport is showing a faster rebound.
In public transport, cities are taking different paths to recovery. Delhi and Bengaluru have shown the strongest recovery. Yet, both cities are still about one-third away from pre-pandemic normalcy, shows Google mobility data.
Delhi’s trajectory has been secular. By comparison, the trajectory of Bengaluru and other southern cities, such as Chennai and Hyderabad, has been fluctuating. With low caseloads in the early days, they unlocked sooner. However, as cases spiked, restrictions followed and footfall declined. Their experience typifies what can happen in case a city sees a second wave. Delhi and Mumbai train services are seeing a graded reopening and a circumspect citizenry. The Delhi Metro reopened on 7 September. A month on, however, its average ridership was 15-20% of early-March levels, according to numbers released by the Delhi Metro Rail Corporation. When it comes to footfall at transit stations, Mumbai fares the worst among the main metros, down 57% over its pre-pandemic levels. Mumbai’s local trains reopened in June, but only categories of people deemed to be “essential" were allowed. Women were allowed from 21 October. A full reopening for the general public is awaited.
Compared with public transport, the pickup in road traffic, a proxy for private vehicles, in major Indian cities, including in Mumbai, is greater. Data from locational technology company TomTom shows that the average time to travel from one part of the city to another is gradually returning to pre-lockdown levels. TomTom gives the additional time to make a journey compared with when there is no congestion on the route. For example, at 4 pm on 19 October, the congestion level in Delhi was 35%. So, if it took 30 minutes to drive from Connaught Place to Terminal 3 of Indira Gandhi International Airport during uncongested conditions, it would have taken about 41 minutes in the afternoon of 19 October. For October, journey times and, by extension, traffic flow are at March levels and nudging towards January levels, especially for Mumbai.
Overall, Delhi has seen the best recovery among the major metropolitan cities in India. However, Delhi trails cities in other parts of the world in terms of return to normal commute times. The average road journey times in London are exceeding their January levels already. New York is almost there. Paris is closer than Delhi.
Across major Indian cities, journey times on weekends are closer to their January levels than journey times on weekdays. This suggests more Indians are stepping out on weekends, compared to the weekend baseline, than on weekdays.
The weekday commute is finding it hard to stage a comeback. In a Microsoft survey of 6,000 workers across eight countries, including India, about one-third of remote workers felt the lack of separation between work and life was negatively impacting their well-being. The daily commute was an integral part of this separation. “Commutes provide blocks of uninterrupted time for mentally transitioning to and from work, an important aspect of well-being and productivity," wrote Shamsi Iqbal, principal researcher, Microsoft Research, in a blog post.
In several post-covid surveys, Indians saw themselves shifting from public transport to private vehicles. In Delhi- NCR, for example, a decrease of 13% and 4% was expected following the lockdown in the share of metro and bus users, respectively, shows a report released in May by The Energy and Resources Institute (Teri).
Vehicle sales in some categories are rising but they are still to reach pre-pandemic levels. Sales of second-hand vehicles have gone up significantly, as cash-strapped Indians search for low-cost options for private travel.
The Vahan dashboard shows that in the quarter to September, registrations of two-wheelers were down 32% and four-wheelers down 10% over their corresponding 2019 numbers. There are inter-city differences. Kolkata fared well on two-wheelers, and Bengaluru, Delhi, and Mumbai in four-wheelers.
The pandemic has not led to a spike in demand for new private vehicles as Indians continue to repose their faith in value-for-money options. Public transport, however, continues to remain a no-go area for many.