Among the several services that haven’t been able to keep up with the exponential growth of Indian cities is public transportation. As transit is integral to living in cities, residents have resorted to purchasing private vehicles to get around, adding to an already-severe congestion crisis in our cities.

The solution to this challenge has been largely centred around metro rail networks, which have had a mixed record across cities so far. Currently, there are 630 kilometers of metro rail in 13 cities, with more than half of it in Delhi (343 km) and several hundred kilometers being planned in the next few years.

While metro rail networks may ease road traffic woes to some extent, the efficiency of investments in them remain a matter of debate. Even in Delhi, which received generous central assistance and low-interest foreign funding, together amounting to 70,000 crores between 2010 and 2018 to build its impressive network, more than half of its population still remain beyond easy reach of the network (beyond a 1 km radius from any metro station).

Other metropolitan regions are unlikely to build such large networks in the next decade or so given that they are facing financial constraints and the Union government framed new guidelines in 2017 which among other things, insist on participation from private firms in metro projects. While state and city authorities feel that the new guidelines impose onerous conditions, Union government officials argue that local authorities make plans in thin air, without thinking through the financial implications. The upshot of all this: most cities will have large shares of their population away from a high-speed mode of transit for the foreseeable future.

India's biggest metropolitan cities are a contrast in terms of metro access.
India's biggest metropolitan cities are a contrast in terms of metro access.
Less than one-thirds of Hyderabad and Chennai have easy access to the metro.
Less than one-thirds of Hyderabad and Chennai have easy access to the metro.
More than 80 per cent of Kolkata and Bengaluru are a kilometer away from a metro station.
More than 80 per cent of Kolkata and Bengaluru are a kilometer away from a metro station.

The feasibility question mark on India’s metro plans arise from the relatively low ridership. To understand how underutilised Delhi metro currently is, we can compare it with Shenzhen in China. Both cities have started their metro networks around the same time and have near similar track-lengths. Shenzhen carried approximately 10,000 more people per kilometer than Delhi in the 2017-18 period (based on their respective official reports), which translates to around 730 million people more per annum. The single line systems in other cities (such as in Kolkata and Mumbai) have high average ridership currently but that’s a statistical artifact, which will correct once the metro network expands.

Also Read: The slowest roads in urban India

Mumbai's single line carries the most passengers per kilometer in India.
Mumbai's single line carries the most passengers per kilometer in India.

Policy focus on metro networks has meant that not enough attention has been paid to other important networks: suburban rail and buses. Suburban rails in Mumbai, Chennai, Kolkata and Hyderabad take advantage of existing railway infrastructure and provide peri-urban areas with low cost access to cities and their markets.

Investments in the suburban rail network has not been a priority because even the busiest of the networks, the Mumbai local trains, doesn’t make profits for the railways. One way to boost profits would be to raise rail fares. But as the economist R Nagaraj argued in a 2015 Economic and Political Weekly article, urban masses have violently opposed rail fare hikes, which has led to low fares and low profits.

This argument can be extended to public buses too. Across all these cities, bus ridership numbers have either stagnated or fallen. Bus operators, across these cities have not been able to increase their fleet size in the last few years.

Suburban rail riderships have largely remained stagnant.
Suburban rail riderships have largely remained stagnant.
Bus ridership in these cities have either stagnated or fallen.
Bus ridership in these cities have either stagnated or fallen.
CAGR for bus fleet sizes between 2009-10 and 2015-16 (in%).
CAGR for bus fleet sizes between 2009-10 and 2015-16 (in%).

Most funds allocated to the purchasing of new buses has been used to repair aging fleets. Bus operators also rarely get the same access to credit that metro rail projects have got.

In the years 2014-17, 1,236 crores were allocated under AMRUT scheme for procurement of buses for all states across the country. In the same time period, the MoHUA allocated 26,377 crores for metro projects nationwide.

Research suggests that both buses and suburban rail have the potential to deliver high quality frequent service akin to the metro at lower costs. It might be more sustainable to fund these systems with easier credit norms, and by levying a combination of fuel and congestion charges . Investments in a broader range of public transit systems that ensure last-mile connectivity could make our cities more equitable for everyone.

This is the second of a ten-part data journalism series on life in Indian cities.

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