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City Transport in India

Public transport consumes less space per passenger and leads to lower congestion. This article recommends that both incentives and disincentives (for private transport) are needed to promote the use and sustainability of public transport in India. Incentives include better quality and more comfortable public transport with higher frequency of trips, low waiting time and a unified transport system. Disincentives for private transport must include higher parking and toll charges.

City Transport in India

Impending Disaster

Public transport consumes less space per passenger and leads to lower congestion. This article recommends that both incentives and disincentives (for private transport) are needed to promote the use and sustainability of public transport in India. Incentives include better quality and more comfortable public transport with higher frequency of trips, low waiting time and a unified transport system. Disincentives for private transport must include higher

parking and toll charges.


ities all over the world depend on private and mass public transport to varying degrees. Both forms of transport have advantages and disadvantages. Mass transport is cheaper. It is also more environment-friendly as its use instead of private transport economises on the number of vehicles used. For the same reason the likelihood of congestion is lower when there is a greater reliance on public transport. This is particularly the case when bulk of such transport takes place through the railways which necessarily has to have space earmarked for it. On the other hand private transport is more comfortable and more convenient and takes the user from door to door. The inconvenience of waiting for buses or walking a mile to the next bus stop is avoided.

The discussion in the last paragraph does give us an idea about conditions and factors where each type would be the preferred means of transport. A high density of population increases the threat of pollution damage and congestion. Therefore, an attempt should be made to economise on the number of vehicles used for transport. Clearly, public transport is the answer for such high density urban regions. This is particularly true when the city is compact and spread over a relatively smaller area as it is then possible to have a high density1 railroad or bus network criss-crossing it. High population density implies a higher occupancy level of means of mass transit. Therefore, the per capita cost to the public supplier of providing transport facilities is lower.

Table 1 provides relevant data for leading Indian and international cities. In the list of major Indian cities provided, Mumbai has the highest population density of 29,650 persons per square km whereas Delhi with 9,500 has the lowest population density. Compare this with the cities of the developed world. Athens has the highest population density of around 5,500 which is around 4,000 less than that of Delhi. In terms of city area, in Table 1, Delhi is the largest Indian city (1,295 sq km) and no other Indian city has an area of more than 600 sq km. Compare this with the five international cities listed in the same table. Three of them (Moscow, London, Paris) are much larger in area than Delhi and the other two exceed 650 sq km in area.

Thus, we can conclude that Indian cities are characterised generally by higher population density and greater compactness (smaller area) than cities of the western developed world. Therefore, it would seem that they are more suited to the development of mass transport facilities. Yet it is the western cities (including all those listed in Table 1) which are characterised by comprehensive mass public transport networks whereas Indian cities are characterised by a greater reliance on private transport. Each of the international cities listed in Table 1 and most others have a metro rail network whereas only two cities in India (Kolkata and Mumbai) have a comprehensive rail

Table 1: Population, Area and Population Density in Major Indian and International Cities

Population Area Density (Million) (Sq km) (Persons per sq km)


Bangalore 5.4 (2001) 534 10100 Chennai 5.95 (2001) 414 14350 Delhi 12.3 (2001) 1295 9500 Kolkata 12.7 (2001) 531 23900 Mumbai 14.35 (2001) 484 29650

International cities

Moscow 10.5 (2003) 2150 4900 London 8.2(2001) 1623 5100 Paris 9.65 (1999) 2723 3550 Berlin 3.7 (2001) 984 3750 Athens 3.7 (2001) 684 5400

Note: Figures in parantheses gives year of estimate.

Source: Demographia, US (2005); World Urban Areas (Agglomerations): Population and Density Estimates.

Economic and Political Weekly February 11, 2006 network while another (Delhi) has the beginnings of one.

To make matters concrete, let us define public and private transport in India such that the latter consists of travel by twowheelers, auto, cars or cabs whereas travel by bus, tram or rail constitutes public transport. Table 2 gives us the composition of the vehicular mix used for road transport in the various large cities of India. Note that the ratio of the number of vehicles used for private transport to those used for public transport is large and has increased over time in all the cities listed. The rise is alarming for cities such as Mumbai, Pune, Chennai and Bangalore. With the exception of Ahmedabad and Kolkata this ratio is currently extremely high. Another not so welcome development is the acceleration in the number of cars and cabs. For example, in the period 1990-95, Bangalore added 35,000 cabs and cars to its fleet. The increase over the next seven years was around four times that number. In Pune the increase over 1995-2002 was around three times that in the preceding period. This development surely has adverse implications for congestion as cars occupy much more space than two- or three-wheelers but do not always carry more passengers.

Road length has however been increased at a much slower rate than private transport in recent times. For example, in the period 1991-97, urban road length increased from 1,86,799 km to 2,32,234 km, an increase of 25 per cent (Handbook of Management Information, ministry of surface transport). On the other hand, the increase in the number of private vehicles over a smaller period, 1990-95 was 45 per cent for Bangalore, 50 per cent for Delhi and Pune, 55 per cent for Ahmedabad and 60 per cent for Chennai. Only Mumbai and Kolkata recorded moderate matching increases (around 30 per cent). Moreover, much of the increase in urban road length can be attributed to reclassification of areas, a fact which makes the increase in the private vehicular fleet more menacing.

Empirical studies also suggest that private transport is much more expensive than mass public transport for the community at large. In a study by the International Association of Public Transport (2005) of 50 cities in the developed world, the cost of transport for the community varies inversely with the sum of population and job density. If the value of this variable is less than 25 per hectare the cost is around

12.4 per cent of GDP but a density greater than 100 implies a cost of transport which is around 5 per cent of GDP. In towns in which trips by public transport, walking or bicycle comprise more than 55 per cent of total trips this share is around 6.3 per cent whereas if the share of such trips is less than 25 per cent then the transport bill equals 12.5 per cent of GDP. Thus, Indian towns, which are characterised by high population density and relative compactness in size, should be able to reap huge savings if they rely more on public transport.

Policies however seem to be biased towards private transport in Indian cities. Car and two-wheeler loan disbursals have picked up and parking spaces are still cheaply available or available free of cost. With rapid economic growth and an expansion of the middle class, the mushrooming of private vehicles will continue with the intensification of attendant congestion and pollution problems. Average travel time may also continue to increase, leading to productivity losses. Only a major shift in transport policy, which promotes public transport at the expense of private transport, can help us avoid the inevitable.

A greater emphasis on private transport has major implications for pollution. Heavy pollution in the form of suspended particulate matter can be attributed to dusty conditions in most Indian cities. In fact these cities have the highest dust load in the world [Jagmohan 2005]. A paper by Dahl et al (2004) shows that particulate pollution also depends crucially on the frequency of contact of vehicle tyres with the road surface. The number of particles generated is of the order of 1012 per km per vehicle. It can be expected then that particulate pollution would be affected positively by the interaction of dusty conditions and high vehicle density, which often characterises the more widespread use of private transport. A switch to public transport, by reducing the number of vehicle kilometres travelled,2 should therefore reduce particulate pollution.


Even if we agree that Indian cities should place more emphasis on public transport, it would not be easy to bring about such a change. Economic theory suggests that consumers allocate their income among goods such that the marginal utility from a rupee spent on any goods or service is the same. Thus, after a person has finished allocating his income among various uses where he puts an additional bonus rupee coming to him (be it food, transport or clothes) should not matter to him. If that is not the case then he can do better by revising his allocation. However, often utility maximising allocations need to be revised because of exogenous changes. For example, a doubling of parking fees implies that the utility from marginal expenditure on private transport decreases. People can respond in two ways – either by shifting to public transport or by travelling less. If measures are taken to make public transport more attractive such as densification of networks, unification of

Table 2: Vehicle Count in Major Indian Cities, Private and Public

Two- and Cars All Change Change Change Public Ratio of
Three- Private over over over Transport Private
Wheelers Transport Previous Previous Previous (Buses) and
(1) (2) (1+2) Period Period Period Public
(1) (2) (1+2)
Bangalore 1985 207585 58971 266556 3812 69.93
2002 1248272 259001 1507273 619298 138898 758196 10077 149.58
Chennai 1985 128238 55529 183767 2945 62.40
2002 1033401 250080 1283481 447101 100184 547285 4541 282.64
Delhi 1985 609081 166263 775344 13522 57.34
2002 2265955 989522 3255477 573242 401213 974455 47578 68.42
Mumbai 1985 199689 236186 435875 22506 19.37
2002 1000389 547224 1547613 463990 233687 697677 20718 74.70
Kolkata 1985 165524 177736 343260 15736 21.81
2002 494759 380079 874838 190503 110040 300543 28923 30.25
Pune 1985 158213 25065 183278 2625 69.82
2002 922984 130289 1053273 408842 65850 1645570 10000 222.43
Ahmedabad 1985 175125 22632 197757 15023 13.16
2002 1001055 68064 1069119 444176 25800 469976 22106 48.36

Source: Auto Fuel Policy Report (2002).

Economic and Political Weekly February 11, 2006

rail, tram and bus networks3 and increase in frequency of services then people might respond to an increase in parking fees more through a shift to public transport rather than decline in travel. Given that travel is an input with both recreational and productive uses it follows that utility and productivity are both enhanced. Moreover, the adverse environmental and resource outcomes are avoided. And most importantly, there is also a reduction in congestion.

It is necessary to have incentives for switching over to public transport as well as disincentives for continuing to travel by private means. An example of the former is a more dense public transport network, better travelling conditions and so on. An example of the latter is higher parking, toll and registration charges for private transport. While the former alone does encourage people to switch over to public transport it is not adequate in itself to ensure good quality public transport. The quality of public transport depends upon external factors to a great extent. While congested roads increase travel time both for commuters using private and public transport, congestion probably affects public commuters more as public transport takes a circuitous route in order to accommodate differing travel plans of customers.

Consider the route taken by a bus which takes 50 minutes on an uncongested day. A passenger who takes the bus to travel from one end point to another would probably have covered the journey in 30 minutes flat on an uncongested road if the bus did not take a circuitous route. On a congested day such a circuitous route takes 80 minutes. Again a straight route would have resulted in a lower travel time of say 48 minutes. The fact that a bus has to take a circuitous route implies that the marginal effect of congestion on travel time is greater for public transport than private transport. Public transport with dedicated lanes are an exception to this rule but might not be possible in many old and crowded Indian cities with narrow roads. Second, congestion means higher travel times and of public transport being never able to stick to a stipulated schedule. Thus, an outcome of congestion is long waiting times and considerable uncertainty, a drawback from which private transport does not suffer.

Thus, mere incentives may not ensure that a critical mass of people switches to public transport. Such a critical mass may be attained if both incentives and the mentioned disincentives are in place. Further, as congestion decreases noticeably because of the attainment of such critical mass, there is a significant reduction in both travel time and waiting time. While commuters using private transport also benefit the gain is not three-pronged (decline in travel time, waiting time and uncertainty) as in the case of commuters using mass transport. This again causes a further switch to public transport and so on. The net result is that people on the whole are able to achieve a reduction in travel and waiting time and also achieve a reduction in private and environmental cost. Moreover, higher parking and toll charges, which are part of the disincentive package, might also be useful ways of financing the mentioned additions or improvements to the public transport system.




1 By high density we mean higher frequency of trains/ buses as well as a more dense road or rail network (greater road or rail length per unit area).

2 By vehicle kilometres we mean the sum of distances travelled by each vehicle.

3 By unification we mean the exploitation of the complementarity and substitutability among these networks, synchronisation of travel timings and frequency and the provision of common fare cards which can be used on all these means of transport. An example of such a unified system is the Melbourne Public Transport System (for details see


Dahl, Andreas, Arash Gharib, Erik Swietlicki, Anders Gudmundsson, Mats Bohgard, Mats Gustaffson, and Goran Blomqvist (2004): ‘Particle Emission from Vehicle Tyres’, Paper presented at NOSA Aerosol Symposium, Stockholm, Sweden, November 11-12.

Jagmohan (2005): ‘Save Cities from Collapse’, Tribune, accessed from, Chandigarh.

Economic and Political Weekly February 11, 2006

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