ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Are We Ready for Public Transport?

Although experts and citizens accept the need for a good public transport system, the question remains whether people will accept better road access for public transport than for private vehicles. The Indian experience shows that enhancement of public transport is only accepted if it does not inconvenience the private vehicle owner. Can such an attitude help promote and sustain public transport?

The need for good public transport has been accepted by most policymakers, experts and citizens. Often this is justified to help reduce vehicular pollution, congestion and traffic accidents in cities. While there is a consensus justifying investment in a good public transport system, there seem to be divergent views on accepting different strategies to improve the quality of public transport systems. For instance, investment in metro rail systems is justified and widely accepted. However, creating public transport priority on roads—exclusive right of way, junction designs to prioritise buses and bus stop locations to ease bus commuters’ movement—has been opposed in Delhi, Indore, Pune because the congestion in car lanes has increased. Increasing the number of buses is the most common strategy that cities are using to improve road-based bus systems. But for this to work, there needs to be easy access to bus stops, a safe environment at the bus stop and good quality buses that are not stuck in congested roads. If bus stops are inaccessible or good quality buses are stuck in congested roads, owners of two-wheelers and cars may prefer to use their personal vehicles. Therefore, exclusive right of way is also an important element for creating an efficient and attractive public transport system.

In this article we discuss the contradictions in declared public policies and their implementation and show that at present, implementation of public transport friendly strategies are accepted as long as there is no adverse impact on car use. Often the goal of a public transport friendly policy is to reduce traffic congestion. However, a lower level of congestion on roads encourages more people to use their personal cars and motorised two-wheelers and not public transport. Therefore we have to accept a public transport friendly strategy, including exclusive right of way for buses and non-motorised vehicles that may lead to congested car lanes but congestion-free bus movement. The question we must ask is whether we are ready for a public transport system.

Promoting Public Transport

The need for a good public transport system has been reiterated by politicians, policymakers and often endorsed by media. A large number of national and international policy documents have also supported it. At the national level, although urban transport has never been a major election issue, in 2006, for the first time, the Government of India introduced the National Urban Transport Policy (NUTP) which laid em-phasis on people-centric urban transport systems. The Delhi assembly election of 2014 was an exception. For the first time, the newly-formed Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) included the discontinuation of a partially-constructed bus rapid transit (BRT) system in Delhi in its election agenda. This was curious given that AAP is expected to represent the interest of “common” persons, most of whom do not use personal cars. In fact most of them are bus users, motorcycle users, pedestrians and bicyclists. Only 6%–7% of trips are in cars (RITES 2008). The very concept of the BRT system has been to give priority to bus users. Exclusive lanes are created to make sure that buses are not affected by general road congestion. Bus stops are located where it is easier and safer for bus commuters to cross the road and use the bus stops (Tiwari and Jain 2012).

Bicycle lanes and pedestrian paths are also important for Indian cities for two reasons. One, a large proportion of the population that cannot afford any other mode of transport uses bicycles or walks despite a hostile road environment. And two, because pedestrians and bicycles do not require fossil fuel, do not pollute the air and do not cause traffic accidents. On the other hand, they are often the victims of traffic accidents. Also, congestion in motorised lanes is not caused by bicyclists and pedestrians. Walking or cycling also benefits health (Litman 2014). Despite these benefits, a transport corridor ensuring quick passage for buses, safe, disabled-friendly paths for pedestrians and an exclusive bicycle lane is usually opposed by the media and transport experts (Thynell et al 2010). Successive surveys have shown benefits to bus users and non-car users. Yet the government is reluctant to continue with the BRT concept. Despite a favourable ruling from the Delhi High Court in 2012 (Hindu 2012), all three major political parties promised to discard the BRT in the 2014 Delhi state elections. Finally, AAP fulfilled its election promise by scrapping it. On 19 January 2016, Delhi Deputy Chief Minister Manish Sisodia announced at a public function that they were happy to dismantle the BRT because people were unhappy with it and that the public was happy to see it dismantled. But who are these “people” and “public”? Successive surveys have proved that the majority of bus users, bus drivers and bicyclists were happy with the BRT.

The need for good public transport has been justified on three counts: reducing congestion, air pollution and traffic accidents. Reduction in traffic congestion is based on the assumption that a good public transport will encourage more people to shift from cars and two-wheelers to public transport. This will result in fewer vehicles on the road and therefore congestion levels will reduce.

Policy documents have often emphasised the need to invest in metro rail systems as one of the best options for promoting the use of public transport. When evaluating mass transit options for Indian cities, metro rail systems are given preference over surface systems due to the belief that road-based bus systems cannot cater to the capacity requirement as much as metro systems. In addition, metro rails are perceived to have higher levels of comfort, speed, and efficiency than bus systems. Due to limited coverage of cities by rail-based systems (190 km of the Delhi Metro covers only around 12% of the total area within walking distance) as opposed to road-based bus systems, a metro commuter spends a significant amount of time on access (from origin to metro station) and egress (metro station to destination). Due to this additional time, even though the average main-haul (in-vehicle) speed in a metro is more than 30 km/hour, the average door-to-door travel speed falls for a short trip compared to a road-based system. Several researchers have found that an increase in distance to a transfer location reduces the propensity to use public transport (Keijer and Rietveld 2004; Loutzenheiser 1997; O’Sullivan and Morrall 1996 in Krygsman et al 2004). The time and distance disutility associated with the access and egress stages makes singlemode trips more attractive.

In this context, one should note that while a Detailed Project Report (DPR) prepared for the Delhi Metro in 1996 and subsequent DPRs prepared for other cities like Kolkata, Jaipur, Bengaluru and Hyderabad listed reduction in congestion, pollution and accidents as major benefits of a metro system and therefore justified a capital expenditure of Rs 150 crore (for overground sections) and Rs 400 crore (for underground sections), evaluation studies done since the Delhi metro system started operating in 2001 (Tiwari 2013; Mohan and Tiwari 1999; Advani and Tiwari 2005) show that in fact there is an increase in congestion, pollution and traffic accidents and the ridership is only 20% of what was estimated.

Vehicular pollution can be tackled by reducing the number of vehicles on the roads, improving the technology of vehicles and improving the quality of fuel used. Schipper et al (2000) proposed a methodology—ASIF—to estimate vehicular emissions including number of vehicles, technology of vehicles and level of activity involving vehicles as follows:

• A—travel activity measured in terms of passenger-km;

• S—modal split of travel in the city;

• I—energy intensity or energy consumed per passenger-km or vehicle-km by every mode type; and

• F—emission factor of the fuel used.

Thus emissions can be calculated as:

E = Population × Trip rate × ni=o,j=o [Si × (average trip length)i × Ii × Fj] …

This methodology has been used by several researchers to estimate the impact of compact cities which reduces the need of travelling long distances, higher share of public transport (changing S), more efficient vehicles and cleaner fuels (I and F). The results have been consistent. Higher share of public transport, more efficient cars and clean fuels will result in lower emissions.

Mixed Land-use and Densities

The policy of creating mixed land-use patterns and dense neighbourhoods is governed by land-use master plans. A large proportion of urban residents in India live in self-planned informal settlements. In Indian cities squatter settlements often develop inside the city and close to commercial centres, planned housing developments, and factories. Soon these settlements demand varied services needed by the residents such as low cost food, vegetables, tailors, etc. It is a common sight in Indian cities to have street vendors along the roads selling food, toys, flowers, and various handicrafts made by family members. The growth of the formal sector is accompanied with the growth of the informal sector, with the latter showing higher growth rates than the formal sector. This is not surprising as the informal sector grows to serve the formal sector as well as to serve the informal sector (Tiwari 2012).

Indian cities have a mixed land-use structure with substantial informal settlements (15%–60% population living in slums). This has resulted in short trip lengths irrespective of city size (Tiwari 2013). We need to preserve these mixed land-use patterns and high density developments existing in our cities to ensure short trip lengths in future too. Indian cities have a high share of pedestrians, bicyclists and public transport users because most of these people do not have the choice of using any other mode of transport (Tiwari and Jain 2008).

The I and F elements of the ASIF strategy is related to the technology of vehicles. Automobile companies have been introducing more fuel-efficient cars. Government policies have also forced automobile companies to produce fuel-efficient vehicles (Government of India 2014). Fuel standards have also been upgraded. Woodcock et al (2009) had developed four transport scenarios: business as usual, introduction of clean fuel and clean vehicles, active transport (non-motorised transport and exclusive lane for buses) and sustainable transport combining technology and active transport for London and Delhi to explore the impact on health and on CO2 emissions by 2030. The results of this study were very interesting for Delhi. Without the introduction of active transport, clean technology made a marginal difference in adverse health outcomes and CO2 emissions. Major health benefits were estimated only in an active transport scenario which were attributed to increase in physical activity. The most important aspect of the ASIF strategy for achieving clean air remains a modal mix in favour of non-motorised modes (walking, bicycles) and public transport.

Government agencies and experts have recommended investing in the creation of integrated public transport systems. In such integrated systems, interconnectivity among routes is a key element for success. The role of routes with transfers in such systems is to provide travellers with: (a) greater destination choices, and (b) potential reduction in travel time and cost (Bak et al 2012). Often hierarchical route categories have been recommended. The route categories are differentiated by their frequency and hours of operation. The purpose is to allow transfers between the high and low frequency lines for creating an increased number of destination choices. By strategically positioning transfer points in the network, public transport planners are also able to optimise resources (Navarrete and Ortuzar 2013).

However, studies have shown that public transport users are negatively disposed towards making transfers (Guo and Wilson 2004). A study by Chowdhury and Ceder (2013) has, however, revealed that users have the willingness to make transfers given that the route is attractive. An attractive route has been defined to be time-efficient and cost-effective (Ceder 2007). Stradling (2002) found that travel time is the most important trip attribute to commuters. Commuters will consider using routes with transfers if the travel time savings are worth their effort of making connections. Chowdhary et al (2015) found that on average, public transport users desired at least a 33% reduction in their current travel time and at least a 16% reduction in their current travel cost given a ‘‘local’’ interchange. For a ‘‘major/specialised’’ interchange, on average, public transport users desired at least a 25% reduction in their current travel time and at least a 10% reduction in their current travel cost.

A recent study conducted in Delhi (Suman et al 2015) showed that amongst the existing bus users, 65% travelled by buses because of availability of a direct bus service from home to office and 85% of future bus users were not using this mode of transport due to unavailability of direct bus services. Further, more than 42% of future bus users were willing to shift to buses if a direct bus service was available. The likelihood of using buses is twice more for males and people older than 25 years as compared to females and people younger than 25 years respectively. Commuters who do not have a car are 2.8 times and those who have one car are 1.7 times more likely to shift to buses as compared to those having more than one car.

It is clear that public transport users prefer direct routes, convenient and safe access, uncrowded comfortable buses and congestion-free bus routes.

Delhi Transport Policies

Since the early 1990s, when M C Mehta filed a public interest litigation (PIL) in the Supreme Court (Mehta 1985), all stakeholders have been concerned about traffic congestion and vehicular pollution. In the mid-1990s, the Delhi High Court also mandated the painting of exclusive bus lanes. A large number of private bus (the infamous red line buses that were later renamed and repainted in blue) due to their associations with large number of fatal crashes were introduced to meet the demand of public transport as the Delhi Transport Corporation (DTC) was running under financial loss. In January 2016, the AAP government reintroduced both these strategies. As the Delhi transport department has not been able to find depot space for new buses, private buses with the private operating bearing the onus of finding depots and parking space, have been considered as an option.

In 2001, as a result of growing concern for vehicular pollution and at the direction of the Delhi High Court, the Delhi government introduced compressed natural gas (CNG) as fuel for all public transport vehicles. For this, it received the clean cities international award given by the US department of energy in 2003. In addition, the city has seen the expansion of the metro rail system and construction of signal-free corridors. Delhi now has 194 km of metro rail system, more than 100 grade separated junctions and nearly 200 km of signal-free traffic corridors. However, in 2015 Delhi was declared to have the poorest air quality compared to many other global cities (Guardian 2015).

In 2008 a short stretch of 5.6 km was introduced as a BRT corridor which had two central lanes reserved for bus operations, exclusive bicycle lanes and pedestrian paths and bus stops designed for disabled persons which met with heavy criticism from the media almost the very day the operations started (Thynell et al 2010). Survey of bus commuters and bicycle users showed that majority of them (~80%) were satisfied with the new corridor design and would want the corridor to be extended (CSE 2009 & NDTV poll). However the corridor was not extended. In 2012 in response to a PIL against the BRT corridor the Delhi High Court judgment noted, “Within the parameters of a scope of judicial review, the scattered material placed before us would not justify a conclusion that BRT as a concept is bad and is a misfit in Delhi and thus should be scrapped’’ (Hindu 2012). While the BRT has been scrapped, the government has at the same time reiterated its commitment to public transport users and non-motorised vehicle users. The public works department minister declared, “We may have to keep certain roads only for public transport as is done in many other European cities. We will install street furnitures like lifts with glass panel, toilet blocks and rain water harvesting system,” adding vendors will be given specific time slots to sell their products (Economic Times 2015). The transport minister has been celebrating a car-free day on the 22nd of every month where 4–5 km of stretch is declared car-free in the morning hours and people are urged to join the bicycle rally which is led by the minister (Indian Express 2016).

After almost 25 years of active policies to improve public transport, congestion and air quality, why does Delhi have the poorest air quality and congested roads? The current government wants to address the problem of poor air quality and congestion by observing car-free days and implementing the odd and even scheme for private cars and dismantling exclusive lanes for buses. Strategies to improve bus operations which were implemented in the mid 1990s have been reintroduced without discussing why these strategies did not work 20 years back.

We conclude with a quote from Thynell et al (2010)

…in Delhi the demand of the motorists for removing congestion irrespective of efficient bus operations might halt the modernisation of public transport and soft modes. In that case the process of urban renewal will suffer a setback. On the other hand, if the integrated concept of BRT, walkable cities and bicycling becomes more politically attractive in the face of global warming, there might be a chance to counteract the growing risks associated with the globalised use of private cars.

Congestion-free lanes for buses have been opposed because on the same corridor cars face congestion. Policies like “Car-free days,” “Odd and Even scheme” which result in symptomatic relief—short term reduction in congestion—are considered successful, whereas long-term and permanent solutions like bus lanes and bicycle lanes are given lip service and postponed for a variety of reasons.


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