To matter which hour of the day, as you hit the road for your destination, what greets you without fail is a serpentine and mostly unruly queue of vehicles and all-round traffic chaos. You curse yourself for being caught in the jam when you needed to be speeding up, and you curse the commuters around for coming out of their homes just when you hit the road.
India continues to urbanise at a rapid pace, and today the cities are home to about 30 percent of the total population of the country. Given the fast rate of cities turning into centres of innovation and economic growth, by 2030, the urban population is estimated to shoot up to about 600 million from 377 million in 2011. This swelling population is putting pressure on already-pressured transport infrastructures in cities.
A scary but interesting study by the Ministry of Urban Development, based on a sample of 87 cities suggests that in the next 20 years, the expected travel speed of major corridors of Indian cities would fall from 26-17 kmph to a low of 8-6 kmph. That way, times are not far away when the moving traffic will start crawling, before it finally comes to a standstill, if the present business-as- usual state of affairs continues.
No private vehicles, please!
Prime culprits for the meandering tailbacks on the city roads are private vehicles, especially the four- wheelers. Like in other developing countries, Indian neo-rich urbanites have also failed to resist the temptation to flaunt their vehicles, resulting in about 120-million-strong fleet of motorised vehicles eating up the urban road space.
What is further fuelling the trend is an acute inadequacy of public transport system, which also forces commuters to use their own vehicles. This is leading to broader sustainability challenges for both people and environment in terms of lost man-hours due to long travelling times, pressure on scarce fuel reserves, increasing emission of green house gases (GHGs) and fatalities in road accidents.
Search for solutions
As a quick-fix, urban planners very often tend to consider addition of roads or widening the existing ones as a possible solution to the malady. But most experts feel that such measures could be short-lived and that those would only make way for roll-out of more private vehicles.
However, there is a broad consensus among the experts overstrengthening of public transport infrastructure. An efficient public transport system would encourage greater number of people to switch to mass transports, as it would make their travel cheaper, less time-consuming and therefore, hassle free. Public transport will also help keep the environment clean and green by curtailing vehicular pollution.
Data shows that the share of public transport fleet in the country dropped sharply from 11 percent in 1951 to 1.1 per- cent by the turn of the century, and that only 20 out of India’s 85 cities with a population of 0.5 million or more had a city bus service by 2009. It is, therefore, no surprise that in the absence of adequate public transport, the share of two-wheelers n the total fleet of transport in the country has reached about 72 percent and cars close to 10 percent.
Clearing the jam
Although adding and widening of roads alone may not be the panacea for transport-related ailments, experts do agree on the necessity to develop roads in sync with the rising urban population. Unprecedented urbanisation has necessitated some never-before measures, like Bus Rapid Transit System or BRTS in big cities, and that cannot happen without increasing road density substantially.
In 2008, road density in terms of average road length per 1,000 population in the cities of India stood at 0.91 km much below the 4.86 km average in its own rural areas, taking the national average to 2.88 km. Incidentally, the road density figure for Singapore is 9.2 km, 9.7 km in Curitiba, 21.8 km for Seoul and in Johannesburg it is 9.2 km. That says it all about the kind of road network India needs.
In this regard, introduction of Mass Rapid Transit Systems (MRTS), like metro rails and monorails, in various metros of the country have come as a huge relief. Those are cheaper,faster and faster. Talking about Delhi Metro, with peak-hour headway of as little as three minutes, it is an efficient way to get across the city. It boasts of a daily weekday ridership of 2.2 million. It is equipped with a state-of-the-art communication and train control system, modern air-conditioned coaches and ticketing through Automatic Fare Collection System introduced for the first time in India. It also became the first-ever metro and railway system in the world to be registered with the prestigious Gold Standard Foundation, which is a globally-accepted certification standard for carbon mitigation projects.
India’s neo-rich urbanites’ temptation to flaunt their vehicles has resulted in about 120-million-strong fleet of motorised vehicles eating up the city’s road space.
‘Coercion’ as solution
In addition to these measures, the government also needs to impose certain stringent policies to drive the crowds towards public or shared transport, like car-pooling, instead of using individual cars for daily commuting. The booming Chinese city of Tianjin recently became the fourth metropolis in the country to cap the number of new cars it would allow every year to hit the roads. This will help China curb pollution and congestion in those cities.
Incidentally, one such ‘coercive’ suggestion was mooted by the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Urban Development (Urban Transport) in 2010, when it recommended a ‘congestion tax’ on personal vehicles in the form of toll tax in congested areas. But the government indicated that in view of the quantity and quality of the available public transport and absence of an Intelligent Transport System (ITS), levying of congestion tax could be pre-mature at this stage.
In the present scenario, it looks like an incentivised, inclusive urban transport policy would work better in India than a coercive China-like move.
The present tax policy regime apparently militates against public transport. The total tax burden for public transport vehicles per vehicle km is 2.6 times higher than for private vehicles. Besides, urban transport in India has not been categorised as a subject under any of the three levels of government central, state or local to date. In most cities, there are multiple organisations like development authorities, road transport authorities, state transport corporations, public works departments and police services engaged in different aspects of transport regulation, with little coordination among them. Realising the problem, Bangalore has taken the lead in setting up an Urban Metropolitan Transport Authority (UMTA), in line with the National Urban Transport Policy 2006 guidelines, to address the challenges of integrated transport planning. Other million-plus metropolises also need to emulate the example to bring about coordination among the various government agencies and other organisations active in the domain.
A long period of neglect of urban planning and infrastructure by state governments, coupled with a lack of leadership from the central government, and apathy of the urban local bodies have led to the present crisis-like situation. Insufficient investment in urban infrastructure, poor upkeep of public infrastructure and callous systems of service delivery have all contributed to bringing urban transport to its present state.
It is high time we implemented the National Urban Transport Policy for increasing the share of public transport in our cities from 22 percent to 60 percent by the end of the 12th Five Year Plan period (2012-2017). All urban stakeholders need to join hands to put in place a transport system that is viable in short term, sustainable in long term and financially feasible in both.
Current tax policy regime weighs against public transport – the total tax burden for public transport vehicles per vehicle km is 2.6 times higher than for private vehicles.