Poor public transport reflects a lack of urban vision: Anil Kumar Sharma

Sopan Joshi | February 5, 2015




The former head of transport department of the School of Planning and Architecture in New Delhi tells Governance Now why public transport gets the short shrift

How did public transport become such an ignored area?

Up till the early 1980s, urban transport was an irrelevant subject for any government. Three-fourths of India lived in villages. The urban voter did not make a dent in the Lok Sabha or the Rajya Sabha. This impression changed with the realisation that planning only for the rural areas is not going to help. By that time we had the Narsimha Rao government, which brought in the transformation from the welfare state to economic reforms favouring markets. Our imagination of real market conditions is formed by what we see of the West. To emulate that requires a lot of commitment and homework, for which the political system was not prepared. The political class did begin to talk about public transport, but as something meant for other people, not for itself. Its concern for public transport is like what you may have towards a servant living with you.

How did it reach the current level of chaos?

That had something to do with the question of employment gathering momentum in the rural hinterland, where a large labour surplus was resulting from the mechanisation of agriculture. This surplus needed employment, which brought it to urban areas, specifically, to the hinterland of the city, or its suburban margins. Here, urban sprawls became the answer in the absence of any regulated urban or land policy. A sprawl begins as a low-density, sparse development which can cater to the demands of a limited population, not unlike a village. It cannot meet the demands of urban transport. And if you do provide it, the economics of public transport will not let it survive there. So the options that emerge are slow modes like cycle, cycle-rickshaws or tongas. These continue to serve transport needs on the main transport corridor, like the radial roads coming out of cities.

Why cannot public transport serve cities that develop as sprawls?

Sparse developments are not conducive to any organised public transport, which needs a certain mass of people. Vast lands being developed with slow modes of transport; once the city sprawls, mobility becomes a challenge. In recent times, we find that the organised public transport was also trying to serve the requirements of the sprawling city. We Indians cannot work according to a plan, we are good at moving from one crisis to another. So, when it came to the first lot of urban transport reforms, there was a strong bias for the bus. Under the JnNURM, low-floor buses came to several cities. But then came the realisation that there was little road space left for buses to run, to penetrate urban sprawls where there was demand for transport. If buses cannot penetrate sprawls and are not supported by secondary modes of transport, it is the ideal environment for chaos and congestion to germinate. The bus has to jostle with unplanned secondary modes and with cars, a congestion culprit that results from socio-economic growth. Everybody in India, whether rich or poor, high or low, has an innate desire to own a car and gain freedom from public transport.

How do you see Delhi’s BRT?

The idea of BRT is good, there is no denying it. But these can work in planned cities, where the infrastructure is laid first – places like Greater Noida in UP and Dwarka in Delhi – that have enough right of way to restructure the roads into BRTs. Indian urban development is very peculiar, it happens in a linear way, along the highway. This is a good place to try the BRT. If I had to experiment with a BRT, I’d have begun on a long-distance, inter-city corridor. It is possible to clear out the road for fast-moving buses here. It is unlikely to work so well in a corridor inside Delhi because there is no space left. That’s why the Delhi Metro is such a success here, because it does not compete for space, it creates its own space below and above ground. It is not that Metro is without design flaws. By creating elevated lines along roads, you are increasing the scope of traffic on roads. If they create a Metro line along the ring road, it will choke further. They should have kept some distance from the main arteries.

Isn’t the Metro a very expensive option for a developing country?

Such an argument doesn’t buy now. There is no dearth of money and resources in this country, because you have opened up the economy, which will increase further as the reforms continue. So there is new flow of resources. Where is that going to get invested if not in infrastructure? What is an economy if not the sum of its infrastructure? What is required is conducive policy that allows people to invest in the infrastructure, and health and education are a part of that, just like public transport. Then you can have really humane policies of development; we don’t have them now. If you know that the cost of travelling to the city centre by a car (that causes congestion) is three times more than what is the cost of a Metro ticket, you will take the metro. If the price of parking in Delhi’s Connaught Place is '400 per hour, the area will decongest pretty fast. But you are not prepared to do it because the stakeholders there are too big to take on, they won’t allow you to bring in humane policies.

Is parking charge the most effective car deterrent?

The car is the worst mode of transport. But its comforts cannot be beaten by any other mode. Therefore it is an urban ill. It causes pollution, congestion, takes space for parking. Yet, you can’t get out of the car because of the comfort. And that is what public transport should aim for. To provide the same level of comfort that a car provides at much lesser price than that of the car. Currently, the car is cheaper because there is no real parking charge. All government employees get free parking in their ministries, where land is so expensive. Why? That’s where things begin to go wrong. It creates a sense of entitlement about parking space. Why can’t a secretary pay for parking his car at the ministry? This can bring much needed resources to the local authorities. It is all about pricing.

Are you making a pro-market argument?

Even the markets are a response to government policy. What we need is a policy format that says we are looking at a truly urban India, not just urban sprawl. A format that removes the economic inequality of our cities. There is a huge amount of money in urbanisation, but not the kind of investment required, because it is in the state list of the constitution, not in the concurrent list. We need more specific plans and resources. Now all cities are running after the Metro, because what happens in Delhi becomes a role model for the rest of the country. The Metro’s appeal has to do with the comfort it offers. A car user won’t mind using the Metro.

What would have been the returns if a similar investment had gone into buses?

I’m sure it would have helped a lot. There are another ten thousand urban settlements which can receive the same quantum of money, running buses as an element of fundamental restructuring of the urban blueprint. But this requires the government’s initiative. Right now, there is no coordinated agency that looks after public transport operations. In Noida, where I live, the chairman of the urban authority has to look after public transport, which is why it is so poor. How many things will a chairman or a CEO attend to? And transport is very specialised work that requires expertise.

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