While many believed that the affluent South Delhi would have been more appreciative of the swanky, shiny, air-conditioned trains, E Sreedharan broke a class barrier in 2002 by launching one of the world’s most advanced mass-transit networks in Shahdara, a working class neighbourhood in east Delhi.
Eventually, the network reached wealthier neighbourhoods, and also connected a number of poor and middle-income ones.
Just as the metro offered the same quality of services on its 213-km network, the passengers demonstrated similar civic behaviour. Over a decade, trains and stations have remained remarkably clean by Delhi standards. The metro is a great leveller in this class-divided city.
Last week though, the Supreme Court asked the metro corporation to explore the possibility of providing a premium service to those who otherwise use luxury cars like Mercedes Benz. They could get a “dignified place to sit by paying higher fares”, the court suggested
Former metro chief Sreedharan was the first to junk the idea. “If separate accommodation is provided for an elite class, ‘only seated accommodation’ would reduce the capacity of the train at the cost of ordinary passengers,” Sreedharan told HT.
Exclusivity on mass transit is an oxymoron. Perhaps no city, except Dubai and Hong Kong, offers an executive class option. This is not about an Asian mindset. Class biases are universal and manifest in stereotypes that people who take public transport are the ones who can’t afford cars. Margaret Thatcher is supposed to have said (the quote, though widely used, could never be verified), “A man who, beyond the age of 26, finds himself on a bus can count himself as a failure.”
In Delhi, a car is the primary symbol of status and upward mobility. Owning a car is also a necessity for many who can’t rely on the capital’s less-than-adequate and often patchy public transport. The majority who use public transport do not have a choice but the voices of these “captive users” are rarely heard.
World over, public transport improvements have happened when it got patronage from across the (read upper) classes. At least half of New York City’s households don’t own a car. Manhattan, the international financial centre and one of USA’s richest districts, is also made up of 75% non-car owners. Their patronage keeps NYC’s public transport system robust which in turn allows them to go car-free.
Clearly, Delhi needs its affluent to shun their cars for the metro. Rising levels of air pollution has forced the government to enforce road rationing. The metro rose to the challenge and carried 1.5 lakh extra passengers every day merely by increasing peak hour frequency, more manpower at control room and token counters. There were hardly any complains of delays or crowding at the stations.
To sustain the momentum, the metro must continue with the same efficiency. But fixing a few basics can ensure better utilisation of our public transport. A 2010 study by the School of Planning and Architecture in Delhi found that 58% of those who commuted by private vehicles were willing to use the metro if provided with better feeder service. Almost 90% of those who did take the metro identified feeder service as a problem.
The time and money spent in getting to the station is often more than 50% of the cost of the actual journey. While many prefer to walk to the stations, access points are not pedestrian friendly. Though experts discourage using private vehicles for short-distance commutes, Delhi’s Metro parking spots designate more space for cars than cycles or even auto-rickshaws, the main transit option in the absence of feeder buses. No wonder that almost 50% of all cars trips in the city are for less than six-kilometre.
As for users of big, luxury cars, Delhi needs them to consider the metro option. But instead of eyeing exclusive incentives, they better imbibe the global culture where no able person — irrespective of the addresses they come from or the brands they carry — fights over a seat in the metro.
Yes, standing, and making room for others, can be cool.