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Public transport going down the wrong road

ht-view Updated: Mar 28, 2014 00:05 IST
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Surprisingly, the dire straits that Paris found itself in, with its polluted air, have triggered a lively debate in the Mumbai Transport Forum, an e-list maintained by public transport activists. Mumbai and Bangalore probably have the largest number of citizens’ organisations advocating better facilities for buses, cycles and, not least, walkers.

One reaction is disbelief that such a well-developed city as the French capital should suffer from conditions visually resembling the notorious “pea-soup fog” in London in 1952 which claimed 4,000 lives in three days. While Paris’ current woes are a mix of meteorological and environmental factors, its appearance brought back memories of London.

The concern here is greater because Paris has a good metro and bus network; the latter ply on reserved lanes, squeezing motorists in rush hour. All public transport was free for a couple of critical days. And Paris leads the world’s big cities in the inexpensive hire of public bikes, the Velib, along with electric cars. Bangalore has taken a leaf out of Paris’ book by launching the Bicycle Friendly Streets initiative in Jayanagar two years ago to create space for cyclists on the streets.

The Mumbai forum is looking at what lessons it can derive from the Paris trauma. During the restrictions, only cars with number plates which ended in odd numbers were allowed to ply alternate days, which automatically halved the traffic. The idea had been mooted in Mumbai some years ago, but was dismissed by the reasoning that the well-to-do will only buy a second car with a number plate ending in an even number.

A spirited discussion in the forum was whether Mumbai first needed to provide adequate public transport before imposing restrictions on cars — a familiar chicken and egg dilemma. However, a member pointed out that in the Indian situation, with a minority commuting in cars, road space, which was in short supply, should be first turned over to public transport. It is a mass vs class issue.

Mumbai was the mega city in the world with the highest proportion of people using public transport — trains and buses — around 87%. But that has dropped to some 82% because there has been no investment in these modes, while thousands of crores have been spent on sea links, coastal highways and flyovers, all of which cater only to the 7% using cars to commute.

The Mumbai Environment Social Network (MESN), which is a key public transit advocate, countered the familiar excuse that there is “not enough space for cars and buses” by noting that a bus can run for 16 hours and carry 1,000 persons in a day (parking for eight hours); a car runs for two hours, makes about four person trips per day (and is parked for 22 hours). Fewer people have been using the city’s once-iconic BEST buses because of the congestion on the roads, caused by the burgeoning number of cars.

Delhi is reputed to have the worst air quality in the world, one rung lower than Beijing, according to Yale University. The independent Beijing-based agency, Center for China and Globalization, has quoted recent studies which show that China’s top brains are migrating en masse to more developed countries because of the intolerable air standards. Rajendra Pachauri recently observed that since Delhi was named and shamed, things have only got worse in the Capital as well as Bangalore and even Ludhiana.

The authorities everywhere throw up their hands in despair, blaming the spurt in cars for their city’s woes. But why then are they concentrating on increasing facilities only for this minority? In Mumbai, the NCP-controlled Maharashtra Road Development Corporation is planning a Rs 4,000 crore extension of the Bandra-Worli Sea Link, while the Congress-led state government wants to build a Rs 2,900 crore coastal road over the same stretch. MESN suggests that any major transit project must have half its users in public transport.

Darryl D’Monte is chairperson, Forum of Environmental Journalists of India
The views expressed by the author are personal