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Progress in reshaping urban spaces lies in finding practical solutions

Start with capacity building – getting the capability within the state sector to set out and manage franchise contracts, and within the private sector to be able to respond. This is often left to chaos but can be jump-started by the centre, also providing a basis for learning from others

analysis Updated: Oct 26, 2018 16:37 IST
We struggle to make practical headway, with the result that the quality of urban living has steadily declined with poor air quality and congestion. Progress lies in finding practical solutions(Sonu Mehta/HT PHOTO)

The MOVE summit in Delhi brought together urban and transport policy makers, practitioners and industry from around the world for two days of discussions on India’s mobility challenges. This is a good step to address a major challenge for the country. The issues with urbanisation are well known, as are the solutions. That may come as a surprise but this is what gets discussed in conference after conference. Yet, we struggle to make practical headway, with the result that the quality of urban living has steadily declined with poor air quality and congestion. Progress lies in finding practical solutions.

A brief recap on the challenge first. About a third of India lives in cities, far behind the global average of over half. By the middle of this century that number is projected to double. That is a good thing. Cities exist because they offer opportunities for productivity and therefore wages. That is why people are flocking to cities. London’s productivity is two and a half times higher than the rest of the UK. In India the gap is likely to be much higher, not least because of the excessive labour use in agriculture. Urbanisation has massive potential to increase productivity. The job is to not hinder this unique growth opportunity by poor policy.

For long, the model of urbanisation was based on negligible infrastructure investment — build a road and the city grows around it. This model started failing as cities became bigger and denser but is still the dominant model despite at least 30 years of recognised failure. Attempts to patch up the problem by building flyovers have only increased traffic and congestion while breaking the urban fabric.

For the last 20 years we have flipped to the other extreme with the most expensive model of urban development based on metros. Starting first with the standalone Kolkata Metro, this model really came to life in Delhi and has since gained serious traction. There is no doubt that metros are needed. Any city with a population of over 50 lakh justifies one; perhaps smaller ones too. But two problems remain. First, despite the enormous investment in metros, India now has only about 500 km built and a similar quantity under construction. For comparison that is about the same as just one city, London, and a fifth of Tokyo’s. At present rates of investment it will take decades before this model can really work. Second, metros are most effective when they allow land use to reshape around them allowing high density development. Both Kolkata and Delhi have failed to take advantage of this and other cities seem not to be learning either.

In any case, the answers lie in finding other, more cost effective and scalable models. In cities dominated by metros — London, Sao Paulo, Mexico City and many others — it is still the case that buses play a major role and carry more people than the metros themselves. In India, by contrast, buses remain neglected. Even cities with supposedly a good bus system, such as Mumbai and Chennai, have fleets a fraction of the size they need. Quality is an even bigger concern, not just with the fleet but also with the near absent on-street infrastructure and the totally absent policy support for bus prioritisation — granting buses privileged access to roads through bus lanes in recognition of their more efficient use of road space. At the heart of this is the domination of public sector bodies — the state transport undertakings or specially established companies such as the Delhi Transport Corporation or BEST in Mumbai. Their high cost of operation makes this model perpetually hungry for subsidy. The absence of state support limits their size and has resulted in a gradually shrinking service at a time when the need is for rapid expansion.

There is a way forward on this. India has a thriving private sector, one that should be called into service now with a franchised bus model. Where contracted bus services exist, the evidence shows that costs can be reduced by half. That would provide a franchised bus system the ability to be free of subsidy and become scalable. Every state and every large city can get on with delivering this. Several things are needed to make this model work and that is where the Central government has a major role to play, despite this being a state subject under our Constitution.

Start with capacity building: getting the capability within the state sector to set out and manage franchise contracts, and within the private sector to be able to respond. This is often left to chaos but can be jump started by the Centre, also providing a basis for learning from others. Network planning and the technology needed to run such a franchised system, in vehicle tracking, safety, communication and fare collection all need standardisation and the development of a national industry to build high quality products. This needs to be done once across the country and the Centre needs to step in.

The Centre can also grease the wheels, quite literally, by providing money for fixed infrastructure such as bus stops, bus stations and multimodal interchange facilities. Money should only be provided to those that can show how a franchised bus system is financially sustainable not just at the outset but over time. This is how the Centre can leverage its investment into something much bigger.

For a fraction of the investment in metros we can contemplate the current 30,000 formal and 1,00,000 or so informal urban buses turn into 15 lakh or more buses. Between drivers, conductors, maintenance and servicing staff, 15 lakh buses will generate over 1 crore jobs as well, more than any other single idea going around.

By focusing on something practical, progress can be made. Here is the challenge for the next five years and an opportunity to reshape urban India.

Shashi Verma is director of strategy and chief technology officer at Transport for London, the body responsible for London’s integrated transport system

The views expressed are personal

First Published: Oct 26, 2018 16:36 IST