Public transit not judged by efficiency, but by how many use it: OP Agarwal | Latest News Delhi - Hindustan Times

Public transport not just judged by efficiency, but by how many use it: OP Agarwal

Jul 17, 2023 11:10 AM IST

Retired IAS officer and former CEO of World Resources Institute (India) OP Agarwal speaks about issues plaguing urban transport, among other concerns

If mobility is the essential function of a city, why is public transport one of the weakest links in India's urban growth? Why is the ever-expanding road network perpetually clogged? Why even the most advanced mass-transit can't ensure a door-to-door commute? Retired IAS officer and former CEO of World Resources Institute (India) OP Agarwal was the lead author of the National Urban Transport Policy 2006 and chaired the committee that drafted Delhi's parking policy 2019. He spoke with Shivani Singh about these issues and more. Edited excerpts:

Agarwal said smaller cities haven’t got much attention regarding transport planning. (Twitter | OP Agarwal) PREMIUM
Agarwal said smaller cities haven’t got much attention regarding transport planning. (Twitter | OP Agarwal)

The National Urban Transport Policy 2006, which you authored, sought a shift from “moving vehicles to moving people”. Yet Indian cities have since built more roads and packed them with private vehicles.

The government of India’s policy has been clear that the state government’s funds should be used to build roads, and the Centre will support public transport (infrastructure). The Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JNNURM, a project under the UPA government) supported transport projects (in states/cities). Unfortunately, public transport hasn’t been a major component of the Smart Cities Mission (launched by the NDA government in 2015). The Metro projects continued to receive funds because they were outside the (ambit) of the Smart Cities Mission or JNNURM. But the efforts to promote public bus services in cities across India somehow lost pace.

There is an epidemic of building Metros, even in cities that don’t have a decent bus service.

The Metro is not a bad idea, provided there are good pedestrian paths to access the stations, and good bus service (feeding into the Metro network).

In a linear city such as Mumbai, a large number of people can travel on a single corridor, so the Metro makes sense. That’s also the reason why the Mumbai suburban rail has been such a success. It carries about 7 million people a day. Delhi, on the other hand, is a spread-out city. The entire metro network carries only 3 million people a day. What we need here is a lower capacity system but one which has a widespread network.

Why has public transportation remained the weakest link in the growth of Indian cities?

Initially, the public bus service was designed to be used by people who can’t afford a personal vehicle. It didn’t matter whether it was a poor-quality bus service — affordability was the most important factor. It started changing when fuel-efficient two-wheelers (post-1991), and before that, Maruti (1983) came into the market… and a personal vehicle became affordable…

We couldn’t move these people back to public transport. Our biggest mistake was the lack of recognition — that the standard bus service is not good enough for everyone. The 2006 policy stated that people who could afford a personal motor vehicle should also move to public transport. But we did not provide the kind of public transport they would be willing to move to.

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In the smaller cities, we don't have a structured bus service. What we have are informally run tempos and shared auto-rickshaws. For public transport, it is not bad, but it's not good quality. So again, those who can afford a two-wheeler buy one.

But isn’t owning a personal vehicle also a symbol of upward mobility?

It is aspirational. But I get the sense that many among the younger generation feel it is not worth owning a vehicle because of the hassles of driving on congested roads and finding parking, mainly when one can get a good service such as Uber within minutes. Owning a personal vehicle is not as important as owning a fancy phone.

Would you say it’s the same in smaller towns and the hinterland?

They don’t even have these (cab aggregator) services. So, owning a vehicle is aspirational as well as convenient.

Regarding transport planning, smaller cities haven’t got much attention. The JNNURM covered about 60-odd cities. The Smart Cities Mission and Atal Mission for Rejuvenation and Urban Transformation (AMRUT) put together went to 500 cities, but public transportation projects haven’t figured in these missions, although AMRUT has focussed a little on non-motorised transport and pedestrian paths. We haven’t focussed on putting public buses in smaller cities.

But why?

Public transportation is the responsibility of the ministry of housing and urban affairs (MoHUA), but they understand transport as only the Metro. Transportation in cities is much more than just the Metro. Even in Delhi, the Metro is not the most significant part of public transport. Mumbai, however, is different. The suburban rail has created a solid base for public transport. But that is historical, and Mumbai is a linear city.

In other cities, unfortunately, the Metros are being built purely from a civil engineer’s focus. It is all about completing the metro system (project) and not about how many people are going to use it. The success of any public transport system is not just how efficiently it runs but how many people will use it. On that metric, our Metro systems are failing.

How are we to resolve the problem of poor last-mile connectivity — one of the major shortcomings of our mass transit system?

Connectivity is not just one thing. If you have good parking for two-wheelers, people could take it up to the station. The concept of transit-oriented development, which means you have high densities near metro stations, can also resolve the problem. If the floor area ratio (FAR) is higher in those areas, many more people will live near Metro stations. It will be high-density coupled with a good walking environment.

But that will require transport and spatial planning integration, something we have failed to achieve even in our megacities.

In the 2006 policy, the first thing we suggested was the integration of land use and transport planning. Singapore was built around a planned transport system. In India, cities have grown in whatever way they could grow, and transport is following that growth. Don’t think of the Metro as an urban transport project. Think of it as an urban transformation. The new master plan for Delhi is the first one I have come across, where they are even talking about mass transit systems.

What would you say about the bus system in Delhi, which is still the most affordable public transport?

Delhi does not have the number of buses that a city of its size ought to be having. But just increasing the number of buses will not solve the problem. But if you also give a higher quality of service, charge 30 instead of 10 and make sure everyone gets a seat, you will get people back.

The Delhi government announced a mohalla bus service. The idea is to have some bus service in the neighbourhood – a five km radius – with a flat fare. It is a good concept, but they should not implement it like the Metro feeder but make it a local neighbourhood bus service.

But how do you get the buses to move fast on roads packed with cars?

Some bus prioritisation can help. The BRT (Bus Rapid Transit) is a good concept. But in Delhi, it was an unfortunate choice of corridor, an unfortunate choice of length. They tried to squeeze the BRT into the existing road network, which was already crowded.

Ahmedabad made the right choice. They built it at a location that was not very crowded at that time. They had the demonstration value.

Also, if you are doing it for the first time, you can make mistakes. But you learn from your mistakes and improve. But in Delhi’s case, they found something wrong and demolished the corridor.

Like governance, mobility is also a victim of the multiplicity of authorities in India. Is there a way out?

The way out is setting up entities such as Transport for London (TfL). But we have to be careful. For example, the Kochi metropolitan transport authority was set up through a law, which was a forward-looking move. But what I’ve seen across the world, the moment they have that piece of paper (legislation), they want to go very forward most aggressively. That doesn’t seem to work.

TfL took 80 years to evolve into what it is today. It started way back in the 1920s, with gentle steps towards bringing the bus services together. Land Transport Authority in Singapore took more than 25 years to come up to where it is. I think we’ve not been patient. These authorities must start slow and demonstrate their value. If they are able to fill in the existing gaps, other agencies will see value in this entity and provide support, recognition, funds etc.

These authorities must start slow and demonstrate their value. If they are able to fill in the existing gaps, other agencies will see value in this entity and provide support, recognition, funds etc.

Delhi’s parking policy 2019 — you chaired the committee that drafted it — has been a non-starter.

The policy that went out didn’t adequately explain why we were doing something like this (setting the parking rates so high). A policy is a document that explains why you want to move in a certain direction. Coming up with a set of rules is the next step.

Also, the car-owning lobby is vociferous, so political entities would be wary of anything that could hurt them. It was largely the car owners who had problems with the BRT in Delhi. They did face a lot of hardship… Bus users didn’t have a loud enough voice.

Even as we build more roads and congestion gets worse, vehicle sales are going up. How do we get out of the trap of induced demand?

Singapore and Seoul are the only two cities in the world that have cracked this problem of congestion through demand management.

In the early days, Seoul built flyovers, including the Cheonggyecheon elevated expressway, that cut across the city. But the then mayor realised that these were causing more congestion and he had the expressway and some 40 flyovers demolished. The space taken away from cars was developed into a beautiful waterway (and walking spaces). To make up (for fewer flyovers), he built a massive public transport system — a well-networked Metro and by far the best bus services in the world. The timing of both services is integrated, and there’s a common card that works on both.

It could happen because it is all managed by a single agency under the Seoul metropolitan government. This agency coordinates between the Metro, the buses, taxis, and road construction… much like the TfL. And it is led by the mayor. When I mention the demolition move, I am often asked if this mayor lost the next election. I say no. He became the president of South Korea.

In Singapore, one has to bid to own a car, and quite often, the amount you have to bid is the cost of the car itself. And they have very high registration charges. In India, registration charges are nothing.

What kind of demand-side management will work in Indian cities?

In the draft stage of the 2006 policy, one of the elements was we discourage personal vehicle ownership. But at that time — I think rightfully — the decision was that India’s auto industry employs many people. It was also an export earner. So, let’s not discourage that now. But today, the time has come when India needs solid demand management.

Congestion charging means people are not going into certain core parts of the city because they have to pay a higher price. Singapore (the first to introduce a congestion charge in 1975) has multiple entry points to the central part of the city (where) they have put huge gantries and used technology to deduct a certain amount from the device installed in each car. It is expensive, but Singapore can afford it. But instead of using these technologies, suppose we increase the parking fee from 20 or 30 to 300 in Delhi’s Connaught Place. Wouldn’t it serve the same purpose?

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    Shivani Singh leads the Delhi Metro team for Hindustan Times. A journalist for two decades, she writes about cities and urban concerns. She has reported extensively on issues of governance, administrative and social reforms, and education.

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