Free ride for women welcome, but fix city’s transport system
Affordability of public transport is a key factor that determines how people, especially women, use it. In Delhi, one-third of working women use buses and the Metro.Updated: Jun 10, 2019 07:26 IST
Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal’s decision to make travel free for women on buses and the Metro got mixed reactions. While many felt the move would ensure better mobility of the female workforce, some wondered how free rides would help the safety of women, which is one of the stated goals of the scheme.
Still others criticised the initiative as a sop women in Delhi could do without. But the government has pitched the scheme as voluntary. Like Prime Minister Narendra Modi had appealed to the well-to-do citizenry to give up the cooking gas subsidy, Kejriwal is urging women who can afford to pay for public transport to buy tickets.
Affordability of public transport is a key factor that determines how people, especially women, use it. In Delhi, one-third of working women use buses and the Metro. A large number simply walk. Fewer women have access to personal vehicles as compared to men. They also have smaller travel budgets.
A large number of working-class women, employed in malls, restaurants, beauty parlours, small establishments and homes, are forced to get into crowded buses that rarely run on time or turn to informally run intermediate transport, which is often unsafe. Fare hikes two years ago eliminated the Metro as a transportation option for many of them.
The government says that the Metro is running below capacity, registering a ridership of 2.7 million per day as against the projection of four million, and could easily accommodate 100,000 extra women passengers when the free ride scheme is rolled out. But this would only be a partial relief to women travellers because many of them would not find their destinations on the Metro map. For last-mile connectivity, and to travel longer distances to areas where the Metro doesn’t go, they would continue to rely on Delhi’s humble bus service, which will also be free for them under the scheme.
There have been no fresh additions to the Delhi Transport Corporation bus fleet since 2011-12 and the corporation has been discarding at least 300 old buses every year. Yet, the 3,842 buses operated by the DTC and 1,679 by the Delhi Integrated Multi-Modal Transit System Ltd together carry 4.4 million passengers.
This means the buses are often crowded - not just uncomfortable to travel in, but also unsafe for women. The Metro has women-only coaches. But it would be impractical to expand the “Ladies’ Special” service with the current fleet size of 5,521 buses against the requirement of 11,000. The government has been promising to roll out 3,000 CNG buses, a timeline for which has been revised multiple times. It has also announced the induction of 1,000 electric buses by next year.
According to Canada’s Victoria Transport Policy Institute, the benefits of a public transport system depend on its availability, coverage, frequency, travel speed, reliability, integration with other travel modes; affordability, fare structure and payment options; user comfort and security; and accessibility of transit stations and stops. Delhi’s bus service and Metro feeders would score poorly on these counts.
A paper by non-profit organisations Institute for Transportation and Development Policy and Safetipin on ‘Women and Transport in Indian Cities’ recommends bus services every five minutes during peak hours and 10 minutes during non-peak hours. But an assessment by the Centre for Science and Environment shows that less than 1% of DTC routes have a frequency of one bus every five minutes during peak hours while less than 25% have a frequency of one bus every 15 minutes. The rest of the routes have much longer waiting times.
The shortage of buses and the absence of route rationalization have turned several areas in the city into transit deserts. Commissioning new buses alone will not ensure efficiency. The project to install GPS on the existing DTC buses so they can be tracked is running behind schedule. The outcome budget released on Friday showed that the government has not been able to revamp bus shelters too. Also, it has fitted CCTVs on only 200 buses.
The real benefits of the free-ride scheme will elude women until the Metro network is supplemented by efficient bus and feeder services. For now, the women working force can only hope that the subsidy to be spent on their free rides will not become another excuse for not fixing the services.