Plan to make public transport free in Delhi needs proper deliberation
On Monday, Arvind Kejriwal the chief minister of Delhi announced the Delhi government’s proposal to make public transport free for women. Once cleared, the move which will cost approximately ₹700 crore to the Delhi government, but will make travelling in Metro and buses absolutely free for women. Social media has been abuzz about this topic since the announcement was made on Monday. While some people are calling it a revolutionary announcement, others are dismissing it outright. A lot of this reaction may be based on the recent national election results or the upcoming elections in Delhi.
Let’s put politics aside. The question is does free public transport improve the safety of women or improve ridership in public transport?
To answer this question, we need to first understand the public transport system in Delhi. The Delhi Metro has around 340km of network. The city has around 5,500 buses, including those belonging to the Delhi Transport Corporation and the Cluster Scheme. In addition, there are around 2 lakh paratransit modes, such as auto-rickshaws, cabs, etc. There is also a huge number of people who walk and cycle in Delhi.
Now, with this background, let’s look at how free public transport for women will the impact, safety, mobility and economics of the public transport system in Delhi.
The question of safety
The official rationale behind this move is safety of women. The hypothesis is that getting more women in public transport will improve their safety. This is correct but marginally. A WRI India research on women’s safety in public transport found four distinct segments of the journey that impact the safety of women. They include access to stops, wait time, boarding and traveling in public transport. The proposal does not fundamentally address any of the four segments. Getting women who cannot afford public transport will definitely impact their safety, but we need to understand that women also do trip-chaining, which means they do multiple trips in one journey. Also, they also travel with dependants, such as children, parents, etc. In addition, a lot of women do short journeys, on foot or via means of paratransit. Therefore, the proposal is unlikely to have any substantive impact on the safety and security of women in Delhi.
The question of mobility
Delhi Metro was catering close to a daily 27 lakh passenger rides per day before the fares were hiked in May 2017. Currently, the Metro usage is around 23 lakh daily trips per day. It was reported that the Delhi Metro will cater to around 40 lakh trips per day after completion of Phase-3. While a couple of lines are yet to become fully operational, it can be seen that the Metro is not optimally used, and a lot may due to higher fares. A study by the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) found that the Delhi Metro is the second-most expensive system in the world. Therefore, fare rationalisation will get more riders on the Metro. However, we still don’t have an accurate assessment of how many women use the Metro, but studies show that the number is around 30%. Therefore, even if the number doubles the Metro would still be carting 30 lakh as against a capacity of 40 lakh. On the other hand, 5,500 buses carry around 40 lakh passengers per day or around 800 passengers per bus/per day. This means that the buses are crowded, and accommodating any additional demand will be very difficult unless the fleet is augmented.
The question of finances
It is estimated that the proposal might cost around 700-800 crores to the Delhi government. A lot of comments on social media are around how the proposal will cost the taxpayers. However, this is a slightly a misguided conversation. That’s because we don’t charge the true cost for automobile usage and subsidy from tax payers’ money. For example, a car can easily occupy 200 square-foot of prime residential real estate by paying around ₹100 per day, but an office or a shop will easily pay in excess of ₹2,000 per day for the same space. Similarly, roads, flyovers and other infrastructure are built for motor vehicles users without them paying the true cost. But we all expect the public transport users to pay to full cost. Why? Hence, progressive cities around the world are now moving towards recovering the full cost of private transport usage through fiscal instruments. Therefore, if Delhi wants to subside public transport (and it should), it can not only easily generate the revenue from conventional sources like parking, registration, etc, but also look at congestion charging, vehicle quota system as well.
Therefore, Delhi’s plan to make public transport free needs more deliberation. However, the announcement does bring the debate about public transport pricing and usage in the mainstream media. Therefore, it will take more than free tickets for women to make public transport as a mode of choice for masses. But the good thing is that the conversation has started, at least in Delhi.
(Amit Bhatt is Director— Integrated Transport, WRI India)