We must focus on public transportation to improve productivity

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City governments in India must focus attention on the planning of inclusive, safe and efficient public transportation if they want residents to be healthy and lead economically productive as well as socially active lives. Whether citizens choose to walk, drive or use a train, proper planning is necessary for them to reach their destinations fast and safe. If their needs are met by public transportation, people opt for public modes; otherwise, for private vehicles.

Prosperous cities across the globe have invested in public transportation and adopted policies that make the cost of owning and operating private vehicles significantly higher than public transportation. The reverse is true in India, with its burgeoning middle-class finding it easier to use private vehicles—with insalubrious results: air pollution, noise, wasted productivity due to long commutes on congested roads, and loss of time for recreation. Even Delhi’s 400km world-class Metro rail, which dominates our imagination of public transport, is only achieving 46% of its projected ridership because private two-wheelers are more efficient in servicing the city’s average trip length of less than 10km. Even if Delhi Metro were run free, it would be short of riders because motorized two-wheelers are owned by a majority of the city’s households. And even if two-wheelers go fully electric, they occupy road space and contribute to congestion. Further, every user of public transport is also a pedestrian, whereas walking in Indian cities can be hazardous.

The objective should be to shift from two-wheelers to buses, rather than leap to metro networks. These are tricky political economy choices, but must be made because our urban policies need significant evolution.

Urban transportation requires several imperatives to be fulfilled. It needs significant planning and must account for travel patterns, which are linked to land-uses that generate travel demand, the city’s existing infrastructure for mobility, which dictates new investment requirements, and the varying operational logic of different systems—walking, for example, requires good pavements, whereas railways require dedicated lines, and the two should never clash. Users being able to switch modes smoothly is the most important feature of a well-planned system. Special attention must be given to planning for the expansion of public transport networks, and this requires accurate and updated transport-related data, a ‘single source of truth’ for all stakeholders.

Effective planning calls for the establishment of a Unified Metropolitan Transportation Authority for large urban agglomerations, or a regional authority for small and medium-sized towns. It is a ‘best practice’ enshrined in the National Urban Transport Policy of 2006, as it creates a single point of coordination and decision-making. A unified authority can shepherd long-term transportation infrastructure investment plans. Such plans would give investors confidence in the government’s foresight. It would also guarantee the required policy continuity. For example, if a metro system is designed to shift people away from congested roads, road widening along the same routes must be avoided to protect the metro project’s bottom-line.

A single entity can ensure ‘value for money’ and maximize leverage by treating every project as catalytic. For example, a metro rail company could successfully also run a bus or para-transit system that grants its riders last-mile connectivity. The newly created Indian Port Rail Corporation does precisely that, by operating the railway that connects a port with its hinterland. A unified authority can aggregate all transportation related revenues and feed them back into public transportation. Hard decisions like regular and publicly agreed fare revisions can be justified better by an agency that commands a holistic view. It can also leverage information and communication technologies for seamless connectivity through passenger information systems, ease of fare collection and delivery of incentives such as discounts on retail transactions at stations.

Cities with long-term plans for transportation become magnets for credit enhancement and sovereign guarantees and can alleviate the debt burden of state governments that bear the cost of ‘white elephant’ metro systems. A comprehensive financial model for the city could help plan public-private-partnership concessions for life-cycle management, manage contracts, resolve disputes and attract investors to buy stakes in public transportation companies.

Local governments also need to remove hidden subsidies for personal vehicles, such as the constant widening of roads, free parking and easy financing. Until fossil fuels are phased out, petrol and diesel vehicles will be sources of pollution, and governments need to make “polluters pay” through congestion taxes and tightening of exhaust and noise pollution controls. Similarly, a “beneficiaries pay” policy implies that property owners who benefit from proximity to public transportation should pay a premium, possibly through property tax increments and cesses.

India has rightly placed a major bet on urbanization. For it to pay off, it must reduce externalities caused by unplanned urbanization and reap the benefits of well-planned cities. Every city must plan its own transport solutions and finance them sustainably. With transportation to be planned for almost 8,000 cities, governments at the central, state and local levels must get moving.



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