Getting public transport right

Most cities have inadequate bus fleet resulting in overcrowded buses

In India’s metropolitan cities, commuting is nothing less than an ordeal. For those taking public transport, the miseries they have to face on a daily basis is untold. The consequences that such inefficiency in the system can have on people’s lives do not bode well with the country’s vision of holistic development. With the population increasing at an ever faster rate and with pollution levels showing no signs of dipping down, the time has come to think of smart transport solutions. At the core of it should be public transportation system which is in dire need of reforms.

Even in a city like Delhi which takes pride in having an efficient public transport system, the unfortunate truth is that it is woefully inadequate to cater to the needs of population. In such a scenario, the plights of other cities which lack even the basic infrastructure need no special mention. Inefficiency has come to be associated with every mode of public transport in the country.

A look at the challenges

The transportation sector is crippled with myriad issues. The first among the long set of concerns is the issue of frequency. The long hours that people have to wait at the bus stops discourage a substantial number of people from opting for buses or local trains for their daily commuting.

The time lag between the services also brings with it the issue of overcrowding. “For me every morning, half the battle of getting to workplace is won if I am able to get in a bus. Even when I reach well before time, the buses which are stuffed beyond capacity would make it impossible for me to board it. Because of this I often end up taking private rickshaws which are ten times more expensive than the buses”, says Jeyah Gomati, a primary school teacher in Chennai. This situation is not unique to her but is a constant reality for thousands braving the city lives.

It is estimated that about 60 per cent of the population uses various means of public transport for their daily travel. So it is ironical that it is the issue of connectivity that the system has not been able to address so far. Most of the bus stops and metro stations are located so far away that people are forced to use either three wheelers or two wheelers to reach the stations. For those living in satellite towns, the only reliable means they have are the private run modes of transport. These are vehicles which do not adhere to any of the safety standards and travelling in them is a constant risk.

Though the Delhi Metrorail Corporation tried to ease this situation by introducing feeder buses, it has not been a successful venture if one looks at the picture in totality. Many of the services were discontinued and those in operation are highly unreliable. The travelers are made to wait till the buses get filled which eats up the precious time of those in the morning and evening rush.

The same is true with the low floor buses which were introduced in major cities of the country as part of a national scheme. They could not meet the objective of luring more commuters due to their unpredictable timing and the constant traffic woes. All these have given rise to an increase in personal transport in cities which are now considered to be well above the optimal range.

What can be done?

The increasing congestion seen on Indian roads and the high pollution levels that has brought a sense of urgency to rethink the way public transportation sector is managed in the country. Time is running out fast for both the authorities and the public to bring the situation under control.

The odd-even scheme implemented in Delhi on a pilot basis is definitely a step in the right direction to solve both the pollution and congestion issues. People will be encouraged to take public transport only if it becomes hassle free. The easiest way is to increase the frequency of buses and metros so that they are not overcrowded and the waiting period for the passengers gets reduced.

For short distances, cycle pathways should be created and a system should be put in place where people can borrow cycles from one point and return it at a different point. The government should subsidize e-rickshaws and install charging points along the roadways to make it a viable mode of transport. The electric vehicles that are currently available in the Indian market are highly priced and beyond the reach of a normal cycle rickshaw owner. This issue can be successfully addressed only if the government invests more in R&D activities and more innovations take place.

The introduction of Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) in Ahmadabad and Pune is something that can be emulated by all the other cities. Efforts should be made to make it more organized and the passengers should be able to access the bus timing with the help of their mobiles. A separate lane for the buses will also reduce the traffic congestion on the roads. Introducing women only buses are also a measure that the government and the private sector can look at to attract those who shy away from taking public transport due to safety concerns.

The government can take a cue from Singapore and introduce highway tax to encourage people to take public transport while on long trips. Considering that India accounts for 6 per cent of the world’s road deaths, it is of utmost importance to take a step that would reduce the number of light motor vehicles on the national highways which are often witness to instances of reckless driving.

Abolishing the annual Motor Vehicle Tax and the Passenger Tax levied on public transport will be a good measure in bringing down the fairs for the common man. That said, the suggestion made by Supreme Court in applying differential pricing for the services offered in the case of Delhi metro should be viewed with seriousness. For the owners of luxury cars, public transport that matches up to needs their can prove to be a good enough incentive for them to make an intelligent choice. Along with this, the government can also provide tax breaks and other financial benefits to encourage people to resort to smart transport solutions.

Since diesel particles are the single biggest pollutants, the Government can encourage the use of bio-fuels. Systematic and concerted efforts should be made to enable the state run vehicles to switch to cleaner fuels. It is also important to issue periodic fitness certificates to the buses to prevent them from posing a grave threat to the environment. Noise pollution is yet another aspect that needs to be considered before allowing the vehicles to ply on road. Giving the drivers training on how to handle the vehicle economically will go a long way in increasing the fuel efficiency of the vehicles.

In the long term, developing areas further away from a business district and interlinking them with efficient transport system would prove to a lasting solution. It would greatly bring down the pollution burden on cities and enhance the quality of life as people will not be concentrated at one particular point. In addition to this, it should be made mandatory for offices having more than 50 employees to ensure pick up and drop facility to the metro stations and bus stops. This will not only reduce the number of cars on road but will also free the parking spaces.

A single transit card which can be used for all modes of transportation is a solution that should be considered to ease the travel of passengers. For this, necessary infrastructure should be put in place and training should be given to the drivers and conductors to avoid any misuse of the system. An integrated public transport system where people are given the choice between different modes will considerably help in easing the travel time. Along with this, the government can levy parking fees and congestion tax to discourage people from using their private vehicles on a regular basis.

In this day and age of technology, it is innovations that will bring about lasting solutions to correct all that is wrong with the Indian public transportation sector. The government should partner with private stakeholders to bring in the much needed technological know-how. If technology is employed at every stage of the transport chain, what will emerge is a system known for its efficient functioning.