Mobility and Urban Transport in India

Session Report
Nikita Bhardwaj

Urban Policy & City Planning is an online one-month online immersive certificate training course organised by Center for Habitat, Urban and Regional Studies at Impact and Policy Research Institute, IMPRI, New Delhi in the month of July 2023. An informative and panel discussion on the topic “Mobility and Urban Transport in India” was held on July 05, 2023 by Mr Srinivas Alavilli, Fellow, Integrated Transport and Road Safety, World Resources Institute, India.

The second session of day 2 was set about with welcoming remarks by the chair of the session, Dr Rumi Aijaz. He conveyed the importance of the session’s topic. Commute is an essential part of everyone’s lives and the dearth of adequate public transport has led to an enormous growth of private motor vehicles which has negatively impacted our physical and mental well-being.  

Mr Alavilli believes that the general public should be aware of various terminologies pertaining to the field of urban mobility. Thus, he began the session by introducing the terminologies in urban mobility.

What is mobility?

Mobility is a ticket to livelihood. It affects everyone from infants to senior citizens to those that require assistance to move. The key to framing a good policy concerning mobility is to keep in mind all the citizens that will be affected by it. Talking about traffic, Mr Alavilli explained that people fail to see the bigger picture since they are not experiencing traffic but are the ones causing it.

Further, he discussed different modes of commuting. Resonating mobility with just cars is a flawed representation. Even today, the most widely used form of commuting in urban areas is walking. The largest manufacturer of cycles in the world is Punjab which makes it evident that cycling is another important mode of commute, used not just for recreation but also for livelihood. However, cycles are disappearing from Indian streets due to safety issues.

In his opinion, the bus is the king of Indian city roads, an undisputed leader. Citing an example, he mentioned that if bus services stop in Bengaluru, the entire city will come to a standstill. Additionally, urban freight transport is also of crucial importance to the economic vitality of urban areas since it forms the backbone of the e-commerce and the delivery industry.

What is a trip?

If a person goes from A to B and then from B to A, there are a total of two trips. It is an important terminology for understanding news and articles about urban mobility.

Principles of Urban Mobility

  1. Sustainable Mobility– It focuses on the accessibility and eco-friendliness of different modes of mobility.
  • Move people, not vehicles– Four golden words of urban mobility. It describes the right approach when creating a policy concerning mobility and the execution of such a policy automatically leads us closer to a sustainable city.
  • Induced Demand– It states that increasing road spaces increases the number of vehicles. It proves that adding road spaces does not tackle the problem of traffic, e.g., even a 12-lane road in Gurugram failed to curtail traffic.

Why aren’t flyovers the solution to traffic problems?

The reason behind flyovers failing to be the solution to the problems of urban mobility is embedded in the principle of induced demand. Flyovers are a short-sighted solution. They attract more commuters, thus defeating the very purpose they were meant to solve by reducing traffic. Constructing a flyover also means creating urban heat islands, for instance, a concrete pillar of the metro is a heat island. Due to this, many cities in the world including Seoul and some cities in the US are removing flyovers. There are cases where flyovers are necessary, like going over a railway line or a waterbody or connecting two highways, but flyovers are not the solution for reducing traffic inside a city.

The Tale of Two Cities- Mumbai and Bengaluru

Mumbai and Bengaluru have a population of around 2.2 crore and 1.2 crore respectively. What is surprising is that despite Mumbai being almost twice as populated as Bengaluru, the latter has 1 crore vehicles whereas the former has less than 60 lakh vehicles. He explained the reason behind this is the Mumbai local trains, existing since 1868 and used by 75 lakh people every day due to which traffic in Mumbai is not as severe. In contrast, this lack of public transport in Bengaluru is the major reason behind its traffic snarl. 

Vehicle population growth in Bengaluru

The number of vehicles in Bengaluru, both two-wheelers and cars, has grown exponentially over the past 10 years. There are more vehicles in the city than the number of adults excluding people older than 70-80 who no longer use a car or a two-wheeler. This causes the problem of the eternal traffic in Bengaluru. In 2016, a study found that 40% of the residential roads in the city are occupied by parked vehicles leading to shrinking road space and causing traffic jams all over the city.

The environmental perspective

Mr Alavilli cites WRI data to depict that the transportation sector accounts for 14% of global GHG emissions. 45% of this emission is accounted for by cars whereas buses account for only 5% of the emissions. In Delhi, 39.1% of pollution accounts for the transport sector. Thus, it is imperative to focus on transportation to curb pollution.

Tackling Urban Mobility with Bus Rapid Transit Systems (BRTS)

Mr Alavilli showed a picture of Copenhagen to demonstrate the number of cars (considering two people in each car) that can be replaced by a single bus, thereby addressing the dual problem of traffic and pollution.

A similar experiment was done by his team, demanding a bus priority lane at the outer ring road, one of the busiest roads in Bengaluru. He explained that buses should get a priority on the street since they aren’t the ones causing traffic rather bus users are making a conscious choice so they shouldn’t be the ones waiting long hours in the traffic. Moreover, many people avoid taking a bus because it is slow as it makes stops in between. Provision for a priority bus lane will give buses the required speed, thereby making it preferable to more people. Such exclusive lanes called Bus Rapid Transit Systems (BRTS) have been already built in Ahmedabad, Surat and Indore.

BRTS vs Metro Vs Flyovers

The cost of making exclusive bus lanes is much less than the cost of a metro project. He mentioned that while the metro is essential in cities like Delhi and Bengaluru, it is a better idea to consider BRTS in tier-2 and tier-3 cities keeping in mind both its cost and sustainability. On the contrary, flyovers are the worst option as they cost a fortune and accommodate the least number of people.

BRTS has the highest rate of return among all three options. Thus, the government must build more BRTS to address the problems of urban mobility. He expressed that the solution to the traffic problem in Bengaluru lies in building more bus lanes and more metro and suburban trains for inter-city commutes.

Intermediate Transport

Intermediate transport like autos and e-rickshaws are an extremely important pillar of urban mobility. The more public transport services we have, the more intermediate transport is needed since public transport is never a door-to-door service.

Non-motorable Transport

Any transport that doesn’t involve machines, petrol, diesel or electricity constitutes non-motorable transport such as cycling and walking. They are also called active mobility as they rely on human physical effort. Moreover, public transport and walking form a very big combination. To make non-motorable transport preferable, we need to make it safe by minimizing obstructions and providing good footpaths. In fact, the first step towards fixing transport should be fixing footpaths.  

Modal Share

Modal share is the share of different public transport modes in a city. 63% of all travel is carried by trains and buses in Mumbai which helps reduce the traffic burden on the city. Car is used only by 9% of people but its social costs are the most palpable. Therefore, we must disincentivize people from purchasing cars. This can be done by increasing parking costs or imposing higher taxes on car purchases. For instance, Singapore has a 100% tax policy for cars and the taxation money goes towards sustainable transport solutions. In London, coming inside the city in a car incurs a tax of 10 euros.

First Mile and Last Mile

The first mile is the trip from home to the primary mode of transport (metro/bus). The last mile is the trip from the primary mode to one’s destination.

Multi-Modal Integration It refers to the integrated use of several different forms of transport. Facilities of feeder buses, cycle parking at metro stations, etc. constitute multi-modal integration. The oyster card in London, an excellent example of multi-modal integration, is used to facilitate travel by metro, bus, and all public transport. It is hassle-free as it eliminates the need for conductors to issue tickets and is time-saving and cost-friendly.

Governance Aspects of Mobility

  1. Mobility is a part of the master plan for a city or a town. To ensure sustainable mobility, we need to plan cities away from the urban sprawl towards Transit Oriented Development (TOD) so that people don’t need to travel long distances to access facilities.
  2. Local governance and citizen participation are extremely important for mobility as people in the local area know their needs the best. This is called the principle of subsidiarity.
  3. A Unified Metropolitan Transport Authority (UMTA) for each city to control the planning and coordination of all modes of transport is of prime importance to facilitate the implementation of urban transport programmes and manage integrated urban transport systems.

In his concluding statement, Mr Alavilli shared that “it is often said in development economics that an investment in public transport is same as an investment in public health”. He regards schemes providing free public transport, a phenomenon practised across the world, as a prudent investment in public transport, for instance, the Shakti Scheme in Karnataka, which provides free bus services to women. He reiterated the need to encourage the use of public transport by citing the example of Paris, where train and bus tickets become free on a day when the pollution level is high.

This was followed by a Q&A session in which questions revolved around off-street parking proposals for Indian cities, political economy around BRTS vs metro, aspirational ownership of vehicles, accessibility of buses by differently-abled persons, safety concerns for women in buses, vending zones in urban areas and the challenges they pose to mobility, TOD, self-driving cars, integration of apps with public transportation and many others. In conclusion, the session left the participants with an increased sensitivity towards transportation-related problems in India and a broadened understanding of the field of urban mobility.

Nikita Bhardwaj is a Research Intern at IMPRI.

See picture gallery from the session on Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/p/CuaBtIYPA-I/?utm_source=ig_web_copy_link

Read more session reports for Urban Policy & City Planning:

An overview of Urban planning in India