Three ways to rejuvenate our creaking bus network
In Alice Albinia’s Empires Of The Indus: The Story Of A River, the writer describes a journey by bus from the affluent coast of Karachi to a Christian slum on the city’s outskirts, an excursion that begins when it is not yet dusk and ends when the sky has turned into a speckled band of black and silver. Traversing the length of the city, over a shrunken river and then past a forlorn plain, the bus finally deposits her at the doorway of a dirt street – during which it seems “as if we have fallen off the edge of the world”. More recently, the Delhi Walla took a ride on the Outer Mudrika, a 105 km, 6 hour journey that makes 56 stops as it snakes around Delhi – from Uttam Nagar in the west, across the Yamuna and all the way to Anand Vihar in the east, and back – all for a princely sum of Rs.15.
We all have our favourite travel anecdotes. Some of my most cherished memories are of journeys undertaken by bus – be it countless rides, by day and by night, on the iconic London buses; or an overnight bus ride from Bangalore to Goa, waking up to the aroma of cashew and coconut and sea and freedom.
Buses are the oft ignored lifeline of any city. The metro or the local train may be faster, but it’s the good old bus that reaches the deep crevices and orifices that are too far flung for the long tailed monster. And not every city can afford a metro or train – many of the smaller towns that I have visited in India and abroad are too small or sparsely populated to justify the cost of an intra-city train line.
In this essay, Madhav Pai, Director of EMBARQ India, reminds us of the significance of buses for Indian cities and suggests three key changes to rejuvenate this overlooked mode of carriage. In an accompanying feature, we navigate three of our favourite cities – Istanbul, Paris and Delhi – on foot, by bus and on the feels-like-new Metro.
India doesn’t drive. Despite the explosive growth of private vehicles in Indian cities, public transport forms the backbone of mobility infrastructure in the country. We may covet and save up for the latest SUV for our weekend trips, but it’s our buses and trains that we depend upon for our daily commute.
In most cities, cars constitute less than 5 percent of the road vehicular population. Take Mumbai for instance, where only three percent of the total population drives to work. Even in cities where car usage is high, such as the capital Delhi, that figure stays at less than 10 percent.
Buses remain the main motorised mode of transport for all large cities in India. In 2010, 55 percent of all trips in New Delhi were by bus (6.4 million trips every day) , while in 2013, 42 percent of all trips in Bangalore were on buses (4.9 million). Close to half of all motorised trips in the cities of Delhi and Bangalore (about 5 Million per day) are by bus*.
And yet, the interim budget presented by India’s Government reflects a different vision. The massive cuts on excise duties for cars (passenger cars by 4 percent and SUVs by 6 percent)promote cars and car-based travel.
Policy-level and regulatory changes should reflect the sentiment that more car-based travel will only add to our traffic woes. Indian cities are swiftly riding towards a gridlock, and the way out lies in buses. Modern buses can transport more people efficiently, safely and most importantly, comfortably. For instance, one modern bus can transport upto 80 people at one go while occupying road space for three cars. No wonder then that buses are an immensely popular means of transport even in cities that are not as densely populated as ours.
Despite being the backbone of intra-city travel, buses are the most neglected mode of transport in India when it comes to investment. A majority of the investment in public transport goes to commuter rail systems, with the exception of JNNURM (Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission) funds. We need to jump start investment in our bus fleets and their modernization – a sector we have grossly neglected over the past two decades. Modern and efficient buses are hard to come by and older fleets are unable to cope with the rising demands.
Our cities need to systematically target doubling the share of all trips that are made by bus. We need to provide land to bus companies to build terminals and depots, support technology implementation to better monitor & operate their systems, provide operational subsidies to improve quality of service, and financial support to buy better buses.
1. Taxing questions: In a country like India, big infrastructure projects like roads, railways and buses will always need a subsidy. Bus companies have to fight hard to justify these subsidies. In turn, bus companies will still need to provide a subsidy to certain user groups, such as students. But we need to question why excise duties and state taxes on buses are never cut. The budget needs to make a special provision that eliminates all taxes for buses.
Currently, Indian cities need at least 100,000 new buses in the next five years; a demand that bus manufacturers find impossible to meet. Eliminating duties on buses, and regulatory support, will make it easier for bus companies to import buses quickly and meet increasing demands.
2. Bus Rapid Transit (BRT): Buses are also stuck in traffic jams. The way to extract them out of the congestion is through bus rapid transit. In 160 cities around the world, the idea has been a great success, including mega cities like Mexico City, Rio de Janeiro and Guangzhou. In India, five cities (Ahmedabad, Surat, Indore, Bhopal and Rajkot) have well-planned BRT in operation. However, incomplete implementation of the Delhi BRT gave the idea of a BRT a bad name in India.
BRT is a cost-effective solution to build mass rapid transit quickly, with good quality of service for urbanites. For example, 88 kilometres of mass transit will be built in Ahmedabad by the end of 2014 for just INR 2,000 crores in 6 years – building a metro line for the same length in Ahmedabad would cost at least 10 times more . Currently, the city’s BRT transports over 200,000 people daily.
The impact of a BRT is also structural. In Ahmedabad, the entire city is reorganising itself around transit. In Surat, real estate prices are going up along the corridor.
3. Parking Problems: Along with incentivizing buses, there is a need to disincentivize parking on the streets. Today, motorists can park almost anywhere. No amount of off-street parking will magically make private vehicles vanish from our streets. A large part of the chaos on Indian roads can be blamed upon disorganised parking – it impedes traffic flow, pedestrian movement and the smooth functioning of public transport. Poorly-planned on-street parking results in ‘cruising for parking’, double parking, and waiting – an all too common sight on our streets.
One of the most important tools for good on-street parking management is effectively pricing it. Parking pricing in India continues to be one of the cheapest in the world. Effective on-street pricing nudges long-stay users to park off-street, leading to improved enforcement and security. It also encourages users to adopt alternative modes of transport, such as buses, bicycles and car-shares.
India must hop on the bus to sustainable development before it’s too late. We will need support from both the regulatory and the private sector in order to stay the course and achieve long term gains. We must also learn from examples of cities abroad that have undergone a considerable transformation by implementing cheap and effective bus systems. Also, supporting measures such as managing parking need to be taken in order to increase efficiency of public transport systems in Indian cities.
* For New Delhi data, see: http://www.hudco.org/writereaddata/shelter.pdf; For Bangalore data, see: http://www.cseindia.org/userfiles/anand.pdf
EMBARQ – the WRI Center for Sustainable Transport – is a not-for-profit initiative that helps find practical ways to protect the earth and improve people’s lives. EMBARQ India currently engages over 30 professionals who provide technical assistance to transport & urban development projects across India.
Madhav Pai helped set up EMBARQ India seven years ago and provides overall leadership to the program. He has published extensively on sustainable urban transportation for Indian cities and is the lead author of “Bus Karo”, a guidebook on bus operations and planning.
Have a favourite bus/train anecdote or views about transportation in India? Share with us in the comments below!