The public transport imperative | The Daily Star
12:13 AM, April 30, 2013 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:26 AM, April 30, 2013


The public transport imperative

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IT is no small irony that car sales have doubled in India over five years as employment, and the share of national income going to the poor, have decreased. Automobile manufacturing is one of India's fastest-growing industries, thanks to the upper-middle class's consumerism and its elitist notions of personal mobility and the glamour of cars.

This automobile addiction will ensure that the current 6% drop in car sales, the first in a decade, will be transient and brief. The dizzying 52% rise in the sales of utility vehicles, mostly sport-utility vehicles (SUVs), more than compensates for it.

SUVs are gas-guzzling, road-hogging monsters with truck-kevel emissions. Since they typically run on diesel, their emissions are even more harmful than those from petrol, including respirable suspended particulate matter (RSPM). India is the world's second fastest-growing SUV market.

India prices diesel much lower than petrol. Today, 55% of all cars sold burn diesel, up from under 10% in 2002.

Thanks to this, and the proliferation of private vehicles -- which account for 60%-plus of urban pollution -- concentrations of RSPM and oxides of nitrogen and sulphur have risen sharply in most cities. Pollution exceeds the prescribed norm in 188 of 190 Indian cities surveyed.

Not only bigger cities like Mumbai, Delhi and Kolkata, but even smaller ones like Surat (Gujarat), Faridabad (Haryana), Alwar (Rajasthan), Meerut (Uttar Pradesh), and Nagaon (Assam) have higher RSPM levels than the norm of 60 microgrammes per cubic metre. Smaller cities also lead in sulphur and nitrogen oxide pollution.

Delhi switched from diesel/petrol to compressed natural gas in public buses, taxis and auto-rickshaws in 2002. But rampant vehicle growth has reversed the gains from this. Delhi's current RSPM level (261 microgrammes) is worse than in the pre-CNG days.

Urban India is literally choking on air pollution. The World Health Organisation's latest Global Burden of Diseases report describes the situation as "grave" and says air pollution is the fifth biggest cause of death in India.

Air pollution causes or aggravates many diseases/disorders, including cancer, diabetes, heart disease, hypertension and respiratory allergies among children.

Add to this disability-related loss of work, increased stress, aesthetic disfigurement from flyovers and car parks, road-accident deaths, and insecurity for pedestrians and bicyclists -- and you see the terrible impact of motorisation.

Cars parasitically occupy enormous road-space even when stationary. Typically, they carry two persons, but hog one-third as much space as a bus ferrying 40 to 60 people.

Cars account for under 10% of all commuter trips in Indian cities, but use three-fourths of road-space. In many cities, bicycles contribute a similar proportion but get no road-space and face grave risks.

Free parking for cars in public spaces is one of India's biggest scandals. If car-owners were to pay market-based rent for prime space in central business districts -- where land costs lakhs of rupees per square foot -- many would stop driving.

Yet, most cities charge laughably low parking fees. In residential areas, car-owners brazenly privatise roads, even pavements. This is downright criminal.

Cars are socially parasitical in other ways. A huge share of urban-infrastructure public spending goes into widening roads or building bridges and flyovers -- for automobile use. Cars slow down traffic, especially public buses, by 30 to 50%, thus causing a loss of precious social time.

Cars have become an elite cult, and a symbol of speed and power with which to inspire public awe and fear. The Indian middle-class is no longer satisfied with small sub-compact vehicles like the Maruti-800, whose sales have tanked. It wants bigger, more luxurious cars. Mid-sized sedans are now India's highest-growth sub-sector.

Cars are used to display ostentatious wealth and macho aggression. The typical Indian car-owner has contempt for the pedestrian, whom he terrorises. Cars thus promote callousness and misanthropy.

Many industrially developed societies are now regretting motorisation and banning cars from city centres, taxing them more heavily, and levying high parking fees and congestion charges (e.g. 8 pounds per entry into central London).

They are also promoting public transport and reserving lanes for buses and bicycles. Many European cities have seen movements to reclaim roads equitably for people.

Even Shanghai, Beijing and Guangzhou limit and auction car licence plates issued each year. Singapore won't let you buy a car unless you pay through your nose and own your parking space. You can only drive your car on alternate days of the week.

We South Asians desperately need similar measures -- and a blanket ban on SUVs and diesel-fuelled cars. We must aggressively enforce pollution checks. This means ending the permissive culture under which Delhi, with 7 million vehicles, has only 120 pollution inspectors.

Above all, we need affordable, safe, efficient public transport. The solution doesn't lie in Metro rail, constructing which is too expensive (Rs.200-500 crores a kilometre) especially in already built-up areas.

To be viable, the Metro needs 20,000-40,000 passenger-trips per hour per direction, which very few of our big cities can generate. Thus the Delhi Metro, despite huge and continuing subsidies from Japan, Asian Development Bank, and the Indian and Delhi governments, remains unaffordable for the poor, unlike buses.

With its sleek looks and air-conditioning, it's a middle class darling, but has failed to reduce the number of cars. Indian policymakers are foolishly extending Metros to small cities where they'll be white elephants.

The most cost-efficient solution is using existing city roads through Bus Rapid Transit, electric trolley-buses (and trams, where feasible), and promoting cycling and walking. This entails reorganising city life, minimising commuting, and creating exchange hubs and pedestrian plazas.

The BRT concept reserves for buses road-space that's roughly proportionate to their commuter-trip contribution (60%), and rationalises other traffic.

BRT corridors were planned in numerous cities, including 26 in Delhi. But few have been implemented. Delhi's sole BRT has faced the car lobby's vicious attack. Deprived of traffic marshals, it's becoming dysfunctional.

This won't do. Motorists must be made to respect public priorities.

The writer is an eminent Indian columnist.

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