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Motorised mayhem

Kalpana SHARMA

03 / 2010

The growth rate of motorised vehicles in India, at 10%, is higher than growth in GDP. India’s National Urban Transport Policy professes to keep people rather than vehicles as its focus. Yet it is private motorised transport that gets all the attention in our metros, not public transport.

On February 28, 2010, the Western Railways in Mumbai decided not to run suburban trains if even one person was found travelling on the roof. During peak hours, trains from the city’s distant suburbs often run with scores of people precariously perched on the roofs of packed trains.

The reason given is the switch from 1,500 volt DC to 25,000 volt AC current for the electric trains. With the former, a person gets electrocuted only on contact with the wire connecting the train to the electric source. With the latter, any person within a two-metre radius can be electrocuted. The railways are taking no chances.

The decision to strictly implement this rule, however, goes to the heart of the crisis facing our cities -– lack of safe and affordable public transport. People travel on top of trains not necessarily because they like the cooler air at the top. Or because they want to show off their agility and courage by climbing and hanging on to a moving train and sitting on its roof. They do so because there is no space in the compartments where they should be sitting. Or because they do not have the money to pay for a ticket.

Air pollution

Public transport systems are crucial for our urban areas. India’s cities have already earned the dubious distinction of being some of the most polluted in the world. Suspended particulate matter (SPM) and respirable suspended particulate matter (RSPM) – its more dangerous cousin – are three to four times higher than acceptable levels set by the World Health Organisation in India’s three biggest cities.

The foul air is largely due to high levels of vehicular emissions. In major cities, polluting industries have been moved outside city limits. But the main source of pollution, the automobile, has virtually taken up all the road and air space. Not surprisingly, the growth of motorised vehicles in India – at 10% per year – is higher than GDP growth. While the population in India’s six major metros grew 1.9 times between 1981 and 2001, the vehicle population grew 7.75 times.

For those who live in these gridlocked metros, much of this data is of purely academic value. The reality speaks volumes. It has become impossible to move from point A to B with any sense of certainty about how long it will take, irrespective of the time of day. And urban residents are increasingly resigned to the quality of air, and the health consequences of increased respiratory disorders, viewing it as a price they must pay for living in the city.

Road accidents

If people survive the consequences of every breath they take, they could be killed merely standing on the side of the road, or trying to cross it. In 2001, more than 80,000 people died in road accidents in India and the rate of fatalities is growing at just under 5% per year. Half the traffic fatalities in Delhi are of pedestrians, 10% of bicyclists, 21% of motorcyclists and 3% of car occupants. In Mumbai, 80% of traffic fatalities are of pedestrians.

The mortality rate in India in road accidents is 8.7 per 100,000, compared to 5.6 in the UK, 5.4 in Sweden, 5 in the Netherlands and 6.7 in Japan. If you take the ratio of mortality per 10,000 vehicles, India’s rate jumps to 14 compared to under 2 in the industrialised countries. So, even with a smaller number of vehicles, more Indians are being killed on the roads than in countries with a far larger number of vehicles.

What policy on public transport?

Does India have any kind of vision or policy on public transport – something that is so important to the majority of urban residents? Apparently it does. According to the National Urban Transport Policy, its objective is “to ensure safe, affordable, quick, comfortable, reliable and sustainable access” and “bringing about a more equitable allocation of road space with people, rather than vehicles, as its main focus”.

No one can quarrel with the language or the intention. The problem is the implementation and the distortion of this objective that is the visible and harsh reality of daily existence in our cities. For decades, policies have been designed to allocate greater road space for privately owned vehicles rather than for forms of transport that would benefit the maximum number of people.

Over one-third of the total number of motorised vehicles in India is in our metropolitan cities, which constitute just 11% of the population. Delhi alone accounts for 7% of all motor vehicles. Delhi also tops the list for air pollution despite the introduction of CNG in all public vehicles. This is because of the sheer volume of diesel- and petrol-burning privately owned motor vehicles, including cars and two-wheelers. As a result, 72% of air pollution in Delhi is still accounted for by vehicular emissions.

It is also clear that vehicular emissions increase when the speed of the vehicle slows down. In most cities, including Delhi and Mumbai, peak hour speeds are down to 5-10 km per hour, resulting in a five-fold increase in all pollutants.

The solution to the problem of high fatalities and killer air pollution is better, more efficient public transport that would drastically reduce the need to use private vehicles. It would also cut down congestion, thereby allowing faster movement of buses that transport far larger numbers. Yet, such obvious logic does not work on the ground. For instance, several attempts to increase the number of buses, or create dedicated bus lanes, in major cities have met with mixed success. In Mumbai, air-conditioned buses have been introduced to tempt car owners to switch to them. But unless the traffic situation is sorted out, these buses will not move at a much faster rate than private cars. As a result, they run well under capacity.

The example of Mumbai

The investment pattern in roads and transport in our major cities clearly illustrates the lack of prioritisation of public transport. Mumbai is probably the best example. In the 1960s, Mumbai had one of the best public transport systems. It had buses, trams and the suburban railways; only very rich individuals could afford private cars in those days. Hence, most people used public transport.

Over the years, this system has not been strengthened at the required pace. Trams were phased out as they were seen to take up too much road space, and roads have become home to the burgeoning population of private motor vehicles. Most of the investment in the last two decades has gone towards making life more comfortable for these private vehicle owners. Roads have been widened and flyovers built, including a spectacular sea link that has only recently been opened to a couple of bus routes. In other words, every effort has been made to make travel easy and smooth for those riding in private cars, even though they constitute a small minority of Mumbai’s total population.

Despite all the talk in recent years about enhancing public transport, once again the major investment continues to be on ways to facilitate the movement of motorised vehicles. At the end of February, the Maharashtra government cleared a slew of schemes including two more sea links, an expressway and an elevated road costing thousands of crores of rupees. Ironically, except for the expressway that links Sion in northeastern Mumbai to Panvel, the other three projects are designed to ease traffic flows between north and south Mumbai. Yet, increasingly, both people and offices are moving away from south Mumbai to the north and the east of the city. Only government offices remain in south Mumbai.

This perhaps explains why successive governments continue to give public transport such low priority. The policymakers, politicians as well as bureaucrats rarely use public transport as they live within driving distance of their workplace. So how would they understand the problems ordinary people face on a daily basis as they struggle to get to work on time? The group that the Maharashtra government is consulting for its Mumbai Transformation Project is Bombay First, representing the corporate sector. Once again, the people involved might have a theoretical knowledge of the importance of public transport, but for these individuals it is not a daily felt need.

The other reason could be the pattern of growth in our cities. In industrialised countries, especially in the US, the rich tended to move out to the suburbs, enjoying better air quality, larger homes and more green space; the poor were left to struggle with crowded, poor housing in the inner cities. In India, the reverse has happened in most of the larger cities. Land prices in the centre of the city are so high that only the wealthy, or those provided government housing, can afford to live there. The poor and lower middle classes are pushed out to distant suburbs and forced to commute over long distances, using poor public transport to access their places of work. So it is the lower classes that need and use public transport, but they are not an organised lobby to push for improvements. Car owners, on the other hand, have the political and economic clout to influence policy.

The urban transport crisis will only get worse if governments continue to pursue such skewed priorities. The interests of the majority – for a better public transport system – would in fact save our cities and truly transform them. So obvious one would have thought, yet apparently beyond the understanding of those who make policy.

Palabras claves

contaminación, contaminación atmosférica, transporte urbano

, India


This sheet is available in French: Pagaille motorisée


Artículos y dossiers

Kalpana SHARMA, Motorised mayhem, in InfoChange, March 2010

InfoChange (News and analysis on social justice and development issues in India) - Centre for Communication and Development Studies (CCDS) C/12, Gera Greens, NIBM Road, Kondhwa, Pune-411 048, INDIA - India - - infochangeindia (@)

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