The gaps in public transport that are pushing people towards private vehicles

Citizens look for mainly three factors when it comes to public transportation: efficiency, accessibility, and affordability. Sadly, Indian cities have been ignoring all three, leading to an explosion of private vehicles on our streets and all the associated problems.

Co-authored by Dattatraya T Devare and Saurabh Ketkar

There’s a saying by Gustavo Petra, Former Mayor of Bogota, Columbia that is often seen on social media posters and discussions on mobility. Petra says, and rightly so, “A developed country is not a place where the poor have cars, It’s where the rich use public transportation.”

Perhaps the most critical element of any major city is its public transportation network. It is akin to the veins and arteries in our bodies, taking people from their homes to their destinations, to help the city build and grow. Without this crucial link, an entire city can come to an agonizing halt.

But in recent times, the public road transportation infrastructure in most Indian cities is facing a crisis. Ridership is decreasing with an increase in private transportation and app-based taxi services. The section of people who use bus transport is very sensitive to rise in ticket prices, making it harder for bus transport organizations to keep their balance sheets in the positive. The lack of space on roads due to an exponential growth in private cars and motorcycles has the public shying away from buses as a mode of commute.

In cities where state and city governments are providing financial assistance to its public transport system, the prices are low and the ridership is also higher, as compared to cities in which the transport corporation is left to run on its own. In the Ease of Moving Index, 2018, a study done on the use of public transport and the various factors that influence mobility found that people in Chennai prefer public transport the most. The study conducted claimed that every bus in Chennai carried 1300 persons per day, the highest of any city in India. It would come as no surprise that Chennai has one of the lowest rates for the first 5 km of a bus ride at an affordable rate of Rs.8.

Compare that to Bangalore, where the BMTC gets hardly any support from the state or city governments and has to generate the revenue on its own. The rate for the first 6 km is Rs. 15, the highest in the country, followed closely by BEST in Mumbai at Rs. 14 for 5 kms. Bangalore’s BMTC also has one of the biggest fleets in the country, with approximately 6500 buses, compared to Chennai’s 3800, and Mumbai’s fleet of 3337 buses as of 2018.

When we look closer into the kind of policies that are being implemented, the citizen is cheated of one of his vital rights, to commute. This policy of higher fares is extremely discriminatory towards the average citizen, who perhaps has no other affordable choice. The inequality of this situation become starkly visible.

Nowhere is this more evident than in Mumbai, where the former BMC commissioner, Ajoy Mehta’s plan to help BEST come out of crisis appeared to help everyone, except the citizens of Mumbai. It talked of impounding 453 buses that are old, reducing the fleet size to the tune of 20-40%, doubling the cost of student passes, removing subsidies for senior citizens, and employing bus drivers on contract instead of putting them on the roles. He also had other plans to privatise part of the fleet etc, but luckily, this plan has not come to fruition. It does, however, highlight the typical myopic approach towards building a world-class transit hub.

According to a study published in November 2017 by civil society group, Aamchi Mumbai Aamchi BEST (coordinated by reputed journalist, writer and mobility expert Vidyadhar Date), the number of buses dipped from 4700 in 2010 to only 3337 in 2018. The total distance of all bus routes one way also dropped from 214 km in 2005 to only 179 km in 2014. When the fares increased in 2005, ridership dropped by 4.5 lakhs, and it never recovered those riders.

Recent updates, however, are reassuring. On July 9th this year, BEST cut its fares down to Rs 5 for the first 5 km and within 10 days, the service added 9 lakh riders per day. While this has led to a daily loss of Rs 4 crore, BEST is not worried, as it is beginning to understand its role in the urban infrastructure of Mumbai.

An efficient and safe public transport network is the right of every citizen. Without it a city is not a city, but just a really large village. Public transport networks allow citizens from every walk of life to access as many opportunities as there exist in a city. Article 16 of the Indian constitution guarantees every citizen equal opportunity to seek employment, and our cities are denying a significant section of society this fundamental right.

The point that our policy makers often fail to realize is that a significant number of citizens have no choice but to use public transport. This lack of affordable choices in the transport sector also reeks of inequality. While the central and state governments are actively pushing metro systems in more and more cities, that cannot be the solution to our public transport crisis. Metro is often more expensive than buses, thereby pinching the pocket of the consumer who can least afford it and makes ridership extremely sensitive to the price.

After Delhi Metro had two consecutive hikes in the metro fare, the subsequent year saw a significant drop of riders between 2016 and 2017. While the metro can recover these numbers over time, it is inaccessible to a significant section of society, making the inequality of the system apparent.

What makes for a good public transport system?

The first and foremost requirement is that public transport encompassing multiple modes of transport should be seamless. It should feel like a single journey, even if you have to walk, take a bus, take a metro, take a bus again and walk till your destination, there should not be a break in any leg of the system. But in India, we do not have that seamless sense of public transport as each mode of transport is operated by a different organization and these organizations do not talk to each other.

For example, every single metro station in Bangalore should have made space for a bus stop right outside the metro, with an auto rickshaw bay to the side. But instead, we only find auto rickshaws (parked haphazardly on the streets), and more often than not, we need to walk a little distance away to find a bus stop. This is because the BMRCL is responsible for the metro and BMTC is responsible for the buses. What they fail to realize is that a citizen will use both, often in tandem, for the same journey. But, since we are unable to see the larger picture of the possibilities in having an integrated and seamless public transport network, citizens have to suffer.

Ideally, the entire system of public transportation in a city should come under a unified authority, which can optimize all the resources to provide the best possible service to its citizens. Most major cities in the world have a single authority that oversees all the multiple modes of transport. New York has the New York City Department of Transportation, which not only looks into the subway and the buses, but also the ferries from Staten Island, the quality of the pavements (called sidewalks in New York), and the multiple bridges that cross over the rivers.

London has Transport for London or TfL, which was founded as recently as 2000, to integrate all modes of transport. TfL is also instrumental in implementing congestion pricing in parts of the city, and increasing alternative modes of transport like cycling. The Land Transport Authority in Singapore has every single element of public transportation under their wing, including taxi licences, CBD congestion charges, pavements, taxi stands and the MRT service. This allows them to streamline their services into a seamless journey. Almost every MRT station in Singapore has a bus stop and taxi stand right outside it. This can only be done when a single authority can oversee all aspects of moving people around in a city.

The advantages for citizens of a single transport authority are many. They can offer a single price for different distances irrespective of the modes used. For one, it offers the citizen tremendous flexibility of combinations in routes and modes they can ride on, for the same price.

Mumbai has the suburban railway, the bus system, the metro and the monorail, and to take each mode of transport, you need to buy a different ticket (Again, all of them are run by different authorities!) By contrast, in New York City, the bus and the subway come under a single card, called the MetroCard, where one can ride an unlimited number of subway and bus rides for a fixed price of $117 for 30 days.

In London they allow young adults below the age of 14-16 to ride for free in buses and the Underground. This encourages young citizens to shy away from using private transport, creating a culture of sharing public spaces more equitably. Seamless connectivity, choice of transport mode and integrated pricing are mechanisms through we can create equality in our public spaces and transportation.

Another element that is key to an effective public transport network is the density of population and land regulations. The policies of many Indian cities encourage the city to sprawl, by limiting the amount one can construct on any given piece of land. By not allowing more people to live closely together, they force citizens to spend more time on commute and choose private vehicles over public transport, as public transport cannot reach all parts of a city growing outward.

Citizens look for mainly three factors when it comes to public transportation: efficiency, accessibility, and affordability. In India, it seems like we are systematically ignoring these three critical elements of public transportation, leaving the only option available: Being choked in traffic.

[About co-author Saurabh Ketkar: Saurabh Ketkar works for a start-up in Bengaluru, but has keen interest in urban planning and inclusive development. He worked as an intern at B-PAC.An avid cyclist and trekker, he believes that riding bicycles and using public transport are means to a happier urban life in India.]


  1. Lina says:

    Can’t agree more. Extremely important to have a unified authority for all public transport within cities. In Bangalore, there are still so many bmtc routes that run parallel to metro lines. Such a waste of resource and people wasting man hours to save money thanks to bmtc passes. If the metro and bmtc co-ordinate, so many people can save time and money by using the most efficient system for the longer distance.

  2. Govind says:

    Seamless switching between different means of public transport is important, and the government must bring administration of all these different means under one governing body.

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