I recently learned that India passed a National Urban Transport Policy in 2006. The policy is supposed to serve as a guide for cities to cope with increasing traffic congestion. As with so many of India’s policy documents, the policy is thoughtful and progressive on paper, although the pattern of investment in urban transport since the new policy was passed does not seem to have changed much. The policy not only emphasizes transport investments that will lead to more environmentally sustainable cities, but it also suggests a much needed re-orientation in the goal of transport policy in the country– from enabling the movement of vehicles, to enabling the movement of people.
What does that mean in practice? Unlike in the developed world, the vast majority of people in India already use environmentally friendly transport, either non-motorized forms of transport (bicycle and foot; indeed, depending on the city, 16 to 58% of all trips are made on foot) or public transport, usually buses. A people oriented transport policy would encourage investment in both of these modes. The policy was crafted with the help of the WRI Center for Sustainable Transport, whose website emphasizes buses, specifically bus rapid transit systems. This is good. Investing in a better bus system is cheap relative to building a train system. Buses can be incrementally improved upon, and, for the most part, they use existing road infrastructure. Most importantly, buses are cheap for users.
However, Sunita Narain from the Centre for Science and Environment points out something extremely important: even if city governments want to rapidly increase the number of buses on their roads, they cannot. There are only two bus manufacturers in India, Ashok Leyland and Tata Motors, and neither of these companies currently have the capacity to produce more than 100 buses each month. Orders for buses given a year ago from the Delhi government, which has put a Bus Rapid Transit system in place, have still not been met. Because customers for buses are public agencies that cannot pay much, Narain argues that companies have no incentive to ramp up their busmaking capacities.
Unfortunately, the government may not have much time to take advantage of the existing sustainable patterns of transport use in India. A recent study commissioned by the Ministry of Urban Development on the state of transport in the country showed that the use of public and non-motorized transport had decreased in 30 cities in India.