Supply and demand for public transport

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.

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2 comments
  1. Akash Raman said:

    It may be true that the use of public transportation has decreased but, if you look at a city like Bangalore, there are still several hundred people who take the bus or any other form of public transportation. But recently, the Bangalore government (at least, I think that it is them) took out several of the standard, cheap fare buses and replaced them with slightly more expensive buses. This has caused several people to be late for work, school, etc. because they cannot afford the Suvarna (More expensive buses) and they are forced to wait for a long time before a standard bus comes to the stop. Because of these inconveniences, people might have stopped using the bus and might, instead take another form of transportation, public or private.

    Also, in your post, you mentioned that there are only two suppliers of buses in India. I think that there are minimum 4 suppliers of buses although the two you mentioned are the most popular. Tata, Ashok Leyland, Eicher and Mahindra & Mahindra make buses in India. Eicher is more into trucks though. Mahindra focuses more on the car market though.

    Once Tata’s One Lakh Rupee car is released in India, the amount of people using public transportation will decrease dramatically. The roads will get more and more congested and also the amount of emissions produced will rise rapidly as well. But the advantage to the Tata Nano is that it much safer for transporting around a 2-parent and 2-children family. Otherwise, the only other alternative of transport that cheap would be a motorbike which is extremely dangerous. So you must all factors.

  2. Arvind said:

    Hi Nithya,

    You’ve touched upon a really important issue. But does the solution really lie in bus rapid transport systems? I don’t think so!

    Take Delhi’s bus proposed dedicated bus lane, for instance. Because it’s planned to run on straight roads, the left most lane cannot be used as the other vehicles turning left into side roads would be obstructing the buses’ path. So they are forced to use the right most lane! In which case, where do the passengers get off? In the middle of the road? Apparently Beijing (whose model Delhi wanted to emulate) has foot over bridges with escalators to move the passengers from the bus stop on the middle to the side of the road. But can we expect people to not run across the road in Delhi?

    Moreover, I think, road services can never truly be rapid transit systems. We definitely need to consider rail transit systems.

    >> 16 to 58% of all trips are made on foot
    Percentages in India can be really misleading. Even if only 10% uses private transport, we would be talking about over a 100 million people!

    But as you say, things do look good on paper!

    @Akash
    Your point about the Volvos is valid. They were not intended to replace the older cheaper-fare buses. But sadly they have. The white-collared ones aren’t complaining though!

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