On Monday (25 July), public sector bus unions went on an indefinite strike in Karnataka. But the shocking thing is not the amount of disruption caused, but the relative lack of it. The reason is simple. The state simply does not depend too much on public transport.
A population of 64
million has all of 23,000 state buses, if a local newspaper’s numbers are
correct. That’s one bus for more than 2,700 people spread all over the state.
Apart from private cars and two-wheelers, private bus operators, taxis, autos
and other means of transport obviously fill the gap, but what these low bus
numbers suggest is the complete failure of public transport policy. India is
moving too rapidly towards private personal vehicle ownership, and it will
deeply regret this choice.
While it’s true that big cities are talking metros to deal with the challenge of public transport, metros are a long-term solution, and may take decades to be developed fully, given the acute congestion in most cities and the lack of elbow room to dig up areas.
The only logical
solution, both in the medium and long term, is public bus transport of various
sizes and types, supplemented by web-based taxi and auto services like Ola and
Uber. Private vehicle ownership needs to be heavily taxed and restricted to side
roads and off-peak hours. Odd-even is tough to monitor; complete bans are
The problem with the
way state and private bus companies are regulated now suggests rigidity, when, in fact, flexibility is key.
For example, bus
companies tend to have only one or two sizes of vehicle, when we know that
passenger traffic can vary at different times of the day, week or month. We need large bus operators who can run several types of vehicles
depending on demand. Maintenance costs may be lower if you run only one type of
vehicle, but if you have a large enough fleet, running costs can be lower, as
smaller vehicles can be run during off-peak hours. It is not necessary to run
the same-size bus on a route all through the day or night, regardless of
traffic. Of course, we also need buses for various kinds of users, from luxury
AC buses to standing-only ones for short-distance commuters.
The second advantage of
expanding the bus fleet, both public and private, is that transport solutions
can be worked out in a few months, when metros take years, if not decades, to
build. Buses are also easier to finance than metros.
The second prong of a
public transport policy should be to expand the taxi and auto population –
primarily to cater to the demand for personal transport. It is estimated that
one Ola taxi can replace six to eight cars, as these cars can be run 12 or more
hours a day; private cars usually run far less. App-based taxi
intermediaries should be able to operate with a minimum of regulation, both to
complement the regular black-and-yellow and licensed radio taxis. Instead,
app-based taxis are being over-regulated and treated like an unwelcome
intrusion into the cosy world of existing taxi operators.
As for private cars and
two-wheelers, they should be taxed annually, and, at some point, even monthly,
based on road usage.
Currently, car taxes
are a one-time charge, paid at the time of purchase. But taxes should be annual, or
based on road usage. Once fitted with RFID chips, car movements can be tracked
through sensors placed at all major roads in cities, which will facilitate
billing monthly or quarterly. You pay road usage bills the way you pay
electricity bills. The car fees collected thus can be used to subsidise public
We should also stop
privileging two-wheelers. Two-wheelers are treated currently as some kind of aam
aadmi indulgence, but they too occupy road space and cause traffic jams and
pollution. They too should be taxed annually.
The future of urban
transport is bus, taxi, auto, and metro – not private cars and two-wheelers.
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