Why The Future Of Urban Transport Is The Bus, And Not Necessarily The Metro

Artboard 3 Created with Sketch.

There is a severe shortage of public bus transport in India. To make up for it, India is rapidly moving towards private personal vehicle ownership – a choice it will regret.

While metros are an effective solution, it takes decades for metros to be operationalised fully, given the congestion in cities and lack of elbow room to dig.

In this scenario, buses are the way to go since they can be worked out in a few months and are easier to finance than metros.

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 easier.

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 transport.

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.