Let’s get one thing very clear – an overpopulated country like India cannot afford a private vehicle driven transport solution. The sooner our public and policy makers realise this, the less pain all of us will collectively need to endure. And given that we in Bengaluru and other Indian metros are already enduring a significant amount of pain, it’s incredible that we are still refusing to learn our lessons.
Hardly a fraction of our total population is using cars today, and the impact is there for all to see. If more people keep shifting from buses and two-wheelers to cars, does it need to be said what will happen?
There are two ways we can go from here:
1) Either keep doing more of what we have been doing, i.e. widen roads by shortening footpaths, build more flyovers and underpasses and so on, thus spending thousands of crores of Rupees to provide short-lived relief and in fact worsening the problem because more vehicles means more pollution and because even those who would walk earlier are now forced to use vehicles since footpaths are rendered unwalkable, or
2) Change the policy direction and promote public transport for long commutes and walking/cycling for short distances. This does not mean taking baby steps like adding a few hundred buses to BMTC’s fleet or experimenting with cycle lanes on a few roads in Jayanagar and so on. This has to be a government-led policy driven from the very top (which would be the Chief Minister today but logically should be an empowered Mayor to which all civic and transport agencies of the city report). The policy goals should reflect in the budget allocation as well. This is the only workable solution for an overpopulated country like India.
Speaking of cycle lanes, it is common to hear criticism of the need, effectiveness or feasibility of the same in the Indian context. Why do we need to shorten already narrow and overstretched roads to accommodate cycle lanes, people ask?
But just because very few people are using cycles today – mainly due to lack of exposure/awareness and also for fear of life and limb given the state of our roads and rash driving habits – does not mean that we should not attempt to position cycling at the center of our transport policy goals for the future. If we have to encourage cycling on a mass scale, every single road (major roads, yes, but more importantly interior roads in residential areas) has to be upgraded to these standards where people would automatically feel encouraged to walk or cycle after seeing the safety and quality inherent in the roads.
Many Indians may not know that there are so many cycles in Amsterdam that they have multi-level parking lots exclusively for cycles!!! The real problem in India is lack of awareness. Any person who has not seen or experienced cycle lanes in practice will naturally find the idea idiotic. I myself used to find cycle lanes an elitist, silly and unworkable idea in India until I saw first-hand how cycling is not an exception but the norm in many developed countries. But as I said, this needs a city-wide uniform network of cycle lanes to succeed and not a few roads here and there. However, even the longest journey has to start with a single step somewhere and therefore there is no way out but to do what has been done on the initial set of Tender SURE roads and expand the network gradually.
Here are some steps that will bring traffic congestion and pollution down in a sustainable manner:
1) We need to triple or quadruple the city bus fleet. This cannot be done by BMTC alone and therefore we need to encourage private app-based bus operators to start services and complement BMTC’s efforts. The policy announced in this regard by Delhi government is laudable but sadly it has got stuck in turf wars.
2) Similarly, the metro network needs to be completed on schedule and expanded further aggressively. Stations and platforms also need to be made more accessible unlike the current narrow entry and exits.
3) Compulsory adoption of Tender SURE standards for all roads in Bangalore, with compulsory and protected cycle lanes in purely commercial and purely residential areas (mixed-use areas may be exempted). For parts of commercial areas where roads are too narrow, roads must be dedicated to cycling and walking and vehicles must be banned.
4) Destination-based common ticketing that will be valid on all forms of transport, be it buses or metro. Once a commuter buys a ticket to a destination, they will be free to reach it via any permutation and combination of bus/metro routes.
5) Ticket and pass/smart card rates need to be made reasonable. Even if it needs to be subsidized, government should encourage it. After all, if more people shift to public transport, a lot of money earmarked for road widening, building flyovers, etc. will simply not need to be spent and can instead pay for this subsidy.
6) GPS integration of all buses and metro so that the precise ETA and bus frequency can be displayed on all bus stops. This is essential for wider adoption and to attract those who are quite comfortable driving today and currently have no intention of moving to public transport even if all above steps are implemented.
7) Feeder buses in residential areas to ferry people from interiors to the main roads. This is essential to take care of the last mile problem with public transport. These feeder buses can be run at low cost of Rs. 10-15 per round trip spanning a maximum distance of 8-10 kms (and must be free for pass/smart card holders), similar to the Delhi Metro feeder bus network.
8) Autorickshaws must be made to follow the rules and overcharging and refusal should be eliminated. This may not be possible via police action alone, so steps like issuing unlimited licenses (instead of limited numbers as is the case today) and encouraging affiliation with aggregators (as is the case with cabs today) will be needed to achieve this. Also, running feeder buses as suggested above will help ease this problem by giving commuters an alternative in the last mile.
9) Encourage more taxi and autorickshaw aggregators like Ola and Uber. Remove silly restrictions and backward-looking rules such as mandating physical meters instead of GPS ones, paper receipt and physical complaint book, fleet size restrictions, etc. Surge pricing policy is fine currently and can be continued (unlike what media is reporting, surge pricing is still allowed but only up to the maximum limit set for taxis).
10) Lastly, impose additional taxes on personal vehicles (both two- and four-wheelers) and also on fuel. But while this should be the last step after all the above are implemented (or in advanced stages of completion), the problem in India is that we will skip all the above and do this first (since all it requires is for the concerned minister to sign on a file sitting in their air-conditioned office) and then stop right there. This must be avoided until commuters are given a reasonable alternative to private transport first.
All of this is only possible if the push comes from the very top and if the public is fully on board and realizes that there is simply no alternative. Let’s hope that day comes soon.