Tuesday 23 October 2012

Metro rail systems: Boon or bane for urban India?

Some experts insist buses are a cheaper, more viable option
By Madhu Nainan, Published The Straits Times, 22 Oct 2012

MUMBAI - Enter any Indian city, and you will be greeted by honking cars, polluted air and gridlock on the streets.

Over the next three years, seven Indian cities will begin operating metro rail transport systems, taking the total number of cities with such systems to 11.

"Our motto is to move people, not vehicles. We favour mass rapid transport systems, not cars," said Mr Prakash Singh, the director of the Urban Development Ministry in New Delhi.

India hopes this move will fix its urban chaos. But some fear that the sleek trains will be unaffordable for the vast majority of city dwellers.

Instead, some transport professionals and urban activists say, cheaper alternatives such as buses are more suited to conditions in India, where 77 per cent of the population lives on less than 20 rupees (S$0.45) a day.

Currently, India's burgeoning cities and towns are home to around 40 per cent of its 1.2 billion people.

By 2020, urban dwellers are likely to account for more than 50 per cent of its population of around 1.36 billion people, experts say.

Yet, infrastructure across most of urban India is generally abysmal. Transport is mostly by road. Public bus transport systems are available in some 25 cities only, including Mumbai, Delhi and Kolkata. Motorbikes and cars account for over 80 per cent of passenger vehicles in most cities and towns, say experts.

In 1984, Kolkata got India's first metro rail system. Chennai was next in 1997. Then came Delhi in 2002 and Bangalore last year.

Gurgaon, Jaipur, Mumbai and Navi Mumbai are expected to get metro systems next year. Hyderabad should follow in 2014.

In Chennai, an upgraded metro system, which will replace old coaches with air-conditioned ones, is likely to begin operations in 2014. Kochi should come next in 2015.

The cost - to the government and private investors - varies from city to city. Mumbai's system costs around 240 billion rupees, while Kochi's costs around 50 billion rupees, said Mr Singh.

Six more cities - Ahmedabad-Gandhinagar, Chandigarh, Indore, Kanpur, Ludhiana and Pune - are planning metro rail systems.

However, not everyone is so sure that this headlong rush to metro rail is the answer.

Such projects satisfy "the lopsided aspirations of urban policymakers who feel a city will look international and modern only if it has a metro system", argued Mumbai-based civil engineer Sudhir Badami of the Sustainable Urban Mobility Network.

He said metro transport systems might be viable to some extent in big cities such as Delhi, Mumbai or Kolkata, but certainly not in smaller cities. They are already struggling to find money to provide more basic facilities such as piped drinking water, sanitation, education and health care.

Instead, said Mr Badami, cities should have dedicated roads for public bus transport systems. "Buses can reach where the metro cannot - buses will be much cheaper than imported metro coaches," he said.

Typically, he said, bus fares are priced so that travelling by bus is slightly cheaper than doing so by motorcycle, while metro fares are kept slightly lower than the cost of travelling by car.

Delhi's metro system, which spans around 100km, is the country's longest and busiest, carrying two million commuters daily.

Even so, it has neither reduced road congestion nor improved mobility, said Mr Badami. Roads continue to be choked as most commuters still use cars, auto-rickshaws, cycle rickshaws and motorcycles between the metro stations and where they need to go.

Others think building a metro network takes too long and is too disruptive. In contrast, a bus system can be put in place within a year with minimal disturbance, said Mumbai-based Ashok Datar, who chairs the Mumbai Environmental Social Network.

A well-planned bus system can carry 30,000 commuters an hour - the same as a metro rail system. "Compare the costs, and (buses are) clearly the winner in India, where we have a lot of poor people," said Mr Datar.

Also, he said, a metro ticket in Mumbai will cost 10 times as much as the second-class suburban railway fare. "More than 60 per cent of people (in Mumbai) live in slums. Most work in low-paid, informal-sector jobs. How can they afford this?"

Only Mumbai, Delhi, Chennai, Kolkata, Bangalore, Hyderabad and Pune currently have city suburban rail systems.

Buses are not feasible in some cities, said Mr Singh of the Urban Development Ministry.

"Cities need additional land to widen existing roads and create a dedicated bus corridor," he said. For most cities, this would be almost out of the question.

He said Delhi tried a bus system and failed. "A separate, dedicated corridor was carved out for buses from the existing roads. This ended up creating chaos on the roads as other vehicles had to make do with much narrower roads," he said.

In Ahmedabad, he said, where new roads were planned and laid with a dedicated bus lane in mind, a bus system has worked.

He said the ministry "encourages states and cities to put in place bicycle tracks and also promote walking".

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