Public transport should be made accessible while fighting air pollution

The fight for breathable air during winters shouldn't take away people's right to first-mile and last-mile connectivity

By Aakansha Jain, Sharif Qamar
Published: Thursday 07 February 2019

In November 2018, when Delhi declared its first ‘pollution emergency’ of the year due to smog, the Supreme Court-appointed Environment Pollution (Prevention and Control) Authority (EPCA) implemented the Graded Response Action Plan (GRAP) across Delhi-NCR for ‘severe’ category of pollution. Such action was taken for the first time, to tackle Delhi’s air pollution problem. This year again, the EPCA is gearing up to implement GRAP from mid-October. Consultations have already started, and the authority will take stock of preparations on ground to prevent yet another winter filled with smog and high particulate matter. 

Two recent studies — one by The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI) and the Automotive Research Association of India (ARAI) and the other by the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) — throw some light on the matter. The first study shows that around 64 per cent of air pollution in Delhi during winters is coming from outside Delhi. The second study ranks 14 Indian cities on the basis of emissions and energy consumption on account of urban mobility. Both these studies give EPCA an indication of areas to target and inputs for possible measures to curb air pollution.  

It is sufficiently clear that a significant part of the smog that engulfs Delhi-NCR every winter is due to stubble burning by farmers in neighbouring states during the last few months of the year. Apart from this, industry and transport sectors are key perennial contributors. The CSE study also states that even though Delhi has the third highest share of public transport trips, it emerges as the worst among cities in overall emissions and fuel use. This is primarily due to the high volume of private transport demand and relatively longer trip lengths.

The share of personalised motor vehicles will continue to increase if measures are not taken to provide a reliable public transportation system. It is also a fact that inducing a modal shift from private vehicles towards a more sustainable mode of transport, especially public transportation, is a long, slow, and costly process.

It is well established that Delhi’s bus transport system is inadequate. The emergence of Delhi Metro has been able to hide the inadequacy of the bus-based public transport situation in Delhi. It has made commuting in Delhi-NCR hassle-free and safer and therefore, while devising long-term mitigation strategies to fight air pollution, all efforts should be directed by the EPCA towards making Delhi Metro more accessible.

As part of the graded response plan, EPCA has compiled a bouquet of actions to be taken based on the severity of air pollution. The severe air quality condition compels EPCA to order the Delhi government to intensify public transport services, increase parking fee and introduce odd-even scheme for private vehicles. Last year, the odd-even scheme for private vehicles could not be implemented in toto due to inadequate number of buses to cater to commuters who would have given up two-wheelers. The EPCA, however, directed a four-fold increase in parking fee in Delhi-NCR. The hike was applicable to cars and two-wheelers parked near Metro stations or parking spaces managed by Delhi Metro Rail Corporation (DMRC) as well. However, rolling out a blanket hike may not be a correct choice to discourage the use of personal vehicles.

Although Delhi Metro has provided extensive connectivity to commuters, the primary issue of lack of first-mile and last-mile connectivity still exists in many areas. As a result, many people prefer to use their personal vehicles to reach the nearest Metro station and park their vehicles in parking lots close to stations.

The DMRC has parking facilities at more than 100 Metro stations, with three multi-level parking facilities. A rough estimation indicates that these stations have a total capacity of approximately 15,000 four-wheelers and 14,000 two-wheelers. Even though these numbers are seemingly small as compared to the overall stock of vehicles in Delhi, the signal it sends to people at large is important. As indicated by several news articles last year, the steep hike in parking rates imposed by DMRC led to almost 40 per cent-50 per cent reduction in the number of vehicles parked, with a majority of the people preferring to travel the whole distance in their personal vehicles rather than taking the Metro and paying additional parking charges.

Another instance where regulations adversely affect the use of Metro service is during Republic Day and Independence Day every year when parking at Metro stations is closed for almost two days.

The point, and which EPCA should also consider while devising mitigation strategies, is that regulations to curb severe air pollution levels should not in any way restrict people from using public transportation. This requires a thorough investigation and understanding of the factors that determine the transport choices of a commuter. Making public transport accessible and hassle-free should be the ultimate aim while aspiring for breathable air during winters.

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