Better, not faster transport: Decarbonising mobility shouldn’t be dysphoric

India needs to rethink if faster transport can be the only solution to changing travel behaviour

By Anannya Das
Published: Monday 03 April 2023
At the same time that 8 million plus cities lost 2.26 million public transport ridership, India added 200 million vehicles. Photo: iStock

What is your vision for decarbonising transport? My vision is a fundamental shift in travel behaviour. Factors like investment in alternative fuel, vehicle technology, electric vehicles and low-emission zones can only come next to bring this vision live.

It takes me around 40 minutes to reach my office in a cab every morning. The same stretch earlier took barely 15 minutes but now can go up to 45 minutes at times. The prime reasons behind this delay are two celebrated infrastructure projects — a metro line construction and a flyover.

I can’t take public transport for the same route because of inadequate services and I can’t access public transport stops because of the absence of adequate infrastructure, which renders it dangerously inaccessible.

Read more: IPCC report: Clap for Kolkata’s public transport

Last month, news headlines were flooded with incoming National and Delhi budget allotments focusing on infrastructure investments. But looking at some of the recent celebrated developments, I often encounter dysphoria. 

Should I be delighted over 28 new flyovers, elevated roads and superfast trains? Or be sad about the declining public transport ridership, inaccessible roads, congestion, and emission levels?

Road and rail infrastructure Investment

The central budgetary allocation for transport infrastructure went up from 2.75 per cent in 2014-15 to 11 per cent in 2023. More than 50,000 kilometres of road network has been added during the period. This is more than double the increase in the last eight years, according to an article by British weekly The Economist. 

Today, 10 operational Vande Bharat superfast trains connect 108 districts in 17 states. And the plan is to launch 500 superfast trains by 2026 to revamp the railway travel experience in the country.

Interestingly, all these new developments promise to cut down travel time by increasing speed — kilometres of lane expansion, highways, expressways and superfast trains.

For instance, Vande Bharat Express moves at a revolutionary speed of 130 km per hour or 81 miles per hour as per locomotive standards. It is 130 mins faster than the next faster train. 

Our country of 1.4 billion people definitely needs improved railway connectivity. But the impact of prioritising high capital-intensive superfast trains to shift travel behaviour and decarbonisation remains a blur.

In fact, in the last decade, Indian railways too saw a 57 per cent decline in passenger trips, to 352 crore journeys in 2022 from 822 crore in 2012. The same period also saw considerable infrastructure development in railways to increase in track length of passenger carriages and wagons.

Read more: The matatus of Nairobi: A necessary bane

Concurrently, India added 200 million vehicles in the last decade, 2012-22. It is 60 per cent of all vehicles that the country has ever registered. For perspective, it took 50 years to add its first 100 million vehicles. 

About two million are EVs, of which a million were added in the financial year 2022-23. India targets to achieve 30 per cent electrification by 2030.

At the current vehicle growth rate, India will register 24 million total vehicles, this accounts to about eight million EVs by 2030 annually. This also means another 200 million vehicles in the next seven years. Are we prepared to absorb its incoming consequence on cities?

The rate of motorisation is faster than ever. And what is alarming is that 97 per cent of these vehicles are also personal vehicles. 

State of public transport 

Almost every policy and guidance framework in the last decade iterates that we need to improve public transport in cities to accommodate the shift in travel behaviour.

The Delhi Budget 2023-24 celebrated an increase in the number of buses from 5,800 to 7,379. At the same time, Delhi buses lost 2.1 million (45 per cent decline) and the metro gained 600,000 passengers in ridership in the last decade. 

I also ran numbers for eight million plus cities with operational bus and metro systems. Guess what I found? Between 2015 and 2020, these cities lost 3.95 million daily bus ridership. During the same period, metros gained only 680,000 daily ridership. 

Effectively, this is an aggregated decline of 2.26 million public transport passengers from only eight cities. A reverse shift. 

As a logical deduction, this reverse shift can be accredited to the high growth in personal vehicles.

So, why are metro systems failing to capture this demand in cities despite uninterrupted funding? Maybe the cities don’t need metro rail; it needs improved bus systems to absorb the demand. 

All 14 metros have not met the projected demand, yet 30 more are being constructed or planned.

This brings us to the question — are we going to build high capital-intensive metro systems without financial viability? Or can we take steps to align some funding strategies to strengthen bus networks and infrastructure to improve accessibility in cities?

Funding for road and rail infrastructure has increased and so has personal vehicle ownership, congestion and emission. Indian railways saw a decline in passengers. And effectively, all metropolitan cities have witnessed a reverse shift of captive public transport ridership. 

Read more: How accessible, connected is Delhi? Not much, says new CSE study

Neither road nor rail expansion can solve this paradigm and standalone EV adoption can’t fix this either. A reverse shift in travel behaviour is a consequence of mis-aligned priorities, a diluted road map and more.

It is not the debate of equal funding for equal importance. But 

  • to assess whether the funds are meeting appropriate goals. 
  • to identify the right objectives that can actually lead the country to its decarbonisation targets 
  • rethink whether only increasing ‘speed’ can change travel behaviour in the country. 

If we fail to address the real challenges in this paradigm, we are collectively losing the battle. We are only moving further away from ‘problem-solving’ strategies in the roadmap for decarbonising transport. Conclusively, the most crucial challenge is pinpointing the right problem in the paradox.

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