Mindless metro debate

What is at stake is a discussion on what it would take to make the public transport system of our cities truly the one that moves people, not vehicles. But who is talking? Who is listening?

By Sunita Narain
Last Updated: Friday 21 September 2018

Illustration: Tarique Aziz

To say that public discourse is at its lowest ebb is not saying anything new. All we hear is noise and insult—and it’s getting worse with all sides deciding that the gloves of human decency are off. But what we don’t talk about enough is how this is affecting public policy.

Why this rant? I am really annoyed with the recent developments on the issue of pricing of public transport. Let me explain.

Some months ago, the Union government, specifically the Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs, agreed to increase the fares of the Delhi Metro—the 296 km rail-based public transport system which is today crucial for commuters in the city. The fare increase came after many years and was justified by the Delhi Metro Rail Corporation—the public sector undertaking that builds and runs the system—to make sure that the agency remained in the black.

But this fare increase led to an ugly (and that is an understatement) war of words. The Delhi chief minister—whose government is part owner of the metro system—swung into action, accusing the Central government of destroying public transport. The Union minister defended the fare increase. Politics took over the media space. The end result of this ugliness was that the battle lines were drawn. The Delhi government decided that the Centre was now anti-metro; it is still sitting on files for clearing the next phase of the project. War at its best. We all lose.

This is where my rant gets to its point. My colleagues at the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) decided to understand the costs of urban commute and public transport. Why? Because we are clear that without a massively augmented public transport system, we cannot get the mobility transition that will take us off our private vehicles and without this we cannot get clean air or livable cities.

They found the following. First, that public transport systems—bus or metro—require viability gap funding (subsidy) to ensure that these systems remain within the reach of people. In the case of the Jaipur metro, for instance, the difference between revenue from fare collection and expenditure is Rs 50 per km; in Lucknow, it is Rs 78 per km and in Kochi, it is Rs 28 per km. The same is the case with buses. The question, my colleagues asked: “What is the government’s policy to pay for this difference, and how sustainable is it?” The fact is we do not have a policy, let alone, even a discussion on this matter.

Second, when it comes to Delhi metro, data shows that it is one of the world’s most unaffordable systems. In Delhi, a commuter spends 14 per cent of his/her daily income on an average to travel by the metro; in Hong Kong it is 2.92 per cent; in Beijing it is 5.3 per cent; even London is a little better at 13.4 per cent. This is also because there is a difference between trip and travel costs—what it would cost you to go from one point to another, and this includes the interchanges, the cost of taking an autorickshaw, taxi or other such modes. It is also a fact that without adequate pedestrian infrastructure, these costs go up. If you can’t walk the roughly 2 km distance to take the metro or to your destination, your journey cost is high, and it becomes cheaper to take a private vehicle, a two-wheeler or even a car.

Third, we explained, the issue is not the metro, but the policy for funding public transport. The fare hike, which led to the ugliness, was because the metro needed to increase its revenues to meet the projected higher costs due to repayment of loans and other fixed costs. We asked if this was the right approach? Should these essential public services be expected to meet costs through fare revenues, or should there be increased subsidy or other revenue sources for them? What would allow for these systems to be scaled up, be affordable, convenient and well-run?

But this was too much for public discourse to digest. The Delhi chief minister read the only line that confirmed his position on the fare hike. He used it to attack the metro, once again. The Union minister has responded. But the fact is there is much more to this mud-slinging. What is at stake is a discussion on what it would take to make the public transport system of our cities truly the one that moves people, not vehicles. But who is talking? Who is listening?

(This article was first published in the 16-30th September issue of Down To Earth).

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  • If government does not subsidize the viability gap, metro is unaffordable to middle class and poor people. People would not travel by metro, instead they will use their two wheelers or economic cars. The rich people only will use the metro to cut travelling time. The rich would like to use their cars but they are preferring metro to escape traffic. Looking at all this, it appears that governments are building the metros only for rich people. This is discriminatory, and also not good for environment. Rich people enjoying the metro rides at the cost of pubic money. In hyderabad also, the metro rides are costly and not affordable to common people. Common people use metro for long distances, where it becomes little economical.
    Governments have to build the transport systems for common people. They should fund the viability gap . If not build low cost public transport sysytems like BRTS in Ahmedabad, Electric buses, well maintained pedestrian paths, and cycle paths. I think that metro system at present are not suitable for india becuase they are too costly to build.

    Posted by: Bharat Ratnam | one year ago | Reply
  • Sunita Narain must give up her car like I did more than 5 years ago and use public transport. The issue is not just affordability but also bad planning of Metro Interchange and Metro Stations as well as the bus stops. Had Sunita Narain used the Metro she would have found that the new lines (post Shreedharan) are a compete joke on the passengers as well as harmful to the environment. Whereas Magenta Line crosses Orange line, no interchange is provided. Similarly Pink Line passes below the Green line but again there is no interchange facility, and one wonders why not? The interchange facilities wherever provided are so poorly conceived that has to walk as much a kilometre to interchange between Pink line and Orange Line at Dhaula Kuan, about half a kilometre to interchange between Pink Line and Blue line at Rajouri Garden, and about 300 meters to interchange between Magenta Line & Violet line at Kalkaji Mandir. The bus stops are far away from Metro Stations. And if that was not enough, the Entry/exits to Magenta & Pink Line stations have been surrounded by walls and access made very difficult. Hauz Khas Station Gate no. 4 & Dabri Mor Station Gate no. 1 Station on Magenta Line are such glaring examples of passenger hostile behaviour. Even if this was not enough, there is no mobile network connectivity between Central Secretariat and Kashmere Gate on Violet line, and on the entire underground stretch and Stations of Magenta & Pink Lines. What is even harder to understand is that Delhi Metro consumed public parks & school land to build huge unnecessary overground structures over underground stations of Magenta & Pink lines such as at Hauz Khas, Debri Mor Etc. There is no doubt that Metro requires to be expanded but not in the marker it is being done now.

    Posted by: Amit | one year ago | Reply
  • Well written, and it points to the our inability to see and solve things as systems rather than stand-alone pieces.
    Our administrative institutions break things into pieces and in trying to optimize each piece, mess up the whole.
    In a city, finance, accountability and quality of living should be seen holistically so decisions of housing, transport, infrastructure, job creation etc can be taken in conjunction. Else we find each arm trying to manage it's need and compromising the health of the city as awhole.
    But our academic institutes and abilities of public officials (and private consultants and companies) do not have the ability or training to understand and address complex systems with feedback and delays (we need more people educated in system dynamics and systems thinking), and power struggles and greed means no one really cares about solving anything other than what will earn them money or votes. It's a race to the lowest denominator.
    A strong city-level manager, say like a Mayor's office, is the only thing that has saved other cities in decline. India has to take this call, it's already very late.

    Posted by: Manas Rath | one year ago | Reply
  • It was enlightening to read the editorial about the issues related to Metro and public transport.

    Posted by: Prakash H.R. | one year ago | Reply
  • I don't think it is a fully fair criticism. One has to think about what are the alternatives in the absence of the Metro or what was the situation before it was built. For travelling from home (H) to office (O) if one wants to take metro and for that s/he needs to go to the nearest metro station (M1), take the metro to a station near her/his office (M2) and then commute to the office. Now depending on the distance, the condition of that road from H to M1 and M2 to O, seasonal conditions one can choose appropriate means like walk, bicycle, two wheeler/three wheeler or a feeder bus. However, in the absence of metro the entire journey from H to O has to be by a vehicle, two wheeler, car or bus, which adds to congestion and pollution. At least Metro avoids that and Delhi is lucky to have a viable option compared to the other cities which are growing without bounds and daily commute is an adventure. I think a constructive criticism is what we should make rather than just for the sake of it.

    Posted by: Vinay Deodhar | one year ago | Reply