Indian roads belong to motorised vehicles, not cyclists or pedestrians

Vehicular emissions cannot be reduced without strengthening the public transport system

By Usman Nasim, Vivek Chattopadhyay
Last Updated: Tuesday 06 November 2018
Air pollution
Credit: Vikas Choudhary Credit: Vikas Choudhary

India has planned its cities in such a way that while motorised vehicles rule the roads, pedestrians, cyclists, and users of public transport face an existential crisis. Emissions reduction by improving fuel and vehicle technology is surely a welcome move, but it cannot ensure sustainability in transport.

In 2017, India switched to Bharat Stage IV norms and by 2020, it will switch to Bharat Stage VI norms. The Centre’s vision for electrification of all transport modes will be implemented sooner or later, but India hardly considers the role, for instance, bicyclists can play in emissions reduction. While bicycles are a zero emission mode, buses and cars contribute 33 per cent and 31 per cent of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions respectively (see ‘Emissions scenario: An indicative assessment’). However, buses carry 58 per cent of all passengers while cars only 4 per cent.

Although two-wheelers form the majority of motorised vehicles on Indian roads, the number of two-wheelers is the same as the number of households owning bicycles, about 111 million. Thus, it is imperative to protect and plan for sustainable modes of transport. The failure to do so can lead to all bicyclists switching to two-wheelers, which will increase emissions by 20 per cent. Of the total commuters who use road-based transport modes (cars, two-wheeler, bus and bicycle), cars and two-wheelers carry only 20 per cent. However, their combined share of CO2 emissions is as high as 50 per cent. Although bicycle users are thrice the number of car users, the government spends much more to facilitate car based travel. The current scenario itself shows what the future will be if we were not able to curtail the number of cars and two-wheelers.

Source: CSE, Census 2011, CPCB/ARAI study

The number of registered motor vehicles in the country has increased 700 times, from 0.3 million in 1951 to 210 million in 2015 (see ‘Total number of registered motor vehicles’). From 2005 to 2015, vehicles in India grew at a Compound Annual Growth Rate (CAGR) of 9.8 per cent. As of March 2015, the total number registered two-wheelers increased eight times since 1951. While the share of two-wheelers was 73.5 per cent, the share of four-wheelers was 13.6 per cent. Buses constituted 1 per cent and goods vehicles 4.4 per cent of the total registered motor vehicles. The share of other vehicles, which include tractors, trailers, three-wheelers (passenger/Light Motor Vehicles (LMVs) and miscellaneous vehicles increased from 1.3 per cent in 1951 to 7.5 per cent in 2014-15. Even the average speed on India’s roads is declining as roads have become more congested. The number of registered vehicles for every 100 km of road witnessed an increase from 1,630 in 2001 to 3,861 in 2015, or by 137 per cent (see ‘Registered vehicles per 100 km of road space’,).

Worrying motorisation rate

The number of vehicles per 1,000 persons increased from eight in 1981 to 167 in 2015. However, as compared to developed countries, the total motor vehicle penetration in India is low. In contrast, the penetration of two-wheelers in developing countries is higher than the developed countries. Developed countries, such as Germany and the US, have car penetration rates (car/1,000 persons) higher by factors of about 7 and 5 to that of China and by factors of 29 and 19 to that of India, respectively. However, in India and a few other developing countries, the penetration level of two-wheelers is much higher compared to developed countries (see ‘Vehicle ownership among developed and developing nations’).

Clearly the motorisation rate poses a worrying scenario at such low level of vehicle ownership. It is up for anyone to imagine the implications if Indian vehicle ownership comes close to that of developed nations’.

According to the Society of Indian Automobile Manufacturers (SIAM), more than 25 million vehicles, including passenger, commercial vehicles, three and two-wheelers, were produced in India in 2016-17 alone. This was at a growth of 5.41 per cent than the previous year. One important fact to note is that 2016-17 saw an increase of 24 per cent in the number of vehicles manufactured from 2011-12. Similarly, the sale of automobiles witnessed the same scenario. A total of almost 22 million vehicles have been sold in India in 2016-17, a growth rate of 6.81 per cent as opposed to 2.49 per cent in 2012-13 (see ‘Production of automobiles in India’ and ‘Sale of automobiles in India’).

No space for pedestrians and bicyclists

A city’s design influences the way people commute. The compact design of Indian cities allows people to access jobs and services within short distances. More than half the travel trips in most Indian cities are within a five-km distance. Indian cities still have a high share of walking and cycling (see ‘Mode of travel to work in major million plus population Indian cities’). Since cities have begun to sprawl, priority is given to infrastructure for motor vehicles, fencing buildings and complexes, cutting off direct access and increasing distances. Some cities even actively discourage using cycles and rickshaws. This can compromise the use of public transport, increase dependence on personal vehicles, and destroy public spaces. Only a handful of cities have started to reclaim space from cars, design walkways and cycle paths for people, and link them with public transport nodes. The steps are small but certain.

Even today, the share of trips by walking in Indian cities is as high as 16-57 per cent depending on the size of the city. Delhi has the highest number of cycle trips and Mumbai has the highest number of walking trips. Although cars meet less than 10 per cent of the travel demand of Kolkata, the city has banned bicycles on 174 roads to make way for cars. On the other hand, Gangtok, Sikkim is freeing up roads from vehicles, and water taxis are a hot topic in Srinagar, Jammu & Kashmir. Besides, Nainital in Uttarakhand has cycle-rickshaw service and Imphal, Manipur has come up with bamboo cycles to promote clean transport modes.

Is public transport keeping up?

Public transport has to change to keep up with the times. The question is how cities are reinventing public transport to make it convenient, affordable and attractive for all. A turnaround is possible if cities find more alternatives to cars. Of all the options available, buses are the prime movers of people in cities and meet 40-60 per cent of the travel demand in cities with organised bus services.

Buses are integrated formally or informally in cities of different sizes. The bigger the cities, the more formal and organised their bus services are; in smaller cities, the arrangement is more informal. Bigger cities are also looking at high-end mass transit options, such as bus rapid transit (BRT) systems and metro rail. The success of any public transport depends on its ability to retain commuters who are already using public transport and bringing back those who have moved to personal vehicles.

The most common public transport in cities is the bus service. This assessment focuses on this primary means of public transport and, where relevant, its interface with other mass transit systems evolving in a few cities. Buses are expected to play a crucial role in the mobility transition in both big and medium-sized cities. Buses allow greater flexibility, greater geographical coverage and accessibility, cost-effective travel and space efficiency. New bus routings can flexibly and easily meet the needs of people across the city. They can cover areas with lower population density and travel demand. A bus occupies twice the road space taken by a car and carries 40 times the number of passengers. It saves fuel and causes less pollution per passenger. The Paris-based International Energy Agency estimates that the bus can displace anywhere between five to 50 other vehicles and allows enormous oil and pollution savings. In India, depending on the size of the city, bus-based public transport contributes only three per cent to 21 per cent of heat-trapping carbon dioxide emissions. Two-wheelers, cars and jeeps account for 60-90 per cent of these emissions and meet much less share of the travel demand.

Several cities are setting ambitious targets to improve the share of public transport ridership by 2020. The Delhi Master Plan 2021 targets 80 per cent; the Pune city mobility plan aims for 80 per cent; Kolkata 90 per cent; and Hyderabad targets 75 per cent by 2021. Bus ridership is expected to provide the bulk of this increase. In Delhi, Rail India Technical and Economic Services estimates that conventional buses along with BRT can help achieve at least 73 per cent of the target. This change is possible only with well managed, well organised and well integrated modern buses that deliver efficient public transport services at affordable rates. But there is an enormous deficit in buses and bus services in most cities. We need to rebuild bus fleets and reform the system, so that it can deliver quality services and help change commuting practices in cities. It is time to take stock of what has worked, and what has not worked, in cities and the principles that must guide policy action on bus transport.

Decline in bus fleet

There has been a steady decline in the average bus fleet in four of the seven cities studied by the Ministry of Road Transport and Highways. A February 2016 report by the ministry on the performance of road transport undertakings for passenger services, shows that Delhi, Mumbai, Ahmedabad and Kolkata saw a continuous reduction in their bus fleets. In Delh, the reduction was 14 per cent, shows the report (see ‘Trend of average bus fleet’). This is surprising as Delhi’s Master Plan aims at achieving a public transport share of 80 per cent. The decline in bus numbers also reflects the impact on passengers (see ‘Trend of the total passengers carried by buses’).

Need for non-motorised transport

Census 2011 shows that the share of people using non-motorised transport modes, such as walking and cycling in Indian cities is very high. Only the average share of non-motorised transport in the modal share in selected cities—Kolkata, Lucknow, Delhi, Ahmedabad, Banglore, Chennai, Pune, Mumbai and Hyderabad—is 30 per cent (see ‘Mode of travel to work in major million plus population Indian cities’).

Cities need street design guidelines to ensure convenience of pedestrians and cyclists. The Indian Road Congress guidelines have been reformed and the national guidelines designed under the National Habitat Standards for Transportation outlined, from that perspective. The guidelines emphasise the need to keep pedestrians at grade, and ensure appropriate height and width of footpaths, frequent and safe crossing facilities, dense street network, and places for vending and facilities. But these are not mandatory and not the basis of approval for urban projects, yet.

Lack of green fiscal steps

Tracking city actions based on fiscal policies on vehicles, fuels and transportation is challenging. Only a few have taken small steps to integrate green principles—to design taxes for influencing the choices of transportation modes, vehicle technology and behaviour. Efforts have been made to identify any policy steps taken, conventional or non-conventional, which reflects any of the outlined principles. The government formulates different strategies to restraint the number of increasing vehicles in any city. Measures discussed here are fiscal strategies, such as taxes on motor vehicles, and fuels and parking.

Vehicle and fuel taxes in cities

A range of Central and state taxes cascades down on vehicles. A Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) review of incidence of motor vehicle taxation imposed by the state governments under the Central Motor Vehicle Act and Rules, 2014, shows a wide variation in tax incidence across states. Almost all the states and Union Territories governments are taxing personal vehicle such as cars and two-wheelers on life time or one time basis. On the contrary, efficient public transport modes, such as buses, are taxed annually and in some cities quarterly.

Few cities have taken green fiscal steps to tax the bad and fund the good. The principles of correcting taxes, applying polluters-pay and users-pay principles, or using innovative fiscal mechanisms are not yet the mainstream policy. A few small and tentative steps indicate the direction and potential for change.

Eliminate free parking by introducing effective parking charges

By convention, a parking policy is always expected to satisfy the growing demand for parking space. Cities are trying desperately to meet this demand, without realising any effort to increase parking only leads to higher personal vehicle ownership and usage.

Instead, a parking policy can be designed to reduce demand for parking, restrain car usage, free up public spaces for other public facilities, reduce unnecessary driving and cut down on pollution, congestion and energy guzzling. The National Urban Transport Policy (NUTP) has already highlighted the importance of designing a parking policy as a measure to restrain personal vehicle usage. The transportation reform agenda of the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JNNURM) follows NUTP’s principles on parking. Despite this, policy and public understanding of the parking challenge remains nebulous, even erroneous. It is time to lay bare the crisis of parking.

Cars are aggressively encroaching upon scarce and limited urban space that can have other, more important uses. Depending on the size of the city and rate of motorisation, the increase in number of cars creates an additional annual demand for land for parking that can be as big as 471 football fields in Delhi, 100 in Chennai, 58 in Chandigarh, or 30 in Bhubaneswar. Surveys in key commercial areas in Indian cities indicate that personal vehicles occupy more than 85 per cent of the parking area. Buses take up barely 4 to 5 per cent of the total equivalent car space of parking spaces, but carry 20 times more people.

There is no evidence to show unlimited parking solves on-road congestion. In fact, many European and US cities are moving away from supply-driven strategies to demand management practices. More parking spaces attract more cars and induce more traffic and congestion—even as they push people away from the use of public transport, para-transport and non-motorised modes.

It is ironical that car users pay nothing or pay a minuscule amount for using valuable public space. Studies show that Delhi and other Indian cities have the lowest parking charges in the world (see ‘Daily parking charges in cities across the globe’). Census shows that households owing bicycles have increased marginally as compared with two and four-wheelers. Households that owned a bicycle increased from 43.7 per cent (84 million households) in 2001 to 44.8 per cent (111 million households) in 2011, or by just 1.1 per cent (see ‘Percentage of households owning a bicycle in India’). On the other hand, households owning a two-wheeler increased almost twice, from 11.7 per cent in 2001 to 21 per cent in 2011. The same is the case with four-wheelers. Their share increased from 2.5 per cent in 2001 to 4.7 per cent in 2011. A comparison with China indicates that almost every household in rural China owns a bicycle, as compared to less than 50 per cent households in rural India. China’s urban cycle ownership level is also higher as compared to India.

In 2012–13, India produced nearly 15.5 million bicycles. There has been a moderate average annual growth of 4 per cent in bicycle production in the last five years. An important aspect of bicycle production capacity in India is the dominance of low-value bicycles/standard bicycles, and constitutes nearly 60 per cent of the total production. In 2012–13, about 12 million bicycles were sold in India. Bicycle sales are growing with a moderate growth rate of about 6 per cent over the last five years.

Mobility management for a sustainable future

The need of the hour is to build up the public transport agenda with an appropriate mix of improved bus systems and rapid transit systems, bus- or rail-based, in Indian cities. Without fundamental reforms, public transport cannot be leveraged.

Cities around the world have shown that with travel demand management policies, it is possible to reverse automobile dependence. Congestion pricing, parking levers, land use changes, and car-free movements are some strategies to reduce car use. What regulators need to relearn is that mobility management does not restrict mobility, but increases sustainable travel options for each trip. It does not eliminate automobile travel, but reduces travel by personal vehicles.

The only solution to make cities liveable is ensure effective public transport and safe infrastructure for walkers and cyclists, along with clean para-transit modes (autos, rickshaws) and clean vehicle technology.

(This article was first published in State of India's Environment 2018)

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