Experts of urban development have a crucial parameter when it comes to ranking cities on the liveability index. It isn’t the per-capita income or power consumption per household or even the average life span of the residents. Rather, it is the quality of the existing public transport network that determines the magnitude of a city’s good fortunes and its general worth. Some of the top European cities have realised that, which is why we see the authorities in, say, Paris or Amsterdam, laying extra emphasis on upgrading and continually modernising their public transport infrastructures.
A sprawling urban metropolis like Delhi surely deserves nothing less than that. But on the contrary, our national capital is known worldwide for all the wrong reasons. It is ranked as one of the most polluted cities globally, and one can’t overemphasise enough the link between a working public transportation grid and clean, breathable air.
Earlier this year, the state government put in place “emergency measures” to curb air pollution. The odd-even scheme — based on a model that has been tried off and on in Paris, among other places — has now been implemented on Delhi roads not once but twice within a short span of six months. Yet, experts of urban mobility believe, reasonably enough, that short-term measures can’t yield long-term solutions.
Amit Bhatt is the director of integrated transport at the World Resources Institute (WRI) India, an NGO that works around urban transport issues in Delhi and NCR. He tells Guardian 20: “Introducing CNG vehicles on the road did help reduce air pollution. But we must remember that the sale of car sales in the city is still very high and unless that is controlled, there can be no way out of this mess. Cities like Shanghai have a lawful limit as to the number of cars a person can own, while in London people have to pay a congestion tax before bringing their cars into the city. Delhi needs something like this to control the number of cars running on the roads.”
The next logical step, once you restrict the sale and entry of cars in a city, is to provide people with viable alternatives. In other words, Delhi needs to put in place a comprehensive public transport grid. “What we really need,” Bhatt continues, “is an integrated and highly effective public transport system that helps people reach their desired destinations on time, and on a budget. Our Metro system is world class but what we are missing is a good network of buses, proper pedestrian walkways, dedicated lanes for cyclists. And all this together would have a big impact on the use of private vehicles in the city.”
“Introducing CNG vehicles on the road did help reduce air pollution. But we must remember that the sale of car sales in the city is still very high and unless that is controlled, there can be no way out of this mess. Cities like Shanghai have a lawful limit as to the number of cars a person can own.”
Before we address the hows, we must look into the whys of the problem. Why do people in this city prefer to use cars rather than avail of the many benefits and obvious conveniences offered by the Metro or by Delhi’s finest, the DTC service? It all seems to simply boil down to the number game. There aren’t as many buses on the road as there ought to be. WRI says that there are currently some 4,000 DTC buses on Delhi roads, which is clearly a small number compared to the kind of ridership figures the DTC service can clock every day. In response to this shortage, a recent government has directed the DTC to have a minimum of 5,500 buses in active service. So we can expect more buses in Delhi in the coming months.
“In spite of the fact that the standard fare for DTC buses has not been raised for the past seven years, people still find it expensive. The high fuel efficiencies of motorbikes bring the per kilometre cost to around 50 paisa, adding to the convenience that one gets with personal vehicles,” says Dr R.S. Minhas, deputy chief general manager, public relations, DTC.
There’s one more issue with the existing DTC service: it doesn’t cover all the routes frequented by the city’s residents. Parts of the NCR, for instance, still remain off limits to DTC buses. “The local transport is a state matter, so buses from Delhi need permits to operate in Gurgoan, Noida, Fraidabad, Ghaziabad, etc., and vice versa. Which makes it difficult to provide an efficient, comfortable and reliable service within the NCR. What we really need is a body that can look at the NCR as a whole and not as different cities falling in different states in close proximity,” adds Dr Minhas.
WRI India has also proposed something similar. “What Delhi really needs,” says Amit Bhatt of WRI, “is a Metropolitan Public Transport Department, which has a jurisdiction over the NCR and controls all the aspects of public transport, from Metro to buses to the making of pedestrian walkways and dedicated lanes for cyclists. Creating a new flyover or widening the roads is not an answer but making the existing infrastructure capable of managing the increasing load of traffic is.”
All the answers, however, aren’t going to come from the government and administrators. Urban development requires an active citizenry, just as it needs an efficient and willing government machinery. How can the residents of Delhi, in their personal capacity, contribute to the betterment of the city’s transportation web? One way is to encourage friends and family to use public transport as and when possible, and to lead by example.
The Gurgoan-based software firm Nagarro is doing a lot in this regard. “On 22 September 2015, a car-free day was organised here, and the entire company went carless. All our employees either used public transport of bicycles to come to work including our CEO,” says Megha Jha, the company’s spokesperson. “Since then we have implemented several policies to promote the use of public transport and bicycles. We have free and reserved parking for people who carpool, while we charge for parking on car-free days.”
Nagarro also has around 50 bicycles at their Gurgoan facility, and another 15 at their Jaipur office, which the employees can use free of charge to commute within and between their office complexes. “We also provide free pick-up and drop facility to the nearest metro station to our employees. And we have a lot of bus aggregators that help us provide a safe mode of transport to the employees,” Jha adds.
“What Delhi really needs is a Metropolitan Public Transport Department, which has a jurisdiction over the NCR and controls all the aspects of public transport, from Metro to buses to the making of pedestrian walkways and dedicated lanes for cyclists.”
And it’s not just the corporate players who are beginning to wake up to the seriousness of this issue. One keeps coming across inspiring example of individuals who are trying to make a difference. The Mexican Ambassador to India, Melba Pria, uses an auto rickshaw to commute around the city, despite having a fleet of swanky cars and SUVs at her disposal.
“I wanted an original idea to promote my country among all sorts of Indian people,” Pria tells Guardian 20, “not just the ones that might attend our art exhibitions. Moreover, I was looking for ways to tackle the Delhi traffic and reduce my carbon footprint. I thought about it a lot while I was stuck in traffic. The auto has proved to be an efficient and compact vehicle. It runs on CNG so it is less polluting than a regular four-wheeler. I get concerned about the air quality, as although I may be profoundly Mexican, today Delhi is my community. Both Delhi and Mexico City, along with other major capitals of the world, share a geographic location that impacts the effect of air pollution on daily life. Mexico City has been implementing policies for better air quality for decades now and its experience has been linked to the expansion of the metro system and the creation of alternative transportation that can help ease the dependence on personal motorised vehicles. Indians must be aware that air pollution is a complex issue that requires long-term solutions and that improvement will require a huge amount of commitment from its citizens. However, the effort will be worth it because what we do now will determine our quality of life 20 years from now.”
So if influential diplomats can do their bit for the climate, why can’t we the people?
The good news is that more Delhi’s public transport scene is set to be augmented further. The Delhi Metro Rail Corporation (DMRC) plans to add another 100km to their existing Metro network across the NCR, meaning adding many more new riders to the already substantial ridership figure of 2.7 million a day. The point of contention here is the appeal that DMRC made for a long-overdue fare hike. “We are working non-stop towards providing the people of Delhi with a world class mode of travel. The metro has not revised its fare for the last seven years. Though we do have a committee now which will pass a ruling on the matter soon for our input costs have increased massively now,” says Anuj Dayal, spokesperson, DMRC.
Dayal adds: “We are making the Noida Metro for the Noida Metro Authority along with further increasing the length of the Rapid Metro in Gurgoan. So there is a lot going on to cater to the cities’ rising needs. All we need is for the people to realise the importance of a clean and pollution-free city.”