By Rajesh Mehta & Ishita Chauhan
Impact on public transport
Public transport in India has always been a fragmented sector and mostly takes into account just the bus/metro operations that are managed by public authorities directly or via private operators. These organizations largely remain cash strapped and are barely able to meet the mobility needs of the people fully. To make matters worse, the COVID-19 pandemic has further impacted their ridership. With over a year of devastation due to this, public transport amongst most other subsectors has been most badly affected with ridership figures falling by 50-90% worldwide. As country after country went under lockdowns, public transport around the world suffered the most. For the sake of safety, individual travel again gained popularity over group travel. Essentially, COVID resulted in taking the “mass” out of a mass transport system.
As India starts unlocking after a ravaging second wave the public transport authorities now will have to gradually reopen operations expecting lesser ridership (following social distancing norms), reduced services, restrictions, reduced staff, improved hygiene conditions and all of this with depleted cashflows. Adding insult to injury, the social impact on users, who will have a change in demand for mobility options like reduced travel and preference over personal transport. While the authorities may wish to revise their fares to meet their increased expenses, the user on the other hand will be deterred further away due to this. This catch-22 situation will result in derelict services and could severely push back India’s efforts in meeting its Sustainable Development Goal of improved public transport reliance.
As a part of their bailout plan, the UK has allocated nearly £4 billion for Transport for London (TfL) to help it sustain all transport operations in these trying times. Meanwhile, countries like France, Germany and Poland have come out with stimulus packages that heavily focus on green mobility options like cycling and electric vehicles/buses. Most of these countries have therefore taken this as an opportunity to release large grants alongside pushing for reforms in transport that will take them closer to their respective SDGs.
While most developed nations of the world have been quick to announce bailout or stimulus packages for their respective transport systems, India may not have that option. India’s financial priorities will remain focused on restructuring other critical areas. It thus becomes important for the transport sector to look inwards and switch to a more sustainable model which makes it self reliant financially and also tries to inch closer to its long term environmental commitments. Reforming the transport sector should aim to promote a more sustainable ecosystem for a good quality and reliable transport system that doesn’t just focus on public transport alone but is more inclusive in nature and addresses all aspects of mobility.
Time for decisive action
Service Standards: Establishing a baseline level of services, so that uniform service standards exist across all regions. State regulated mobility option for all shouldn’t be a privilege anymore and should fall as a basic right.
Financing: Alternatives for generating funds from diversified use of vacant and unused transport use land shouldn’t be left as a suggestion anymore and should be made mandatory.
Existing taxes and violation fees collected from a region should go straight into the Regional Urban Transport Fund to be used for the welfare and upkeep of the systems instead of getting siphoned off for diversified use.
Green Transport: Incentives for transport authorities and private operators for switching to green fuels like Compressed Natural Gas (CNG) or Liquified Natural Gas (LNG) should be encouraged for existing as well as new fleet specifically in the freight sector.
Reliance on electric vehicles for private as well as public mobility needs to be encouraged in a big way and efforts must be made towards establishing appropriate support infrastructure evenly across the country.
Non motorized transport: Walking is the predominant mode of travel for all and should be compulsorily included in all aspects of town and country planning.
To reintroduce the habit of bicycling for routine use, locally inspired solutions must be favoured over foreign concepts. Efforts should be made to provide a bicycle friendly ecosystem in urban and rural areas by means of mandating dedicated lanes and incentivizing the public.
Transport as a system: Enough has been said in the past about the need for a unified body to oversee all aspects of urban transport at the city level. It is now time for firm action towards this front so that transport doesn’t remain fragmented and is addressed in whole for better management.
With the virus temporarily weaning off from livelihoods, the lifestyle of people stands altered with a somewhat modified demand for travel and living. However, the key question remains: would things go back to business as usual or will the user demands remain altered permanently. Nevertheless, it cannot be denied that disruption in a business-as-usual scenario can be made to act as a catalyst for shift towards a more sustainable living. Governments must now take charge of this opportunity and prevent the pre-crisis way of life from returning by firm and decisive actions.
(Rajesh Mehta is a Leading International Consultant and Columnist working on Market Entry, Innovation & Public Policy. Ishita Chauhan is an Urban Planner and has worked with organizations like the World Bank and Institute of Urban Transport. Views expressed are personal and do not reflect the official position or policy of the Financial Express Online.)