While the coronavirus pandemic rages on, it’s not as if climate change is taking a break. Once the dust settles, our climatic challenges – together with the need for sustainable growth – will take centerstage once again.
The Indian government itself has its work cut out, especially in those sectors where it’s clear what the state needs to do to ensure India will meet its targets under the Paris Agreement. One of these is urban transport, which contributes about 40% of the end-use energy demand.
Rapid urbanisation and increasing incomes are driving the consumption of durable goods in India. Easy availability of bank loans is pushing up demand for personal motorised mobility, and the subsequent proliferation of private transport increases emissions.
To minimise the use of private transport facilities, major Indian cities have been moving towards a multi-modal urban transport network. Such networks could help integrate different public transport options and provide end to end transportation facilities for the people. Bigger cities like London and Hong Kong as well as Bogota and Medellin in Colombo are host to such networks, developed by connecting the routes of trains, trams, buses, taxis and ferries.
Over the last decade, Indian cities have been trying to build environmentally feasible multi-modal transport systems. Numerous mass rapid transit (MRT) systems like metro rails, bus rapid transit systems (BRTS) and monorails have popped up in Mumbai, Pune, Bengaluru, Hyderabad, etc. However, India remains far from achieving ideal integration of transport systems such as that in Bogota.
For instance, the Hong Kong MRT system has 11 lines spanning around 230 km, and is exceptionally well connected with bus stations, the airport and ferries. The underground MRT station at Sheung Wan lies just below the Hong Kong-Macau ferry terminal, and the ferry terminal is close to two major bus terminals. As a result, three modes of transport are available at distances that can be covered by six minutes of walking.
The idea of implementing a multi-modal system in India gained momentum after the 2019 Union budget was announced. The government proposed a ‘National Transport Card’ to allow commuters to pay for rides across various multiple modes of transport. This was a welcome step to promote public transport, along the lines of Hong Kong’s ‘Octopus card’ first issued in 1997. Today, Octopus cards, can even be used for paying parking fees, tolls, grocery bills and purchases at other retail stores.
Together with providing core facilities in a safe and comfortable manner to commuters, a functional and efficient multi-modal transport system also requires intense planning.
According to the 2011 Census, 53% of the daily work commute in India either involves no travel or travel by foot. Only 17% of the working population uses public transport and 13% uses private two-wheelers. There is ample scope here to convert individual two-wheeler commuters to public transport users.
There are five key aspects to every integrated multi-modal public transport system: the physical side, networks, fares, information and institutions. In India context, network integration has received the least attention. As cities implement a variety of transport systems, it is important to network them such that the commuter can reach their destination as efficiently as possible in terms of fuel consumption and time taken.
Pune, which has been identified as one of India’s ‘Smart Cities’ under the national mission of the same name, the local government has been building metro rails and BRTS at the same time but without capitalising on the opportunity to connect them.
Ideally, a new transport system should be introduced according to the length of the distance traveled. For example, commuters use electric three-wheelers for last-mile travel; the metro or BRTS for short- to medium-distance trips; and railways and flight for longer distances. But adding multiple options to travel the same distance will fail to create an effective transport system, be economically non-viable and will also lead to traffic congestion due to lack of infrastructure, altogether increasing emissions.
Many people in India, including public transit experts and policymakers, acknowledge the need for multi-modal public transportation but misunderstand its structure and purpose to varying degrees. State leaders have tried to simultaneously introduce all-electric modes of transport thinking doing so will push more people to use public transport. However, cities around the world with multi-modal transport facilities have been able to identify that commuters prefer end-to-end destination transport facilities. So the availability of such a network is possibly the only way to up the demand for public transport.
Moreover, introducing electric vehicles as the sole measure of reducing carbon emission oversimplifies a bigger problem. Even if we achieve the ambitious target of going all green by 2030, electric vehicles entail zero tailpipe emission only. A little over 75% of the electricity that these vehicles run on is generated by thermal power plants. So multiple electric vehicles covering the same distance, especially in the narrow roads of major Indian cities, will only cause overcrowding.
India should ensure it doesn’t fall back in the global move towards more efficient public transport systems, especially within and between cities. With systematic planning and integration, it stands to reap great benefits that will help the country meet its climate change goals, or even surpass them.
Oindrila Dey is an assistant professor at the Indian Institute of Foreign Trade (under the Ministry of Commerce). Debalina Chakravarty is an assistant professor at St. Xavier’s University, Kolkata.