The Hindu Business Line
Missing the trees for the woods
Our civic planners can think big, but miss the details. Our metro rail systems are a case in point
There are shiny, air-conditioned and arguably world-class metro trains operating in 10 Indian cities as we speak. Delhi, Gurgaon, Mumbai, Bengaluru, Hyderabad, Kochi, Kolkata, Chennai, Jaipur and Lucknow all boast of running metros. Nagpur, Navi Mumbai, Noida (outside of the bit reached by Delhi Metro), Ahmedabad/Gandhinagar and Pune are likely to start soon.
Of those operational, I have managed to travel in nine (Lucknow is still on my bucket list). They are all uniformly great. The stations are modern, the rolling stock is modern, the ticketing and passenger control systems are modern, the passenger information systems are modern and all of them operate with a degree of efficiency and disciplined adherence to schedule which is unheard of in any other mass transportation system in India, including aviation.
Yet, none of them have come close to solving the fundamental problem for which they were built at such trouble, hardship and expense — of providing an affordable, comfortable and end-toend solution for the urban commuter. Although metro ridership has grown, particularly in cities like Delhi-NCR where the network has been operational longer and is also much bigger (Delhi has more than half of the 600-odd kilometres of operational metro lines), it has still not managed to visibly impact congestion on the streets.
Despite Delhi Metro carrying over 2.2 million passengers daily, Delhi’s streets continue to be choked with traffic and the city suffers from massive vehicular pollution.
The same is true of Bengaluru’s Namma Metro, which is closing in on the half a million passengers per day mark but has not even dented traffic. Chennai’s two metro lines languish, with services reaching near capacity only for a short period during peak hours.
The fare factor
Why is this happening? Affordability is a big issue. While most Indian metros are reasonably priced given their service quality, in absolute terms, they are still pricey. A study by the Centre for Science and Environment found that Delhi metro, for instance, was the second most expensive among nine global cities, for a ride of 10 km.
The metros themselves, many with private sector participation, simply cannot afford to price their services cheaper, given the humungous investments going into them.
Currently, various cities are together spending a staggering ₹2.68 lakh crore on building metros. Unlike a bus system, where the cost of roads are not counted, metros have to pay for everything — land, tracks and rolling stock. Add to this the additional costs of building them either on elevated tracks or underground tunnels and you have a situation where no amount of amortisation can lead to affordable pricing.
Affordability is one of the key issues leading to low ridership in Chennai, Kochi and Hyderabad. Delhi Metro, after two rounds of fare hikes in 2017 and 2018, has seen average ridership fall by nearly half a million passengers per day (it has made up the numbers by opening new lines after the fare hike).
Last mile connectivity is the other Built at great expense, the metro rails suffer from last-mile connectivity and high-fare issues
big problem. All our metros, without exception, have been conceptualised, built and are being run as stand-alone operations, with little or no linkage to the existing public transport systems. While reaching from one end of a metro line to the other is a zip, reaching the metro station or one’s final destination at the arrival point, is not.
Connecting the last mile
While one can find a bus stop near or around a metro station, the bus route network itself, designed before the metro came along, does not act as a feeder service, reaching commuters to metro stations, ferrying them into the surrounding commercial or residential areas the commuters actually want to reach.
This ‘last mile’ connectivity is left, in most cases, to the vagaries of private enterprise.
The options range form pricey cab hailing services to fare gouging autorickshaws, or ramshackle and unsafe (but admittedly cheap) ‘para transport’ like shared autos, tempos and (in Delhi), cheap, Chinese electric rickshaws. Multi-modal transport is a myth — although Delhi
Metro has launched an interoperable card, most DTC buses don’t have card readers.
This lack of attention to detail at the planning stage is visible everywhere. While Delhi is better in this respect, almost all the other city metros do not have any dedicated parking spaces at all. So long distance, park and ride commuting simply doesn’t work.
The relatively new Lucknow Metro is a classic example. In 2015, while announcing plans, Lucknow Metro said a “feeder bus service” was “key”. That is yet to happen. The Pune-based Kinetic Green does offer a feeder e-rickshaw service, but it has only 19 rickshaws for the 21-station network The story is the same in almost all other cities. Safety is another big issue, particularly for women travellers outside daylight hours.
Some wisdom appears to have dawned — albeit belatedly — but once again, the focus is on the wrong places, and the wrong solutions. Bengaluru, Hyderabad and Kochi, for instance, have announced “hackathons” to crack the connectivity problem, but this is
not a problem that an app can fix. Well-meaning “solutions” like share bicycles simply do not work in our overcrowded city streets, where cycling or even walking is a high-risk sport.
One needs to go back to the drawing board, and look for basic solutions. Here, Mumbai’s century-old suburban rail network offers a great example of what integrated planning can achieve. The system’s three lines together carry 8 million passengers per day, and the city bus system, which is designed as feeder service in all suburban stations outside the downtown area, does most of the heavy lifting in providing this last mile connectivity. But then, the basic system was designed by the British before independence!
Metros are the latest aspirational toy for our politicians — and I daresay, our people, since the billions being spent on them are not being questioned by anyone as to outcomes. But unless we fix the basis ‘A’s — affordability and accessibility — these shiny symbols of ‘progress’ will have done little to alleviate the problems of the average urban commuter