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

- R SRINIVASAN M VEDHAN

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

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