Inadequate Urban Transportation Facilities Leave the Poor in India High and Dry

The haphazard and unplanned growth of Indian cities has led to a severe crisis in terms of urban mobility, resulting in congestion, vehicular pollution, and road accidents. Compounding the problem of urban mobility, a pitiable public transportation system has severely affected the poor in accessing avenues of education, employment, among others.   


India has been urbanising at a rapid pace. As per the estimates of 2011, 31.14% of the population lives in cities and towns, up from 25.73% in 1991 (MoHUA 2019). About 43% of the revenue in India’s gross domestic product (GDP) is generated by 100 most populous cities in the country, emphasising the significance of urbanisation for the economy. However, our cities are also the places where distortions of the development are reproduced. 

Rapid urbanisation and the policy landscape around it have had a profound impact on the way urban transportation has evolved in the country. The common characteristic of the urban development in India has been the growth of urban areas outside municipality boundaries, resulting in sprawls and unplanned growth. Rather than being proactive, our planning institutions tend to plan for infrastructure and services retrospectively (Shirgaokar 2014). Due to increasing sprawls, rapid motorisation, and lopsided urban transportation policymaking, urban mobility has become increasingly disadvantageous for the urban poor. Cities have thus become an exclusive space for the “elite and white-collar workforce” (IIHS 2012; IIHS 2015; Batra 2009). 

While the overall mobility has improved over the years, due to the high sprawl, the accessibility for various services for most city dwellers has gone down, and so has the overall speed in terms of vehicular traffic on roads (Pojani and Stead 2017; Pucher and Lefèvre 1996). Add to it the “metropolitan bias” that is integral to urban transportation policymaking and municipal funding, urban mobility in India has been going through a crisis. Congestion, vehicular pollution, and road accidents are some of the extreme outcomes of this crisis. These extreme outcomes have been turning our cities increasingly into an inequitable space, making it difficult for the poor to access avenues of employment, education, among other facilities (Khan 2014; Samanta 2017; Pucher et al 2005; IIHS 2015). 

This article aims to give an overview of the urban transportation in India with a particular focus on equity aspects at the two levels: first, the intracity impact of the transportation policies on various groups of citizens; and second, the glaring manner in which one class of cities (particularly, metropolitan cities) gets priority over the smaller cities and towns in terms of investments, policies, and the public discourse. 

The article highlights the relationship between the transportation modes and the urban forms, and how congestion is not merely restricted to big cities, but rather many smaller cities are more congested than metros. 

The article then discusses the salient features of urban transportation in smaller cities, and how poor citizens live and commute in urban India. There is an inherent bias towards motorised transport, which is discussed next, and it is followed by a section on why India has not seen any form of resistance pertaining to urban issues. The paper concludes with two case studies. The World Bank-funded Mumbai Urban Transport Project (MUTP) will be discussed to highlight the dynamics of transport policymaking in a metro city. The second case study is about the state of transportation in Ranchi, and how the city has been symbolic of what is wrong with the non-metro cities in India when it comes to transport planning and policies. 

The author has relied on existing literature on urban transportation, reports from official agencies, like the World Bank, and his personal experience of having worked in the field of urban transportation in Mumbai for the last eight years, and his frequent stays in Ranchi. Semi-structured interviews with citizens and officials (from the field) were conducted in Mumbai and Ranchi during the course of writing this article.[1]

Transportation Modes and Urbanisation

The motorised personal modes of transport (cars and two-wheelers) constitute 85% of vehicles on roads, and yet they form just 29% of overall trips in India (IIHS 2012). Public transportation services account for 27% in urban areas, but with larger cities like Mumbai, it goes up to 44%, and it is 57% for Kolkata (IIHS 2012; MoHUA 2019). 

Urban public transport is mainly used by city dwellers who may be employed in the formal sector, and hence they can afford the fare (Rathi 2017). Buses are the predominant form of public transport.  Yet, these services have been generally bad, and the poor have been finding it difficult to afford, even though, most often, fares are heavily subsidised. Almost 40% of people in urban areas either walk or use bicycles (Badami and Haider 2007).  

Urban congestion has been a common phenomenon on Indian roads, primarily because various kinds of vehicles move at different speeds, and there does not exist any appreciable degree of separation of lanes for different modes of transportation (Badami 2005). Traffic for the most part of the day on Indian roads is generally slow, and it is not because of the high volume of vehicular traffic, but due to “low uncongested mobility.” This applies not just to the metro cities but also to small- and medium-sized cities (Abhishek 2018; World Bank 2018). The fundamental reason behind higher congestion in our cities, even though we have far lower vehicle ownership, is due to the fact that infrastructure planning for urban transportation is hardly demand-driven, and rather, it is “based on political decisions” (Ahmad and A Puppim de Oliveira 2016). 

While government policies continue to promote haphazard urbanisation, it has concurrently led to a major reduction in the non-motorised transport (NMT) usage (IIHS 2015). Cities with lower per capita income tend to have a higher bicycling share as a mode of transportation (Mahadevia 2008). However, these cities are most vulnerable to losing their share of walking and cycling modes as they do not have a well-developed public transportation system, unlike big cities. Increasing congestion in the cities creates a vicious cycle, particularly for cities where buses constitute a major mode of public transportation, as service delays stemming from bus operators force commuters to shift from buses to personal modes of transportation (like, two-wheelers). This further exacerbates the problem of traffic congestion on urban roads (IIHS 2015). 

Some of the widely employed methods to ease congestion on roads have been through the laying of new roads, building flyovers, among others, which have only contributed to increasing congestion and sprawl in the urban areas (Rathi 2017; Gogoi 2013; Gupta 2014). In some cases, they have created extremely inequitable car-only facilities. A case in point is that of Bandra–Worli Sea Link, which does not allow pedestrians, cyclists, two-wheelers, and auto-rickshaws. The attempts to ensure that infrastructure for motorised transport is adequate have demonstrated that they are bound to fail, as the supply has not been able to match the rising urbanisation in India. As a matter of fact, these newly developed infrastructural facilities have found to benefit higher-income road users (Heymann and Barrera 2013).

Urban Transportation in Non-metro Cities

It is the small- and medium-sized cities where urbanisation has been taking place rapidly compared to the metropolitan cities. These cities, owing to the less developed transportation infrastructure, have been facing bigger challenges. About half of urban India lives in smaller towns and cities, which have less than half a million population (Ahmad and A Puppim de Oliveira 2016). A large urban population in these towns live in slums and informal settlements so that their average travelling distance, for work and other purposes, is less than five kilometres a day (Tiwari 2013). 

With the absence of a well-developed public transportation system, it is no wonder that motorised two-wheeler growth has been higher in the hinterland than in major cities. Due to the absence of government policies to address this issue, increased motorisation has been leading to a far higher congestion in the towns, with their road network incapable of absorbing the rise in the vehicular traffic. The level of congestion in smaller cities can be estimated from the fact that six of the 20 slowest cities in India do not feature in the list of top 100 cities by population globally. To put things in perspective, Bhagalpur in Bihar, with a population of just 0.4 million, is slower than Chennai, which has a population of 8.7 million (World Bank 2018; Abhishek 2018). 

As per Badami and Haider (2007), buses are the most cost-effective mode of public transport, and they should be promoted in these cities, as urban rail is economically not viable. Mohan (1997) and Badami (2005) clarify that metro and rail-based modes of public transportation are too expensive for the poor (Mohan 1997; Badami 2005). 

The Impact of Haphazard Urbanisation on the Poor  

Increasing urbanisation comes with its own challenges. Despite rising income levels, urbanisation has always been associated with urban poverty. In Delhi, more than half of the city’s population lives in slums, and same is the case with Mumbai. The poor tend to live as close to their workplace as possible to keep their commuting distance short and to minimise transportation costs (Tiwari 2002; Badami 2005). They live mostly in unplanned settlements, generally in slums. 

Most of the urban poor cannot even afford the most inexpensive motorised vehicles, and yet, they bear the maximum brunt of the externalities associated with the motorised transportation, resulting in road accidents and vehicular emissions. Although India has far less number of motor vehicles than the United States (US), its traffic casualties are far more, which proves that the negative impact of motor vehicles in India (and other developing countries) is far more than what it is in the developed world (Badami 2005). 

Inequity in Urban Transportation 

When it comes to smaller cities, public-run bus services are either unavailable or else the capacity of the authorities to address issues with the system is severely restricted compared to the metropolitan cities. This seems to be majorly due to the growth in the personal motorised vehicles, and the concurrent reduction of other modes of transport, like cycling and the use of three wheelers. 

The presence of a viable and cheap bus system does not solve all the problems. For poor households, even the normal bus fares are beyond their reach (Goel and Tiwari 2016). A majority of these households are the ones who commute either by walking or bicycling, and hence, the absence of a dedicated pedestrian and cycling infrastructure leads to the exclusion of a majority of these city dwellers who are in any way compelled to walk or use bicycle, even though the city does not invest in developing these modes of transportation (World Bank 2005). 
Most of the gap in the first- and last-mile connectivity in big cities, and the absence of public transportation in medium-sized and smaller cities, is filled by para-transit (Rathi 2017; Embarq 2011). They are generally cheap and used by city dwellers for travelling short distances. However, the regulatory mechanism governing para-transit has been generally too weak, vague, and partially enforced where they exist, which makes them unsafe and results in environment pollution (Embarq 2011). The quality of their services varies from one city to another and from one part to another within the same city. 

Mumbai Urban Transport Project: A Missed Opportunity for Pedestrians and Cyclists

Suburban rail in Mumbai, which has been termed as the city’s lifeline, and used by more than eight million commuters daily, also happens to be the cheapest mode of public transport in the city. Yet, it has been accorded a low priority, and hence, it has not been well integrated with the other modes of transport. More importantly, there is a poor first- and last-mile connectivity (Rathi 2017; Ravibabu and Sree 2014). Even though efforts have been underway for the last five years, an integrated ticketing system linking suburban railway with the public bus transport (and with metro rail and monorail) has not been successful. 

The World Bank-funded MUTP is, probably, the most ambitious project for the modernisation and the upgradation of urban mobility in Mumbai. It started in 2002, and till date, two phases have already been implemented, and the third phase is in progress. Till date, more than $1,400 million has been spent primarily on the upgradation of the suburban train system, and some funds in phase I have also been spent on the upgradation of the bus system. 

One of the major objectives of the project has been to decongest Mumbai suburban railways. However, the congestion in the trains could not be brought down as per the targets set under the MUTP 1 or MUTP 2. The Independent Evaluation Group (IEG), the entity responsible for assessing the impact of various projects funded by the World Bank, termed the project as “moderately satisfactory” as the demands increased more than increased capacity.

More than its failure in reducing congestion, what is intriguing is the manner in which infrastructure for pedestrians and cyclists has been totally ignored in the project. The first phase of the project did have some plans for traffic crossings for pedestrians, however, all but two were dropped from the plan, along with cutbacks on many other fronts, due to restructuring of the loan owing to the delays in the implementation of the project (World Bank 2016; Agarwal 2011). That a mega urban transport improvement project of worth $642.96 million could not plan substantial funds for improving facilities for pedestrians and cyclists speaks volumes about the inherent inequity in the urban transportation landscape in India (Abhishek 2019). 

Ranchi: A Case of Misplaced Priorities

Ranchi is a medium-sized city with a population of 1.46 million, which grew by 30% between 2001 and 2011. Use of personalised vehicles in the city has been increasing at a rapid pace. This has resulted in increasing congestion in the city’s central areas, even though only 22% of the total trips in the city are made using personal motorised vehicles. About 44% of trips are by walking or on bicycles, even though less than 1% of the road network has sidewalks for pedestrians (ITDP 2015). The city is the country’s 17th slowest city, even though it stands in 38th position in terms of population, and it “faces acute public-transport deficiencies” (World Bank 2018; Census 2011).

The development of public transport in the city has had a chequered history. In 2009–10, under Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JNNURM), a total of 70 buses were procured for Ranchi. These new buses were grounded for almost a year as the state government could not find bidders for operating them. These buses were then handed over to the state’s tourism department, which began operations by contracting out each bus to a group of four to five individuals. The delayed start and the subsequent unusual contractual agreements (involving multiple individuals as a single entity) for each bus for operations have reflected the lack of previous experience on the part of the state government to run intra-city buses. 

Within three years, problems of maintenance and other issues, including route planning and fares, came to the fore, and one after the other these buses were surrendered to the government by the operators. Regular operations ceased from mid-2013 until the end of 2014. In early 2015, 65 of the 70 buses were repaired and handed over to the Ranchi Municipal Corporation (RMC). Of the remaining five buses, four were beyond repair and the fifth one got damaged in a fire accident. Of the 65 buses, a total of 51 buses were made fit to operate and were contracted out to a private entity for operations for two years. By the time this contract expired, another set of 26 new buses (smaller buses with 26 seaters) had been procured. The old JNNURM buses (all 65 of them) too were made fit for operations, and a single contract for the running of all the 91 buses (65 old and 26 new ones) was given to a new entity. As per the contract the buses were to be operated on three identified routes, and the contractor had to pay Rs 250 per bus per day for old buses and Rs 451 per bus per day for new ones. The new contractor found it difficult to run all the buses, and 25 buses were given to another contractor on the same terms and conditions (though his route was the one where passenger demand was fairly high). However, the new contract was mired in problems from the beginning, and in due course, there were payment defaults and other issues that led to the annulment of the contract. Re-tendering failed for nine times as no contractor came forward, and all the buses had remained grounded during 2017–18 for almost eight to nine months.

Another effort to restart the buses was initiated, and this time, the RMC gave buses to individual drivers at a daily rate of Rs 251 per bus. The drivers were to ply these buses on two nominated routes—22 buses (including two buses designated for women commuters) on Kutchery–Rajendra Chowk route and 25 buses on Dhurwa–Kantatoli route. This has been the model on which government buses have been operating till date in the city.    

As is evident in the above section, smaller cities have been left to fend for themselves and it all comes to the tenacity of the city officials and the state administration if they wish to have a robust public bus transport system. After the initial support by the urban development ministry (previously Ministry of Urban Affairs, now Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs [MoHUA]) through the JNNURM project, it appears that the priorities of the ministry have shifted from bus to big-ticket projects, like metro rails and Bus Rapid Transport System (BRTS). Post JNNURM, there has been no large scale support system to support public bus projects under MoHUA. 

Auto rickshaws have been the mainstay of transportation in the city. However, in the absence of a uniform policy and enforcement mechanism, the city has a surfeit of auto rickshaws. There are about 2,300 road transport authority (RTA) authorised and more than 18,000 unauthorised auto-rickshaws plying in the city (based on authors’ discussion with the city officials in May 2020; the data represents status as in September 2019), and most ply on already congested routes having maximum number of passengers. Various attempts to regulate them with measures such as, route nomination, quick response (QR) code, and coloured passes, among others, have not been successful. 

The development and regulation of cycle rickshaws too, during recent years, has not been smooth. In 2017, the RMC came up with a scheme to promote e-rickshaws and a total of 65 e-rickshaws were given to the erstwhile manual rickshaw pullers at 90% subsidy. In due course when the costs of e-rickshaws came down, contractors entered the sector and there came a time when one person owned as many as 40 to 50 e-rickshaws. There has been an exponential increase in the registration of these e-rickshaws from 2017–18 onwards. Attempts have been made to regulate them too, by identifying 29 routes and rationally putting a cap on the maximum number that could run on each route, but they have not been successful, owing to problems in the enforcement.    

With all the above issues and shortcomings in the city’s mobility, it is pertinent to point out that that the city administration should have invested more in cheap, efficient, and robust bus services, and with an adequate focus on developing integrated bike lanes and pedestrian networks, and a fairly regulated para-transit on feeder routes. 

Instead, the state administration has planned for a monorail, which would be funded by Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA), even though it has been demonstrated that the only operational monorail system in the country is in Mumbai, which also has been termed as a “costly failure” (Dey and Mazumdar 2015). However, the project has been rejected by the central government on technical grounds and a new plan for metro rail has been developed, and it is expected to start its operations from 2021 (Telegraph 2019). Currently, the city’s public transportation needs are primarily met by para-transit system (ITDP 2015) and by the government city buses on the main routes.

The Road Ahead

As per Tiwari (2013), bus transport is required in every city irrespective of its size, as metros, owing to issues, like coverage and affordability, can only satisfy a limited clientele. Even in the best-case scenario for metros and buses, half of the journey would still be done by walking, cycling, or by relying on rickshaws. Therefore, the public bus transportation system has to be a priority in urban mobility planning.  

Even with its shortcomings, Mumbai, with almost half of its population using public transport, is an example of how higher economic growth does not mean more dependence on the personal motorised transport, and it shows how interventions and policies impact what travelling options people have in a city (Roychowdhury and Dubey 2018). 

Ranchi, as a city, exemplifies how urban mobility tends to get complicated even in smaller non-metro cities if priorities are not made as per the needs. A comparison of these two cities also brings home the point that smaller cities are more prone to negative externalities of faulty urban transport planning than the big cities, even though it is the big cities and metros that get far more importance, be it in terms of funding or transportation planning discourse. Therefore, it is important that transportation planning is done in a manner that prioritises sustainable mobility solutions. This is the only way to make urban mobility equitable and just.

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