Compulsion to Choice: How Can Public Transport in India Be Transformed?

O P Agarwal ( is CEO, World Resources Institute.
29 January 2019

Are public transport systems in India good enough to persuade personal motor vehicle users to use them? If not, what can be done to drive this shift?

Mental stress, coupled with health and safety hazards, has become an everyday reality for urban dwellers. The tension of driving in severe congestion, breathing polluted air, and negotiating the increasing risk of road accidents has taken a toll on their well being. 

In the face of these problems, public policies around the world are emphasising a shift from the use of personal motor vehicles to the use of public transport. India’s National Urban Transport Policy of 2006, China’s State Council Office Directive 64 of December 2012, South Africa’s Public Transport Strategy, 2007, and Colombia’s National Urban Transport Program 2003, are some examples of public policies and programmes that encourage investment in public transport rather than in road widening. The rationale is that, on a per person basis, public transport occupies less road space and consumes less fuel compared to personal motor vehicles, thereby emitting lesser pollutants (Table 1).

Table 1: Per Capita Space Occupied and Fuel Consumed by Different Vehicle Types

Vehicle type

Typical number of passengers

Typical road space occupied (sq m)

Typical fuel consumed (km/litre)

Space occupied per passenger (sq m)

Litres of Fuel consumed/ 1,000 passenger-kms



















Source: Author’s approximate calculations based on size and fuel efficiency mentioned on the company websites for Tata Bus, Maruti 800 car, and Honda Splendor motorbike.

However, for such a shift to take place, public transport systems must offer some of the conveniences that a personal motor vehicle offers. Therefore, the question that arises is whether public transport systems, as they exist in India today, are good enough to persuade personal motor vehicle users to make shift to public transport? If not, what can be done to drive this shift? This article seeks to answer these questions.

Needs of Personal Motor Vehicle Users

People who use personal motor vehicles are essentially looking for the following conveniences: 

1. Door-to-door service, wherein they can move from their immediate point of origin to their destination without the need for transfers

2. On-demand availability, so that they can travel when they want to and are not constrained by the fixed schedules of a public transport system

3. Comfortable rides that assure them a seat and do not require having to jostle with crowds

4. Not having to stand in queues to buy tickets for a bus, train or metro ride

5. Speedy travel

6. Personal safety and security

These commuters are also willing to pay a higher price for these comforts. 

Unfortunately, public transport systems in India are unable to offer these conveniences. They have traditionally been perceived as a mode of transport to meet the travel needs of poorer sections of society, who cannot afford personal motor vehicles and yet require motorised transport to access jobs, education, and other services. Because affordability is the primary focus for these services, they have often been of relatively poor quality. The users have no other option for meeting their travel needs and are willing to walk to a bus stop, wait for an indefinite time to board a crowded bus that is slow and uncomfortable, as long it gets them to their destination. 

These services typically run along fixed routes, according to a timetable. They have fixed stops and predetermined fares. It is essential that public transport systems are redesigned to offer conveniences that are close to what personal vehicles do. 

Emerging Trends

Several emerging trends have the potential to significantly transform the way people will move around in the years to come. Advances in information technology have enabled the emergence of transportation services that allow rides on a taxi or a bus to be booked and information on the fare to be paid made available upfront. As a result, one does not have to wait to flag a taxi on the streets or worry about the driver taking one for a ride all over the city. Often these services also enable a person to share the ride with another passenger and, thereby pay less.

Faced with the increasing difficulty of driving on congested streets and finding parking at their destinations, commuters are taking to these app-based services in a big way. Similar app-based services are now being offered on mini buses as well. These services offer several of the features that personal motor vehicle users desire and would be willing to shift to. Because such services have the potential for meeting the travel demand with fewer vehicles, they are good for any city's administration as they save on the need for parking space, and allow valuable urban land to be allocated for competing demands. Unfortunately, our regulatory systems have not changed with the times and current provisions tend to look at these services with suspicion. These regulations need to be modified. 

Way Forward 

Some initiatives that can help make public transport systems desirable and enable a shift away from personal motor vehicle use have been highlighted below.

Increase the capacity of bus services: The available capacity of public bus services has tended to be lower than required. As a result, buses are infrequent and unable to serve all parts of a city. Unfortunately, there is no scientific benchmark of how many buses a city should have, as it often depends on the shape of the city and how it is organised. Existence of alternative forms of public transport, such as metro rail systems, will also have an impact on the need for buses. However, a comparison across many cities indicates that around 500–700 buses per million people might be a reasonable number (Figure 1). Incidentally, data also shows that, except for Bengaluru, the current capacity in most Indian cities is inadequate. 

It is, therefore, essential that the number of buses be increased in most cities in India. Public funds may not be sufficient to meet these needs. However, the private sector could be tapped to operate premium services, for quality-conscious commuters, without the need for public subsidy. This would not only add to the capacity of the public bus system but also induct the kinds of services that would be attractive to personal motor vehicle users. This is clearly a win–win situation. 

Unfortunately, regulatory constraints are a barrier to this. The current regulations characterise public transport systems in two ways. The first type refers to stage carriages that carry passengers along a route and pick up or drop them at specific stops along that route. The second is contract carriages that are hired by a clearly identifiable group and carry passengers from one point to another, without pick ups or drop offs at intermediate stops.

Several emerging forms of public transport such as Shuttl and ZipGo that can offer valuable and attractive alternatives to personal motor vehicle users do not fall under either of these categories. Hence, they face legal barriers in functioning, even though they are the need of the day. Such services need to become legitimate and in fact, be encouraged. 

People undertake trips for various reasons. For each of these trips, they may prefer different types of transport. For example, when travelling with luggage, they might choose a vehicle that accommodates their bags and allows pick ups and drops closer to their points of origin and destination. While travelling alone, they may choose to share a ride. For long trips, they may want assured seats and faster commuting time. For short rides, they would like easier access without having to take the stairs, or use an escalator or walk to an underground subway. 

To make public transport attractive, it is important that a variety of services exist. Different services may charge different fares, but should be available. Again, the private sector, driven by profit and on the lookout for good business opportunities, is best placed to sense these needs and offer a range of service types. Regulation needs to accommodate this variety and not be limited to only a few choices. 

Increasing speed: A big concern with public transport is that it is slow, thanks to the bulky vehicle size that makes it difficult to negotiate traffic as deftly as smaller automobiles, and the multiple halts it makes to pick up and drop passengers. Vehicle designs that allow quicker boarding and alighting, and road designs that provide a dedicated right-of-way for public transport have been introduced in different parts of the world and need to be emulated in India as well. 

Multimodal Integration: Most large cities have multiple modes of public transport. Among the fixed route, fixed schedule services, metro rail and bus systems are most common. Taxi services as well as auto- and cycle- rickshaws that ply on shorter routes are also common. 

Multimodal integration allows a transfer between different modes of transport to become easy and hassle-free. It plays an important role in promoting the use of public transport, as a commuter’s travel choices are made on the basis of their relative convenience for the entire trip, and not just a segment of that trip.  

A lack of such integration is an important reason for the comparatively low ridership on several metro rail systems in India, compared to those in other countries, despite its high population and relatively lower per capita income (Table 2). 

Table 2: Ridership on Some Indian and International Metro Rail Systems


Route length

Average daily ridership (in thousands)

Ridership per km

























Mumbai line 1




Gurgaon metro




Mumbai monorail












International systems



















New York








Hong Kong








Source: Data for Indian systems compiled from respective metro websites and for international systems from Duddu (2014).

Multimodal integration is critical for the high cost metro systems in India to justify the investments made in them.

Unfortunately, multimodal integration suffers from the barrier of fragmented governance. Different components of the transport system are managed by different entities that do not necessarily coordinate well. For example, in Delhi, the metro system is owned and operated by the Delhi Metro Rail Corporation (DMRC), the bus systems are managed by the Delhi Transport Corporation (DTC) and the Delhi Integrated Multi Modal Transport System (DIMTS), the suburban rail is managed by the Indian Railways and the para-transit system is regulated by the transport department directly. Further, land use and parking facilities are the responsibility of the Delhi Development Authority (DDA) and enforcement rests with the police. 

Improved coordination and integration will be possible only if a single agency plans, monitors and finances the entire public transport network, ideally through structured contracts with private operators.[1] India has so far not been able to establish such an agency. Several global examples, such as Transport for London, the Land Transport Authority in Singapore, and TransLink in Vancouver, provide a clue to how this can be done (Agarwal and Kumar 2013).

The industry structure is also a barrier to good integration. Major public transport systems owned and operated by state-owned authorities are not only high-cost ventures, but often lack customer focus. It is important to recognise that the public sector has a responsibility to make public transport systems available, but it is not necessary for them to also operate such systems. Private operators, on the other hand, would be more efficient in operating the services, but are guided by their profit motive in determining where they offer services. Emerging trends around the world are leveraging the relative strengths of the public and private sectors in modifying the industry structure to one where a public agency determines the services required and contracts them from private operators, through structured contracts, with novel compensation mechanisms that offer a subsidy on loss-making routes and charges a premium on profit-making routes.[2] 

Another barrier to good integration is the lack of open data systems. Integrated systems need to share each other’s operating data to enable better information for operators as well as passengers. However, the reluctance to share data as well as the lack of platforms on which such data can be shared has been a barrier and needs to be removed by making it mandatory for all operators to adhere to an open data protocol. 

Financing: Traditionally, user fees or fares have been the main source of revenue for public transport. Often, they might also receive subsidies from the public budget. However, when the requirement of subsidies exceeds the availability of the public budget, exploring alternative sources becomes necessary. 

In such a situation, bringing about an improvement in quality, especially if more expensive buses are introduced, will mean an increase in costs. If these costs are recovered through user fees, then the services will become unaffordable to the poor. Balancing the quality while ensuring affordability is a tightrope walk. 

Innovative ways of financing, where fares are not the only source of revenue, but non-user beneficiaries are made to pay some portion of the costs, is a way of getting around this challenge. It is being increasingly recognised that users are not the only beneficiaries of public transport.  There are non-user beneficiaries who do not contribute to the services, but benefit from them. Hence, they should pay for them. For example, France levies a transport tax on all employers. This is a percentage of the wage bill of the company. The rationale is that employers benefit from public transport by being able to secure labour for their economic ventures. Another example is of landvalue capture, a way of securing some of the property value gains that people owning property in the vicinity of public transport facilities enjoy. 

Levying non-user beneficiary taxes is today being identified as an important way of finding resources to improve public transport without increasing fares. Other alternatives include commercial exploitation of property at public transport terminals and depots and using the revenues earned to meet a portion on the costs, offering differentiated quality services, wherein premium services function on the principle of full-cost recovery from fares and basic services are subsidised from the public budget, and so on. 

Summing Up 

Systems of shared, connected, electric, and autonomous mobility enabled by information technology systems, are changing the way transport systems are being planned, financed, and managed world over. They are promising an efficient, low carbon, and equitable future in the mobility sector.  

In the Indian context, on-demand, shared models like taxi aggregators like Ola and Uber are offering carpool services. Bus aggregators like Shuttl and Commut are offering on-demand bus services in several cities. Dockless bicycle sharing pilots are emerging. The Bangalore Metropolitan Transport Corporation and Kochi Metro Rail Limited have opened up their vehicle-tracking data. They have also partnered with banks and set up open-access payment cards. Other modes providing last-mile services can now easily get on to these interoperable platforms. 

The distinction between public and private transport is blurring today. Conveniences like on-demand availability, origin-to-destination travel, comfort, and safety are becoming available in public transport, generating appeal among the personal motor vehicle user. In addition, these systems save the user the hassles of driving on congested roads and looking for parking space. 

With such advancement, it might just be possible to imagine a future where people understand mobility as a service and access public transport as and when they need it. This would be much like people procuring a seat in an airplane or a train (without having to own the airplane or train) while travelling long distances. Clearly, these changes will be challenging, but good policy making and political will can go a long way in making public transport the preferred mode of choice for commuters in India.


O P Agarwal ( is CEO, World Resources Institute.
29 January 2019