The politics of mobility


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A recent study of metro systems in the US, published by researchers at the Brookings Institute, concludes that: ‘The demand for rail has continued to shrink because transit networks are unable to keep up with changing land use and travel patterns that have decentralized residences and employment. Indeed, less than 10 per cent of the nation’s employment in metropolitan areas is located in old central business districts… Because no policy option exists that would enhance the social desirability of most urban rail transit systems, policy-makers only can be advised to limit the social costs of rail systems by curtailing their expansion… Unfortunately, transit systems have been able to evolve because their supporters have sold them as an antidote to the social costs associated with automobile travel, in spite of strong evidence to the contrary. As long as rail transit continues to be erroneously viewed in this way by the public, it will continue to be an increasing drain on social welfare.’1

Despite the publication of numerous such studies and the reluctance of international funding organizations to fund metro, light rail and monorail systems in India, every city in the country wants to build one.2 Evidently the urban elite, contractors and politicians support these demands.

Similarly, though the negative health and social effects of elevated roads and flyovers have been documented with some precision the world over (see article by Carlos Dora in this issue), this knowledge seems to have no effect on policy-makers in India. It is interesting that no elevated roads or flyovers were allowed to be built in any European city over the past fifteen years, yet Indian and other Asian cities persist in investing large amounts of money on infrastructure with dubious long-term benefits.

Many explain this by putting all the blame on the contractor-politician nexus. But this would not be fair. The fact is that most urban planners and consultants are also ignorant of the modern scientific evidence on these issues. And this is not likely to change in a hurry unless our academic institutions establish centres of excellence to work on complex urban problems, including transport. Such efforts are necessary if we want to keep track of new developments nationally and internationally.


The expansion in higher education and trade has some correlation with size of cities and urbanisation. The more ‘educated’ we are, the larger the pool of resources we need both for work and human contact. Therefore, a large city becomes essential for a reasonable section of the population for finding ‘optimal’ employment and friends. Equally, trade and industry needs a large pool to select employees. This forces low-income cities (LICs) to become larger than high-income cities (HICs). This is because LICs have a much larger proportion of poor people as compared to those in HICs. So, the same numbers of professionals in a LIC coexist with a much larger number of poorer residents than that in a HIC. The existence of large numbers of low income people pursuing informal trade and income generating activities places political pressures on the rulers, and increases demand for low cost mobility and short distance access to jobs and trade.


The demands of the poor are often offset by the middle and upper classes wanting to live away from the poor and form gated communities at the periphery of the city. These developments set up a parallel but more powerful political demand, aided and abetted by contractors and consultants to provide infrastructure. The Indian upper middle class looks upon the USA as a model of the good life. No wonder all our cities have tried to introduce hard zoning policies, and encouraged construction of wide roads and other facilities for a car based life. Luckily, not all plan provisions have materialised and our cities have grown more organically, partly due to the forces of electoral democracy.

Illegal settlements, illegal trade and the informal sector have shaped our cities to develop organically and in a more sustainable manner. The poor live closer to work, spend more time at home and arguably have better family life and stability. They don’t need public transport to the same degree as those living on the periphery of cities. Consequently, cities in India are human scale, and potentially sustainable and liveable. For this reason the politics of sustainable transport will revolve around the power that poorer sections of the population can exert on decision-making. Wherever the lower income groups are able to get themselves heard we are more likely to have more sustainable cities as they will need facilities for walking, bicycling and public transport closer to place of work and shopping and leisure activities around their homes. This will influence what sustainable cities will look like in the future. The upper classes are unlikely to do it willingly.


Most large HICs grew to their present size between 1850 and 1950. This was a period in which ideas of the welfare state were accepted by the intellectuals, large proportion of politicians and the working classes as ideologies of choice. This influenced location of schools, living arrangements and provision of public transport as a public responsibility. However, city growth in most LICs has not been strongly influenced by these ideologies in a comprehensive manner over the past two decades, thus favouring the provision of facilities to the upper class and the car.

Public transport facilities in the ‘mature’ HICs (like London, Paris, Amsterdam, New York) were initiated in the second half of the 19th century. Since this was well before the advent of the car, everyone, including the middle classes, had to use public transport or walk/bicycle to get to work. Though car ownership started increasing in the 1920s, most families did not own one until the middle of the 20th century.

By then the essential land use and transportation patterns of large cities in Europe with large central business districts (CBD) were well set. At one level, this encouraged building of high capacity grade separated metro systems, and in turn, the transport system encouraged densification of CBDs so that large numbers of people could be transported to the centre of the city. The non-availability of the car to the middle class decided the widespread use of public transport and city form. On the other hand, car ownership increased much faster in the US and so many cities like Houston and Los Angeles did not develop dense CBDs and so faced little political pressure to provide for public transport.


All Indian cities expanded after 1960 and planned for multiple business districts as opposed to a CBD. The past two decades have also seen a high growth in motorcycle ownership. As a result, about 50% of Delhi’s families own a car or a motorcycle at a very low per capita income level of about US$ 1,200 per year. Such high levels of private vehicle ownership did not appear in Europe at such low incomes and they continued to evolve cities with strong centres until fairly recently. In contrast, all Indian cities have evolved with weak centres and most new development has taken place on the periphery. Consequently, Indian cities will need public transport facilities very different to those established in the HICs in the first half of the 20th century.

The Indian decision-makers who visit cities like Paris, London or New York and want to copy their underground (or elevated) metro systems do so out of context. They forget that those systems succeed to the extent they do only because those cities have the old settlement patterns where a large number of people have to travel toward the centre. Since these patterns of living and working will not be duplicated in modern Indian cities, any metro built here is likely to be grossly underutilised. What Indian cities need instead are systems that operate on every road and go from everywhere to everywhere, instead of converging toward the centre.


Most middle class families in HICs did not own air-conditioned cars with stereo systems before 1970. The cars were not only noisy, occupants were exposed to traffic fumes as windows had to be kept open. Under such conditions, the train was much more comfortable and generated a middle class created political demand for metro systems which could not be ignored. On the other hand, brand new, quiet, stereo-equipped, air-conditioned cars are being sold in India at prices as low as Rs 300,000 and used ones for half the price. This has made it possible for the middle class first time car owner to travel in cars with comfort levels the Europeans had not experienced till the late 20th century.

Air-conditioned, comfortable, safe and quiet travel in cars with music in hot and tropical climates cannot be easily matched by public transport. Evidently, such vehicle owners would rather live in congestion than brave the hot climate on walking access trips and the jostling in public transport. If public transport is to be made more appealing, it has to come closer to home than underground or elevated systems can, reduce walking distances and be very predictable. These conditions would favour high density networks, lower capacity surface transport systems (to reduce walking distances) with predictable arrival and departure times aided by modern information systems.

Similarly, HICs never experienced wide ownership of two-wheelers. This is a new phenomenon, especially in Asia. The efficiency of two-wheelers – ease of parking, high manoeuvrability, overtaking in congested traffic, and low operating costs make them very popular in spite of travel being very hazardous. Easy availability of two-wheelers has further reduced the middle class demand for public transport. In addition it has put a low limit on the fare levels that can be charged by public transport operators. It appears that public transport cannot attract these road users who can afford two-wheelers unless the fare is less than the marginal cost of using one. At current prices this amounts to less than one rupee per kilometre. It is difficult to operate any clean public transport system at this fare, certainly not elevated or underground systems. The only option available is to design very cost efficient surface transport systems.


In 2001, there were 36 cities in India with a population of over a million. This number is likely to increase significantly in the next couple of decades. Three of these have populations in excess of 10 million and another two may soon join them. Another five to eight cities may reach populations of 5-10 million. Therefore, it is necessary to plan for providing efficient access and mobility to citizens of a large number of cities and not just to those in the national capital or a few state capitals. This makes it imperative that the role of external subsidy be minimized and plans developed that are locally sustainable.

We know from global experience that access needs (as opposed to mobility patterns) remain similar across cities of different sizes and populations. Basically, during the peak period, every worker and student needs to get to work and school/college using one trip each. Since transport needs have to worked out for the peak period, one can safely assume that needs per person over time do not change. What may change is the modes used, and this can be influenced by policy.

Since travel time budget remains the same for most people, a majority of trip distances change not so by change in city size, but by change of mode. People spend similar amounts of time going to work whether by car, walking or bicycling. If more facilities are provided for fast transport and walking/bicycling made unsafe, it is likely that people will tend to live further from work. However, it is interesting that even today a majority of trips in Mumbai, Delhi and Chennai are less than five kilometres.3 This should make it easier for us to plan for the future.


In all Indian cities development is taking place on the periphery, and since Indian cities have been planned as poly-nuclear ones, it is unlikely that any city will ever develop a large and dense CBD employing a million people. If this is so, no Indian city, today or in the future, will be able to feed a high capacity mass transit system.4 It is for this reason that the two metro systems built in India have not been able to attract a sufficient number of passengers. The metro in Kolkata is carrying only 10% of the number of passengers that was projected when the project was sanctioned.5

The Delhi Metro project too was sanctioned on the basis of projections that it would carry 2.2 million passengers per day on the completion of phase I in December 2005. However, on completion it attracted only 0.4 million passengers a day (3-4% of all trips in Delhi) after an expenditure of Rs 120,000 million on the infrastructure. This amounts to a subsidy of about Rs 30,000-40,000 per person per year on cost of capital alone. The Delhi Metro Rail Corporation (DMRC) had also claimed that on completion of the project there would be 2,500 fewer buses on the road, significantly reducing both pollution and road accidents. In fact all three have increased, with the DMRC itself adding more feeder buses. Therefore, the project has not delivered on any of its claimed benefits.


This is not surprising. It is the same story in other LICs. Elevated or underground high capacity systems are justified on the basis of peak carrying capacities of 50,000 to 60,000 passengers per hour per direction (pphpd). But like Delhi and Kolkata, the Bangkok subway is operating at peak loads of only 15,000-20,000 pphpd, the Kuala Lumpur metro at 10,000 pphpd, and Mexico City with 201 km of metro rail, though the cheapest in the world, carries only 14% of trips. It is quite clear that cities that have developed after the 1950s and have multiple business districts will never support very high capacity metro systems, either in terms of passenger loads or financial viability. Therefore, all metro projects planned in India will end up as financial disasters at the expense of the public exchequer!

International evidence suggests that with modern communication systems, smart card ticketing, GPS, intelligent transport technologies and computer optimisation techniques, it has become possible to adequately serve urban transport needs with modern bus rapid transit (BRT).6 BRT systems need a segregated lane for buses that reduces friction with other road users. Such lanes can be accommodated on roads of different widths as one can arrange one-way or two-way systems. The accompanying photograph shows the introduction of dedicated bus lanes in the middle of boulevard Montparnasse in the centre of Paris. These bus systems have the following advantages:

* BRT systems can serve the needs of medium sized cities all the way up to mega cities with a dense network of routes going close to passenger homes and destinations.

* BRT systems can easily reach capacities of 20,000 passengers per direction per hour. These capacities are adequate for cities that have multiple business districts and medium rise buildings. Incidentally, special systems like those in Bogota (Columbia) carry as many passengers as metro systems (40,000 pphpd).

* BRT can be implemented at less than one-twentieth the cost of building metro rail transit and light rail systems, typically Rs 5-10 crore per km. BRT systems use existing right-of-way on urban corridors and so the modifications involved do not majorly disrupt the city.

* The main advantage of BRT is its flexibility in meeting changes in the city development and changes in demand in quality and quantity. Expanded or new services can be introduced whenever needed. The BRT does not fix the city structure forever like fixed track systems.

* When road systems are modified for BRT, it results in complete urban renewal as a part of the BRT project. This does not happen in case of rail systems.

* A BRT line can be constructed and opened in 18 months compared to 5-7 years for a metro line. This is a tremendous advantage as efficient public transport becomes available before more people buy and get used to personal vehicles.

BRT serves the purpose of being a low cost, at grade, medium capacity public transport system that can be built quickly and in stages. Surface corridors have bus stops on the surface, promote street business development all along the corridor and not only at large metro stations, and provide eyes on the road (bus passengers and staff). This has the result of reducing crime, increasing socialisation, and thus increases in pedestrian and cycling trips. With segregated bus lanes and provision for bicycling, safety improves, further improving the chances of reduction in motor vehicle use.

If it is not easy for city residents to walk, bicycle or use public transport, they would prefer to use private modes of transport. A public transport user is a pedestrian every time she uses a bus. When too many commuters are dependent on motor vehicle use for their essential needs, the system creates a political demand for greater provision of motor vehicle facilities and road space. This in turn makes it difficult for the political system to be harsh on drivers in terms of speed enforcement and controlling drinking and driving. In such a situation, not only do people tend to use motor vehicle for short trips, but also demand facilities that reduce time for long trips. Such conditions serve to increase exposure of people on roads with less than optimal conditions for ensuring road safety. This is why safety on city streets has become a major concern the world over.


Walking and bicycling are the only clean modes of transport available. The use of these modes reduces as incomes rise and cities become unfriendly to these modes when they design roads with only motor vehicles as a priority. People walking and bicycling also need streets safe from crime. Cities will only improve on an aesthetic, humane and human scale if streets include large numbers of people walking and playing safely. Since walking and cycling are essential for use of public transport, streets must be made safe from crime, disabled friendly and include public amenities, such as shops and restaurants. In the Indian situation, street vendors ensure safety from crime, and therefore must be provided space. If we put all the above issues together and plan for sustainable urban transport policies, it is clear that safety from crime and road accidents become a pre-requisite even for planning public transport systems.



1. C. Winston and V. Maheshri, ‘On the Social Desirability of Urban Rail Transit Systems’, Journal of Urban Economics 62(2), 2006, 362-382.

2. R.J. Allport and J.M. Thomson, Study of Mass Rapid Transit in Developing Countries. Transport Research Laboratory, Crowthorne, U.K., Report No. 188, 1990; M. Edwards and R.L. Macket, ‘Developing New Urban Public Transport Systems – An Irrational Decision-Making Process’, Transport Policy 3(4), 1996, 225-239; P. Fouracre, C. Dunkerley and G. Gardner, ‘Mass Rapid Transit Systems For Cities in the Developing World’, Transport Reviews 23(3), 2003, 299-310; S.Y. Phang, ‘Urban Rail Transit PPPs: Survey and Risk Assessment of Recent Strategies’, Transport Policy 14(3), 2007, 214-31; M.A. Ridley, World Bank Experiences With Mass Rapid Transit Projects. The World Bank, Washington D.C., 1995.

3. J. Baker, R. Basu, M. Cropper, S. Lall and A. Takeuchi, Urban Poverty and Transport: The Case of Mumbai. World Bank Policy Research Working Paper 3693. The World Bank, Washington D.C., 2005; G. Tiwari, ‘Urban Transport Priorities – Meeting the Challenge of Socio-economic Diversity in Cities, A Case Study of Delhi, India’, Cities 19(2), 2002, 95-103.

4. Transit, Urban Form, and the Built Environment: A Summary of Knowledge (Volume 1, Part I). TCRP Report 16, Transportation Research Board, National Research Council, National Academy Press, Washington, D.C. 1996; P.W. Daniels, ‘Transport Changes Generated by Decentralized Offices’, Regional Studies 6, 1972, 273-289; W. Cox, ‘The Public Purpose’, A National Journal, 2004,

5. Y.P. Singh, ‘Performance of the Kolkata (Calcutta) Metro Railway’, in X. Godard and I. Fantozoun (eds), Proceedings Conference CODATU X: Urban Mobility for All. A.A. Balkema Publishers, Rotterdam, 2002.

6. L. Fulton, J. Hardy, L. Schipper and A. Golub, Bus Systems for the Future: Attaining Sustainable Transport Worldwide. International Energy Agency, Paris, 2007; World Business Council for Sustainable Development, Mobility 2001: World Mobility at the End of the Twentieth Century and Its Sustainability. WBCSD, c/o E&Y Direct, Geneva, 2001; L. Wright, Bus Rapid Transit, Sustainable Transport: A Sourcebook for Policy-Makers in Developing Cities. DeutscheGesellschaft fur Technische Zusammenarbeit (GTZ) GmbH, Eschborn, 2002.