Friday, September 07, 2007

Do we have a Transport policy???

A few days back, I came across Karan Thapar’s interview with Ratan Tata in CNBC TV-18. Among the various issues that were discussed, one of them was the Tata’s 1 lakh car. Ratan Tata was confident that they would be able to deliver the Rs 1 lakh car by mid-2008; a few more months to go before the world’s cheapest car hits the roads.

The showroom price may not be one lakh but somewhere in the range of 1.2-1.3 lakh, nevertheless, it still beats the lowest price in India by a huge margin. The Maruti 800 sells at about 2.3 lakhs while even its second hand model (with 2 years usage) comes at about 1.5 at least.

As a business model, it makes perfect sense to launch such a low priced car targeting a segment waiting to indulge itself. The Indian car industry is growing at more than 15 percent compounded annually since 2001 and we are expected to be one of the top 10 countries in terms of vehicle sales by 2015.

Anyway, I’m looking at this post not in terms of the business strategy of Tata Motors but in terms of the larger picture of how we commute in urban centres. Whenever I try to picture city life, the first images that strike my mind are traffic congestion, pollution and chaos.

When I moved out of Mumbai (16 months back) and came to Hyderabad, I was expecting a saner city but now, I have given up on that idea. The idea of a clean, organized city remains a mirage – sometimes, it takes me more than 2.5 hrs in the evening to commute from my office to home by the company bus (the distance to be covered is about 32 km).

Everyday, as I sit in the bus and look out at the ever bludgeoning traffic, I feel so relieved that I am not subject to the torture of driving to and fro for my work. But imagine, what a 1 lakh car will do – two wheeler houses will start investing in it and you will have many households with multiple cars at home. Can our roads and environment sustain all this?

There are two primary ways that the government can look at handling road congestion – expanding the scope of the public transportation or increasing the roadways in the country. Most governments are hell bent upon ignoring the first strategy (at least in most cases) and are going full throttle on the latter one. While expansion of road infrastructure is required, will it solve the problem?

More roads will mean more automobiles on the road, strangling whatever public space is still available. Ask a Hyderabadi the pain involved in navigating through Ameerpet and finding parking space there.

Funnily, the only solution that a government can think of is towing vehicles instead of regulating uncontrolled construction. Public transportation as a policy is notoriously under debated, primarily because we live under the fallacy that everything that is private is perfect and government should be avoided as much as possible. To ensure free flow of traffic, we need to evolve a combination of strategies, including discouraging citizens from using their own vehicles.

What can an efficient public transportation system do? Very clearly, reduce the traffic congestion problem and lower the health hazards that we face after being dumped with tons of carbon monoxide – a visible manifestation of the booming economy. The system should provide a credible alternative that encourages people to move from the comfort and convenience of their vehicles to the public transportation system.

The Hyderabad MMTS provides the comfort but no convenience (very few trains and poor connectivity to the city) while it works the other way for the Mumbai local trains (good connectivity and frequency but zero passenger comfort). From whatever I have heard, Delhi, has got this balance right.

The concept of a Metro Rail that a few governments in India are floating is a step in the right direction. It is a non-polluting medium and can help immensely reducing traffic (Thailand has seen a 4% reduction in traffic after introducing trains in the city).

Hopefully, the gestation time of the projects will not be too high otherwise by the time the first train rolls out; our traffic would have seen a quantum leap. Moreover, during the entire period of the project, the traffic could be badly affected; the Project mangers would have to tread carefully to prevent the chaos from spurting further out of bounds.

One very important thing that needs to be done is to have an integrated transportation policy and not just a rail policy. One of the main criticisms of the MMTS system in Hyderabad is its poor connectivity with the state’s road transport system – something that could have been learned from the successful model in Mumbai.

I take a train from Secunderabad to Lingampally station (to commute to my office) but there is hardly any connectivity from the station to the rest of the city. Why would people want to pay hefty rates and travel by autos from the station when bus transport is so much easier?

The AP government is finally implementing a long delayed proposal of having a combined pass for railways and buses in the city. This would clearly help passengers who have to otherwise take a ticket separately for the MMTS system. But there is more required to be done in terms of infrastructure building. Frequency needs to be increased and connectivity issues need to be addressed to enable more and more people to use these systems.

Any traveller who arrives in Singapore the first time will be able to commute his way through easily because of the user-friendly approach of the government in having clear signals, sign boards everywhere. Contrast this with the confusion in Dadar in determining on which platforms the Western and Central Line trains arrive. This might seem a pretty innocuous point but these small steps do go a long way in easing congestion.

There could be other ways to tackle commutation woes as tried out in London and Singapore. London has tried a harsh £8 congestion charge for motoring through some areas such as Central London while Singapore has not only a peak-hour tax but also a surcharge on the sale of automobiles (a step clearly out of favour with the automobile industry and other ancillary industries). However, the point to be noted is that they have a robust rail network to get the city moving and no such measure can be taken in isolation.

Our consumption rates are increasing dramatically but can the Indian infrastructure handle all this???


  1. Thats a great post!
    Thought provoking..

  2. Hi,

    Nice work!

    Just adding another solution that could relieve us of these choked roads!

    You might have noticed when you were here in Hyd that the traffic in the mornings flow towards the Hitec and in the evenings the other way. I too have to commute an hr and a half, sometimes two to commute from home to office and back. How I wish eachday the bus could jump the divider to the empty road which is for the other direction and zip across.

    Concentration of the office hubs in
    Hyderabad, Hitec area, must come down. Secbad must also have it fair share of offices. That way, the flow of traffic will be well distributed on both sides!

    What say?? :)


    PS: BTW it was me from your previous company who had posted a comment on your article - the one on your farewell mail.

  3. Thanks, Aarthi..Agree on the locational concentration in the city. The issue was always of urban planning and not to do with the number of cars on our road. London has a four times greater car density than Delhi but the city remains much smoother than Delhi!!! Urban infrastructural planning needs greater importance than what has been given so far.

    Thanks for shedding the anonomity; always better to know whom you are talking too...