The biggest challenge that confronts cities today is the intractable problem of automobile dependence. As the automobile dependence continues to grow, it is adversely affecting the quality of urban life. Congestion, unsafe roads and pollution remain their bane. Unless accompanied by policies to restrict the growth in car and motorised two-wheeler travel, cities will run hard only to stand still.
Despite a very small minority using cars in cities, the available road space and transport-related investments are getting locked up only to cater to them. Public transport, bicycles and pedestrian facilities used by the vast urban majority, especially the urban poor, remain neglected. The poor end up paying an enormous cost for their travel, while car users do not even pay the full cost of car travel. Indian cities, in fact, penalise public transport with higher taxes compared to personal vehicles.
At its root lies the failure of public transport in cities. Only about eight of the 35 Indian cities, which have a population exceeding one million, have dedicated, effective bus services. Smaller cities are even more constrained. Despite the odds, public transport in a few big metros does meet exceptionally high travel demands. But governments do not have any policy to protect and increase this captive ridership.
Building up the public transport agenda with an appropriate mix of improved bus systems and rapid transit systems (either bus- or rail-based) will present a daunting challenge in Indian cities. While massive capacities have been created to deploy resource-intensive rail-based systems that very few cities can afford, there is no example of more cost-effective bus-based rapid transit systems. An even bigger hurdle is the lack of means to generate funds for public transport. The existing transit agencies are in a moribund state, and there is no coherent public transport policy to guide and regulate private investments for quality services. Without fundamental reforms, public transport cannot be leveraged to address the crisis.
The regulators must recognise that there are cities around the world which have shown that with travel demand management policies, it is possible to reverse automobile dependence. Congestion pricing, parking levers, land use changes, and car-free movements are among the wide range of strategies available that can reduce car use. Regulators need to be convinced that mobility management does not restrict mobility, but increases sustainable travel options for each trip, and reduces travel by personal vehicles. Cities can choose to have more sustainable transportation system if they choose to change their transportation priorities.
Air pollution is the fifth largest killer and seventh biggest illness burden in India as estimated by the Global Burden of Disease (GBD) report. The speed at which urban air pollution is growing across our cities is alarming. Severe particulate pollution and newer pollutants like nitrogen oxides, ozone and air toxics are worsening the public health challenge. Vehicles are a special challenge as these are the fastest growing sources of air pollution. Vehicles emit close to our breathing zone and contribute significantly to human exposure.