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Let's get scalability right

Let's get scalability right

As crowded as our cities are, expensive urban transit systems have so far been more sizzle than steak. On economic, viability and efficiency scales, Optimised Bus Systems (OBS) with dedicated lanes on all major roads are a much more practical solution, says Dr Dinesh Mohan.

International empirical evidence and the Delhi experience indicates that metro rail systems (elevated or underground) have not delivered the goods in terms of passengers carried or social welfare and are unlikely to do so in cities that do not have a very dense and large central business district. For example, the projected ridership per day for Phase 1 of the Delhi Metro (61 km) was 29 lakh in the year 2005. However, they managed to achieve only 6 lakh per day. Phase 2 of the project is almost complete with 150 km in operation, and the current ridership is only 15 lakh per day. This means that the Delhi metro is catering to about six to seven per cent of the total trips per day.

All Indian cities are developing on the periphery, have multiple business districts, and are not suited to fixed line very high capacity rail systems. The demand will never come up to the theoretical capacity of these systems partly because metro rail is not time saving—a vast majority of trips in large Indian cities are less than 10 km. The presence of motorised two-wheelers makes it even more difficult as the marginal cost of travel amounts to less than Rs 1 per km. Public transport cannot charge more than this amount without losing ridership. Therefore, we have to promote an efficient and economical public transport system that has a dense network, is flexible, on the surface and of medium capacity—say, 10,000-15,000 passengers per hour per direction. Underground or elevated rail systems are promoted based on the argument that they can achieve peak loads of 40,000 passengers per hour per direction. The most congested routes in Delhi are peaking at about 15,000 passengers per hour. Obviously, our new urban forms do not need systems with theoretical high capacities.

Optimised bus systems (OBS)

Bus systems with dedicated lanes on all major roads will be able to do this job. And they come with a significantly lower cost. Phase 2 of the Delhi Metro has suffered a cost overrun of 117 per cent. The cost of building elevated rail systems (including monorail and light rail) is around Rs 150 crore per km (at least) and for underground systems Rs 200-250 crore. (In Bangalore, the cost is even higher because of the rocky terrain.) On the other hand, efficient bus systems cost about Rs 5 crore per km. About 20-30 km of OBS can be built for each km of the metro. This cost of the OBS system includes shifting of water and electric services, providing better footpaths and bicycle lanes and installing modern lighting and other road furniture. This happens because when the road layout is altered you get the chance to redevelop the corridor.

So an OBS project ends up being an urban rejuvenation project. Since the metros are underground or elevated they do not have this effect on the ground. If we include the cost of capital for metro systems, the subsidy at current prices amounts to about Rs 30,000 per passenger per year. There is no way any city will be able to afford such a subsidy from its own resources over the long run.

Where Surface OBS is preferable

Large modern cities require surface OBS for the following reasons:

Economic: Public transport on the ground in the form of buses and street cars is cheaper to build, maintain and to operate.
Efficiency: Public transport is one of the most efficient modes with respect to energy consumption, use of space and safety. Therefore, there is no reason to remove it from the road surface.

Accessibility: Elevated or underground public transport loses half or even two-thirds of potential customers compared to street level public transport modes. Further, if public transport is separated from the street level, it becomes necessary to build and operate escalators, lifts, etc. This enhances the costs for construction, maintenance and operation.

Security: The entire transport system on the street level is under public social control and is, therefore, much safer.
Urban economy: Street level public transport is good for urban economy. The experience of European cities shows that replacing street level public transport by underground systems has a negative effect on local shops. Underground or grade separated public transport systems increase both disparities and the need for longer travel.

Structural: Public transport on street levels keep people moving without fundamental changes of urban structures and the system provides flexibility as land use changes. No city in Europe has built an elevated transit system for decades, as it ruins the city aesthetics and fixes spaces that cannot be altered in the future.

Connectivity: Elevated or underground systems provide stations at longer distances (for reasons of cost) as compared to bus systems. This makes commuting more difficult and less attractive.

If walking and bicycling was safer, young people, low income people, and those interested in their health would not waste money on public transport. Public transport is only a part of the access issue, and it’s not even the major one.

The author is Volvo Chair Professor, Transport Research and Injury Prevention Programme, WHO Collaborating Centre, Indian Institute of Technology Delhi, and can be contacted at dmohan@cbme.iitd.ac.in.

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