PUBLIC TRANSPORT

It will take a lot more than cheaper tickets to make Delhi's public ride the bus

The lieutenant governor this month rejected the state government's proposal to slash bus fares to increase ridership, curb air pollution.

Public transport in Delhi was to have been cheaper in 2017 with the Aam Aadmi Party government in December proposing a massive reduction in bus fares for a trial period. Under this proposal, a non-air-conditioned bus user would pay Rs 5 per trip, irrespective of distance, as against Rs 5, Rs 10 and Rs 15 earlier. Similarly, air-conditioned bus users would pay a flat fare of Rs 10 against Rs 10, Rs 15, Rs 20 and Rs 25 earlier. The government also proposed reducing daily pass rates and giving free travel passes to students below the age of 21, widows and senior citizens. All this was an attempt to boost public transport ridership in the city with an aim to reduce the use of private vehicles and thereby, air pollution. However, on January 11, the new lieutenant governor of Delhi, Anil Baijal, returned the proposal to the state government, asking it to reconsider it.

While the government’s intention of making public transport affordable by reducing fares is a welcome step, it may not solve the problem of mobility or air pollution in the city because of three reasons:

Bus availability

The 210-odd kilometers of the Delhi Metro ferries around 25 lakh passengers per day, whereas the 5,500-odd buses of the Delhi Transport Corporation and cluster scheme carry 50 lakh per day. It is clear from this data that buses transport twice the number of commuters than the Metro. Yet, while Metro ridership in constantly rising, bus ridership is on the decline.

The Delhi Transport Corporation had about 44 lakh passengers in 2011-’12 with 6,000 buses. The number of commuters dropped to 35 lakh in 2015-’16 as the fleet size also went down to 4,300 buses. The main problem in Delhi is the paucity of buses. Studies have estimated that the city needs around 11,000 buses to cater to its burgeoning population. However, just about half this number is currently in operation. In the past five years, the corporation has made three failed attempts to buy buses and is also struggling to find depot space for its current and future fleet.

Destination versus direction

While each bus in Delhi carries an average of 900 passengers per day, there are also complaints about the fleet running empty. This is mostly because of bunching – a phenomenon in which many buses on the same route come to a bus stop at around the same time in a bunch. The problem with bunching is that users tend to board the first bus as they are not sure about the reliability of the service. Therefore, while the first few buses may run on crush load, the last few would run almost empty.

This problem can be managed by rationalising bus routes and by shifting from a destination-based network, where many buses go to many places, to a direction-based system with a high frequency trunk operation on arterial roads. This would be complemented by the feeder bus network. While many bus companies have been talking about route rationalisation, it was the Bangalore Municipal Transport Corporation that demonstrated this system with the launch of the Big Bus Network in 2013. The success of this service shows that commuters don’t mind changing buses provided they get a reliable service.

Fare box revenue

Of the Delhi Transport Corporation’s total revenue in 2014-’15, rent accounted for 2.8% and advertisements contributed a paltry 0.4%. The corporation still relies mostly on the fare box, or the sale of tickets, for revenue generation, while sitting on a huge land bank. Many transit agencies in India, such as the Bangalore Metropolitan Transport Corporation, Kerala State Road Transport Corporation and Brihanmumbai Electric Supply and Transport, have been using their land bank not only for revenue generation but also to improve connectivity and provide integrated services to users. In 2014-’15, the Delhi Transport Corporation suffered losses of Rs 1,020 crores. With such a large share of the total revenue coming from fare collection, reducing fares would only contribute to more losses.

Public transport is the backbone of any sustainable city and, therefore, it is heartening that the Delhi government is taking a keen interest in promoting its usage. However, while affordability is critical to its usage, reducing fares alone will not draw users to the system. This was clearly highlighted by the Bangalore corporation’s Atal Sarige buses that were introduced at a subsidised rate of 50% of the normal fare for passengers from economically weaker sections. Studies showed that this service could not fully provide mobility to the urban poor in the city because availability and reliability of service was more important to the users than affordability.

The need is to provide better service to commuters, without hitting the revenue mechanism of the transport department.

Gustavo Petro, an economist and former mayor of Bogota, once said that a developed city is not one where the poor use cars, but one where the rich use public transport. Therefore, in order to address the issue of mobility and air quality in the national capital, the Delhi government needs to completely overhaul the public transport system and not just look at reducing fares. This will not be easy but Delhi has no other option.

Amit Bhatt is Director-Integrated Transport at the World Resources Institute India.

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