Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Dump the Metro, take the bus

Subir Roy: Be chic, walk, cycle, ride a bus

Business Standard

Traffic jams and automobile pollution plague all Indian cities but are particularly bad in Bangalore, raising questions about its ability to remain the top IT destination in the country. For Bangalore to keep shining, two cures are touted—a new international airport and a metro rail.

The former is just out of the woods, having achieved financial closure, but the latter remains accident-prone. H D Deve Gowda, father figure of the bickering ruling coalition, has asked that the state reexamine whether metro rail is indeed the panacea it is made out to be.

Whatever be his motive, this has rekindled debate. In all likelihood the metro rail project will go through. But since a debate is on, it is worth asking how a city or state should plan long-term traffic solutions and whether solutions alien to the middle class have a chance of being heard.

The first issue is who can afford what and the second is, even if you can afford it, is there something cheaper and therefore better? It is argued that since the Delhi metro is a great success, that is a good enough reason to go in for a metro for Bangalore.

But there is a world of difference between Delhi and Karnataka. Delhi is number three in human development out of 32 states and union territories, Karnataka is 16. If you are as well-off as Delhi, by all means spend as you like.

But experienced bureaucrats in Bangalore keep cautioning, don’t equate Karnataka with Bangalore. There are at least four districts in the northern Hyderabad-Karnataka region which are desperately poor, not very different from some of the poorest districts in Bihar and even sub-Saharan Africa.

They are also very drought- prone, making Karnataka the second-most arid state in the country after Rajasthan. A good half of the Rs 6,000 crore capital cost of the Bangalore metro will come from the union and state budgets. Should public money be spent on Bidar or Bangalore?

But Bangalore is our national showpiece. So isn’t ensuring the growth and livability of the city also a national priority? Yes it is, but what if it can pay for itself? The leader of Infosys, the pride of Bangalore, has urged everybody to give Bangalore a proper local authority, a mayor and his council who have a decent four- or five-year term so that better politicians can give the city the government it deserves.

Kolkata has just had a rejuvenation courtesy a dynamic mayor thrown up by a rational “mayor in council” system, not mayors who come and go every year and are puppets on strings pulled from the Vidhana Soudha. I suspect if Bangalore got the right kind of local government it would be able to float its own bonds and get the necessary multilateral assistance to get whatever type of transport system it needed.

If Bangalore could order its own destiny, what should it go in for—metro, mono or plain old buses and, don’t laugh, bicycles and walkways? Should Bangaloreans say, we will not cut down 50- or 100-year-old trees at any cost, not ruin the view of our main thoroughfare by taking through its middle an elevated railway line made of ugly concrete, not ruin the peace of beautiful Ulsoor lake by again taking a railway line next to it?

What should be the quality-of-life priorities of a forward-looking city when individual cities in the West are dismantling things like monorail because they are ugly and noisy? If you want to be world-class why not go the whole hog, display a degree of environmental and aesthetic concern that is not Third World but First World?

The Delhi metro is grossly underutilised, Kolkata partly so. It is cost-effective to put a single line through a linear city like Mumbai or Kolkata, more difficult or hugely more costly to get value for money in a circular city like Delhi or Bangalore, which needs lines going east-west, north-south and circular.

Most important, is there enough traffic in a dispersed city like Bangalore to make up more than 50,000 PPHD (passengers per hour per direction), which alone justifies a metro rail? Or do you need something like monorail, which can carry 25,000 PPHD?

Since it is all about value for money, costs become vital. A kilometre of underground line costs Rs 400-500 crore to build, elevated line Rs 140-150 crore, monorail Rs 70 crore, says a transport expert from a reputed consulting firm.

But these are quite different from the figures put out by Bangalore Mass Rapid Transit Ltd! Naturally, grossly underestimating the cost of a large public project to get it going is the name of the game. It happened with Delhi, not to speak of Kolkata.

Mumbai and Hyderabad can opt for a metro rail if they want to. Neither is anywhere near to making up its mind. Meanwhile, a study for Hyderabad by a US-based NGO, Institute of Transportation and Development Study, with funding from USAID, has concluded that the city should seriously consider a bus rapid transit system, tight parking regulation and enforcement, pedestrian walkways, along with restraint on private vehicles and making it easier to cycle and walk. And comparative costs? An efficient bus system costs one-tenth of a metro rail system!

Currently JC Road, in the heart of Bangalore, delivers 15,000 PPHD. Put all buses on CNG/LPG, have more, clean good-looking buses, dedicated lanes for them, fewer cars and two-wheelers courtesy penal taxes, and you will have a system that travels at 25 kmph and delivers 20,000 PPHD. Can you manage a big bus fleet and that many public sector workers? Yes, Bangalore’s public sector bus system is one of the best in the country and runs at a financial surplus. Any takers?


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