Towards a discussion of support to Urban Transport development in India Energy & Infrastructure Unit South Asia Region



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Putting policy into practice – the case of Chennai and Bangalore

  1. Given the extreme need for immediate infrastructure investments there has been an ongoing investment in urban roads. In moving forward these type of investments will need to give greater support to the implementation of the urban transport policy. While Indian cities have developed comprehensive urban transport strategies which highlight the decline in public transport due to lack of attention to provision of facilities for public transport, there is little on street attention to the need for public transport priority in any of the urban road projects. Similarly, despite the discussion of non-motorized transport, there is little attention to the needs of the walking public through proper sidewalk provision (for example, in Mumbai 40% of commuter trips are by walking).


  2. With the intent of moving forward on the discussions on possible further World Bank support to Urban Transport the Bank undertook a review of the urban transport situation in two cities, namely Chennai and Bangalore. The reason for the focus on these two cities was that there is ongoing discussion of support to urban development projects namely the proposed Tamil Nadu Urban Development Project III and the proposed Karnataka Municipal Reform Project which could provide a forum for discussion of development of urban transport projects and policy reforms.
  3. In the past 15 years, both cities have experienced a combination of population, economic and spatial growth that is placing a tremendous strain on their public infrastructure and services. Bangalore metropolitan area has a population of 5.7 million and is growing at 4.9% per annum, while Chennai area has a population of 7.5 million, with a slower growth rate, just under 1%. Motor vehicle ownership is increasing very rapidly; Chennai already has 324 vehicles per 1,000 people and Bangalore has 298 vehicles per 1,000 people. Motorized 2-wheelers are the main growth category, with more than one million registered in each city compared with about a quarter million cars. Despite this overall mobility rates are low, just above 1 trip per capita per day, and the passenger markets are highly heterogeneous, reflecting great inequality of income and wealth. Walking and cycling account for 44% trips in Chennai and 17% in Bangalore, and more than 40% of daily trips take place on public transport services. Chennai’s public transport system is dominated by street-based buses (38% of trips), but it also has three commuter rail lines and one urban rail rapid transit line in the making. Bangalore relies on street buses only, though for some years it also has been trying to acquire some form of higher-capacity, rapid transit system. All operators are public sector owned. Due to modal shifts to 2-wheelers, the trend for the usage of public transport services has not risen in the past decade, despite population increases and (suspected) higher travel rates.


  4. Beyond the sheer scale and diversity of the demands posed by the growth in population and incomes would have proved taxing for most world cities, there are some local factors, all interconnected, that explain this unsatisfactory state of affairs:

  • On the institutional side, the transfer of powers and resources from states to local governments has been slow. The political constituencies of state and local institutions being different, the continuing dominance by the state produces transport policies and investments not well aligned with local interests. Large-scale investments (elevated highways, ring roads) tend to get more attention than street maintenance.

  • The proliferation of state and local institutions and parastatals is unusually high, resulting in diluted regulatory and funding authority, and accountability for urban transport matters. Neither city has developed capacity for public transport regulation.
  • The urban transport sector does not generate any revenue surpluses directly available at the local level. National and state taxes on fuel and motor vehicles are substantial, but only a fraction (25% nationally) is returned to the sector, and then in a circuitous way. Public transport has traditionally been a subsidized sector. The bus operator in Bangalore has in recent years turned an operating profit, but not yet in Chennai, where cost recovery is about 90%. Commuter lines in Chennai are deep in the red, with 50% recovery of direct operating costs. Funds for current and capital spending come from state budgets (under severe pressure in both states), and from the central government, via Central Road Fund, the Ministry of Railways, and city-bound programs like the Megacities Scheme. Together with other factors cited here, this way of funding biases spending in favor of large investment projects, some with dubious rationale, while leaving large urban and social segments poorly served.


  • The use of competitive mechanisms is underdeveloped, as is the reliance on private sector funding and the know-how. In fact, it is limited to outsourcing of bus services in Bangalore, contract-based street maintenance, and a budding effort to charge for on-street parking in both cities.

  • A laissez-faire approach has been taken with regard to the allocation of street space between competing uses. The losers of this are: (a) pedestrians; (b) bicyclists; and (c) public transport vehicles.

  1. Both cities appear to have formulated the urban transport problem as that of street congestion and low safety, to be addressed in four dimensions. The first is to improve traffic flow by intensifying traffic police activities in traffic management and law enforcement, linked with some corridor and intersection improvements. The second is to take strong steps to improve the supply-side of public transport services, though largely staying within the public monopoly paradigm. Both of these efforts were necessary and the results achieved are impressive, especially on reducing traffic accidents in Chennai and improving bus operations in Bangalore. The third policy instrument is the addition of massive new road capacity in the form of multi-grade interchanges, elevated radial roads, and ring roads. The fourth, similarly capital hungry, is to move public transport development off-street onto the rail tracks.
  2. Strategically, this approach is supply-oriented, and traffic growth-biased. It conflicts with the principles outlined in the government urban transport policy statement in a number of ways. In the short term it neglects the mobility of low-income and poor travelers, especially the non-motorized ones. It does not involve any use of traffic restraint tools and hence leaves street-based public transport services (the work horse of the transport system) to the mercy of unrestrained competition from individual motor vehicles. Moreover, it favors the most capital-intensive public transport modes (metros and other urban railways) which may not be warranted by either traffic density and passengers’ ability to pay, or their budget capacity to pay subsidies in perpetuity. In the longer term the emphasis on increasing road capacity encourages car-based urban development patterns. The actual policies, as opposed to the statements in principle, thus appear to be both socially regressive, and financially unsustainable.


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