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

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4. The Way Forward

4.1. The two cities need a demand-segmented, service-oriented urban transport strategy, which would balance growth with equity concerns, with a strong but cost-conscious orientation in favor of public transport modes. The demand segmentation is meant to re-direct the attention to low-income groups and sub-areas, but it is equally warranted in public transport regulatory matters because of the increasing size of the “choice” market. Practically, this strategy would involve making the following progression of steps, from simple to the more difficult:

  1. Measure and evaluate the performance of the transport system, regularly, from the point of view of different groups. This would require a primary effort by the lead urban transport agency, to design the data requirements for different sub-sectors and agencies, commission an initial data collection effort, and maintain a data bank in perpetuity.

  2. Introduce road and street design standards and practices that are walk-and bicycle-friendly. This should start by including detailed instructions in the terms of reference for planning and design studies.

  3. Re-allocate the existing road space to provide substantial exclusivity and priority of use to public transport vehicles on arterial streets. The corollary of this is that general traffic would be restrained and parking would be controlled/priced. This would start by a pilot study focusing on selected corridors and/or areas, to be followed by implementation and scaling up of the effort. Both design and implementing stages would involve the local government, traffic police, the transport operators, and the metropolitan planning agency. A substantial intensification of traffic and parking management activities would be required, which may lead to a re-allocation of traffic management functions between the traffic police and municipal administrations. The formation of strong traffic management units in the latter group will be necessary.

  4. Shift attention and resources to repairing and/or constructing anew secondary and tertiary urban road networks within low-income and poor areas, and connecting them to the arterial network. This requires a policy shift, to be reflected in the normal budgeting process. A link to items 2 and 3 above is needed.

  5. Address squarely the issue of public transport fares, subsidies and service levels, balancing social protection and modal split concerns, for all transport modes. This is a major lacuna in the present strategy. Corrective actions will require the setting up of a metropolitan transport regulatory authority, with a small professional support group, aided by external consultants.

  6. Implement a regulatory reform aimed at getting substantially higher-quality services and/or lower production costs (internal incentives for MTCs, a gradual move to competition; new organizational form for commuter rail and MRTS in Chennai). The cited regulatory group is a pre-requisite for considering options and implementing changes.

  7. Develop a market for public transport modes suitable to serve travel demands at the low end of the income distribution (this also may involve breaking the monopoly of MTCs). The cited regulatory authority is essential for this task.

  8. Introduce rigorous project evaluation for large projects, inclusive of mandatory options and risk-conscious analysis. This can start by carefully designed terms of reference and short-listing criteria requiring a much greater involvement of independent consultants.

  9. Focus on at-grade, bus-based rapid transit lines, with publicly-owned infrastructure and competitively awarded service concessions, (inclusive of feeder/distributor networks). A pilot project will be necessary to break through the long-held biases.
  10. Ensure that new primary roads include a provision for rapid public transport modes (no reference to a specific vehicle technology). This is already a part of some road projects (in Chennai), but so far has been biased in favor of rail-based systems.

4.2. How to move in this direction? The transition from a narrow, supply-oriented approach to a demand-oriented one is a formidable task. Three ingredients are essential. First is the political agreement with the strategy, difficult because the proposals run counter to pro-growth forces, unions, motor-vehicle owners and the formidable urban rail lobby. Second is a streamlined and strengthened institutional setting. For a start, this would involve the appointment of a lead urban transport institution in Bangalore and strengthening of the Chennai Metropolitan Development Authority. Next, it would involve the creation of a public transport regulatory authority, a policy making body whose technical support can be provided by a separate unit (as in Step #5 above), or by the lead transport planning institution. Also, as noted in Step #3 above, creating a strong traffic management focus group in the municipal engineering structure will be needed, with some realignment of functions of the Traffic Police.

4.3. The third ingredient is financial. In addition to current efforts to improve funding, budgeting and expenditure management of local governments, there is a systemic problem that transcends Chennai and Bangalore, indeed their states also. It has to do with the national approach to road user pricing and revenue allocation. The problem is to reduce the overlong agency chain between what is paid by local road users (a growth sector in two well-off cities) and the funds brought back to bear on the local transport system. There are several ways to do this. The most common way is to escape funding from general (national, state or city) budgets, by creating a closed loop from road user fees via dedicated funds to cities. A less common way, highly successful where it has been implemented, is to introduce local road charging systems, aiming for both revenue generation as well as demand management. Either way, the challenge is to create not merely urban road funds, but urban transport funds, open to all modes. Private sector funding has a potential as a complement, but the prime source of funds should be user-based and locally linked. This subject is currently beyond the decision making reach of cities, but it needs to enter the discussion agendas at all levels of government.

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