New Delhi: Public transport has returned to the national capital’s streets, but as long as coronavirus infections continue to rise, things will remain far from ‘normal’.
Experts suggest there is an urgent need to bring in systemic changes to the public transport system to suit the reality of ‘living with the virus’.
These systemic changes include tiding over the initial phase of low ridership by restoring faith in the mass transit system through staggered hours, social distancing and Covid protocols, and focusing on non-motorised transport to limit contact.
Delhi’s existing capacity
According to the Economic Survey of Delhi 2018-2019, the total number of motor vehicles on the national capital’s roads as on 31 March 2019 was 113.92 lakh.
The survey was last updated on 23 March 2020.
This included 32,218 buses, 32,49,670 cars and jeeps, 75,56,002 two-wheelers, 1,13,240 auto-rickshaws and 1,09,780 taxis along with 81,422 other passenger vehicles.
The survey also noted that the daily ridership on the Delhi Metro was 25.97 lakh during 2018-19.
The eased-out lockdown
On 1 June, the Delhi government eased the restrictions imposed in March, and allowed autos, e-rickshaws, Grameen Seva services and cab aggregators like Ola and Uber to operate with full capacity.
Buses, however, were directed to continue plying with 20 passengers each, while the Delhi Metro services remained suspended.
“Public transport ridership has two groups — captive users and choice users. Captive users are the ones who don’t own private vehicles and have no choice but to use public transport. It is this group that will return to (using) public transport,” said Amit Bhatt, executive director, WRI (World Resources Institute), India.
However, this group will likely amount to just a fraction of the overall volume of travellers.
“Due to the pandemic, even those who do not own private vehicles will at least try to buy two-wheelers or cycles to avoid mass transit systems. This will also create problems of congestion,” said Ashok Bhattacharjee, urban planner and former director of Unified Traffic and Transportation Infrastructure (Planning & Engineering) Centre (UTTIPEC).
Hero Motocorp, the country’s largest two-wheeler company, in a statement on 1 June said it had already serviced two-wheelers of 15 lakh unique customers in the past few weeks.
People avoiding non-essential travel will also contribute to low ridership.
“People will travel less, not just because of the fear of getting infected but also because people will step out less for entertainment, eating out, meeting family and friends and even for work,” said Rupa Nandy, head, International Association of Public Transport (UITP), India.
After an initial lull, ridership will likely rise to an extent as the core target group — low-income earners — seek out employment or return to jobs.
A study by the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), released on 27 May, surveyed 350 respondents in Delhi-NCR and found that while the use of public transport is expected to reduce right now, there will be a positive shift towards public transport in the long run.
Experts said this presents the public transport system with its second challenge: restoring faith in the mass transit system.
“The ‘new normal’ will demand steps to rebuild confidence in mass transit systems while improving it, (promoting) contact-free walking and cycling, and measures to cut unnecessary travel to reduce pressure on already stressed public transport systems,” the study said quoting Anumita Roychowdhury, CSE’s executive director-research and advocacy.
How to keep the faith
The experts suggest there are two ways to get more people to be less weary of public transport — by issuing Covid safety standard operating procedures, and ramping up the capacity of public transport.
“Just like pollution certificates are essential for vehicles, the government should also come up with Covid safety certification to instil faith,” said Bhatt.
While Covid safety protocols will be ensured by the government on buses and the metros, the onus on sanitising vehicles and ensuring passenger safety in Ola and Uber cabs and autos will fall on owners and drivers.
In a statement issued on 1 June, cab aggregators Ola and Uber asked drivers to ensure even vehicle door handles are sanitised.
“It is not enough to remove restrictions to allow resumption of public transport, rather the government needs to invest in ensuring these vehicles are sanitised; not just once a week but regularly,” said Anannya Das, senior research associate at CSE.
“The ones who own these small modes of transport like autos and Grameen Seva services or even cab drivers do not have the capacity to pay for such services. An emergency fund for public transport is now essential to keep it running in this pandemic.”
This will be critical in making these modes of transport financially viable for both service providers and customers.
“Our studies show that in Delhi, Bengaluru and Mumbai, there are four passengers per square metre on buses and metros. In order to ensure that social distancing is maintained, Delhi Metro will need to be ramped up seven times and buses by four times, which cannot happen overnight. Instead staggered work hours, safe standing markers and thermal checks at bus stops and metro stations are essential along with increasing (transport) volume in the long run,” said WRI India’s Bhatt.
UITP head Nandy said, “City authorities should try demand management (of crowds during peak hours) … for example, staggering opening of offices, schools and other institutions, some can start early morning some can open during the afternoon. Some may open Thursday to Sunday others may Monday to Thursday. This way crowding can be managed.”
Focus on buses and last-mile connectivity
The experts said public transport revival needs to stay focused on buses as buses carry the largest volume of people, across routes. According to the economic survey, the Delhi Transport Corporation (DTC) ferries an average of 30.15 lakh passengers daily on city buses while cluster buses ferry 12.24 lakh daily.
To handle this high volume, a bus priority lane is essential, according to Bhatt.
“In order to make buses high quality, you need a substantive network and not just one lane. Bus priority network that connects the whole city is crucial. BRTC (Bus rapid transport corridor) failed in Delhi because only a 6-km lane was created while in cities like Ahmedabad it’s a 100-km transit system,” said Bhatt.
Apart from buses, attention also needs to be given to smaller shared modes of transport to ensure last-mile connectivity.
“Long term goal should be to augment public transport in terms of last-mile connectivity. Every journey needs to be seamless. For that, we need an umbrella authority at a city-level to coordinate between different transport modes,” said Nandy.
Need for non-motorised transport
To make these changes, policy decisions will be necessary. The Ministry of Urban Housing and Planning has already made a three-pronged strategy recommendation to the transport ministry, in a circular dated 2 June.
“Three broad suggestions have been accepted by the Urban Affairs ministry and have been recommended to the Transport ministry. These include: encourage and revive non-motorised transport like pop-up bike lanes, cycles that can be charged at various points and creation of more sidewalks; second recommencing public transport by adopting right sanitisation, containment and social distancing measures, and third active use of technology to enable a cashless, touchless system to reduce human interactions through (payment) apps like Phone Pe, Bhim etc,” said an official of the Institute of Urban Transport, India.
“First and last-mile connectivity should be self-reliant to ensure social distancing and continuing to live with this virus,” said the official, who did not wish to be named.
The experts also said investment in these long-term changes will require restructuring re-development.
“Redevelopment should focus on creating proper footpaths and cycle tracks to promote walking and cycling. The government needs to stop spending money on high-cost flyovers and divert those funds for at least three years to promote public transport use apart from buses. Investment in community awareness is essential to live with this virus,” said urban planner Bhattacharjee.
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