Public transport faces severe problems in almost all countries of the developing world, although the situation varies from one country to another, and even from one city to another (Vasconcellos 2001). Perhaps most important, the lack of financial resources prevents necessary investments in maintaining and upgrading existing bus and rail systems and building new ones. Likewise, many advanced technologies long available in Western Europe are simply not affordable in most developing countries. Public transport systems in the Third World are plagued by chronic corruption and inefficiency, overcrowded and undependable service, congested roadways that slow down buses, and an operating environment that is often chaotic and completely uncoordinated.
Those problems of public transport occur within the broader context of daunting urban transport problems in general. Air pollution, noise, congestion, and traffic fatality levels are often much more severe than those of developed countries. One might expect the much lower incomes in developing countries to assure a huge potential market of public transport riders. In fact, many city residents are so poor that they cannot afford even low fares, and routes are not designed to serve the poor at any rate. Thus, the poor in developing countries suffer even more than those in the Western World from low levels of mobility and accessibility, especially to jobs.
In many respects, the situation in India is typical of other developing countries. The most important commonality is India’s low per-capita income—only US $2,540 in 2002, less than a tenth of the average incomes of countries in North America and
Western Europe (Central Intelligence Agency 2002). With 23 percent of its urban population living in poverty, India has been forced to keep its public transport fares extremely low. That has sharply restricted the operating revenues of all public transport systems, making it difficult to afford even routine maintenance and vehicle replacement, let alone system modernization and expansion.P overty is not only a problem at the individual level, but also in the public sector, with cities and transport systems desperately lacking the necessary financial resources for investment in infrastructure, vehicles, new technologies, and fare subsidies. The financial problems stemming from India’s low per-capita income are probably the most important challenges facing Indian public transport, but there are many others as well: inefficiency, roadway congestion, traffic accidents, lack of planning, overcrowding, noise, and total lack of coordination of any kind.
Trends in Population and Land Use
The rapid growth of India’s urban population—as in other developing countries—has generated an enormous need for efficient public transport services to carry high volumes of passengers through dense, congested urban areas. By 2001 over 285 million Indians lived in cities, more than in all North American cities combined (Office of the Registrar General of India 2001). There has been especially rapid growth of the very largest metropolitan areas such as Mumbai (Bombay), Kolkata (Calcutta), and Delhi, which now exceed 10 million residents each. Chennai (Madras), Hyderabad, Ahmedabad, and Bangalore each have more
than 5 million residents. And 35 metropolitan areas have populations exceeding 1 million, almost twice as many as in 1991. Since large cities are far more dependent on public transport than small cities, the need for public transport services has increased faster than overall population growth.
Trends in Public Transport
The best statistics for public transport in India are for suburban rail, because it is centrally owned and operated by Indian Railways. As shown in Figure 1, suburban rail usage has sharply increased over the past five decades, with a 14-fold growth
in passenger km of travel (Indian Railways 2001). There are no comprehensive national statistics on bus service supply, let alone the number of riders, but the fragmented statistics for individual cities suggest substantial growth. For example,
in the 10 years from 1990 to 2000, there was an 86 percent increase in the size of Mumbai’s bus fleet, and a 54 percent increase in Chennai’s bus fleet. While the size of Delhi’s public bus fleet actually fell, the number of private buses rose by almost twice as much, yielding a net 28 percent increase (Association of State Road Transport Undertakings 2002).
Problems and Challenges
The sharply rising demands for public transport have overwhelmed the existing public transport systems in India. Trains and buses in most cities are dangerously overcrowded. On suburban rail lines in Mumbai, peak-hour trains must carry more than twice their maximum design capacity, leading to inhuman traveling conditions, with so-called “super dense crush loads” of 14 to 16 standing passengers per square meter of floor space (Varshneya, Jain, and Sahai 2002; Ministry of Railways 2002)! On peak-hour trains, many passengers are forced to hang out doors and windows or to ride between train cars or even hang on the outsides of cars. Suburban trains and stations seem hopelessly overcrowded and desperately need expanded capacity.
One possible solution to many of these problems might be the selective privatization of India’s public transport sector. That could be done either through opening up the market to private firms (who would own, manage, operate and finance their own systems) or by having public agencies contract with private firms to operate services on a systemwide basis, for selective routes, or for selected functions (like maintenance). Rail systems have only rarely been privatized anywhere in the world (except for certain narrow functions), while there is considerable experience with bus privatization. Thus, privatization seems an option only for bus services, but they account for more than 90 percent of India’s public transport.
Since passenger revenues do not cover the full costs of operation and capital investment of public transport, government financial assistance is obviously crucial. As owner of Indian Railways, the Central Government must bear whatever operating deficit remains after the substantial cross-subsidies from profitable freight services. In the past, the Central Government also bore most of the costs of capital investment, but in recent years, state governments have financed growing portions of these costs, especially for the expansions and improvements of suburban rail systems in Mumbai, Chennai, Kolkata, and Hyderabad (Ministry of Railways 2002). To encourage more state contributions, Indian Railways now gives priority to projects with up to two-thirds state government funding.
Recent and Planned Improvements
In spite of severe shortages of both public and private financing for improving public transport, several Indian cities have been trying to provide more and better services to meet burgeoning travel demands. The most extensive improvements are in Mumbai. For example, Indian Railways has already opened two new suburban rail lines and has plans for additional extensions. Several existing lines have been vastly improved by constructing additional tracks (from one to two tracks and from two to four tracks) to permit separation of local and express trains. Moreover, cars have been added to trains, average speeds have increased, and frequency of service has also risen—measures aimed at mitigating the overcrowding problem. By relocating more than 6,000 illegal slum dwellings that encroached on land directly adjacent to railway tracks, Indian Railways increased service dependability, speed, and safety (Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority 2003).
Recommended Policy Shifts
Given the rapid growth of India’s largest cities and the desperate need for better and expanded public transport, it is crucial that policies change to improve the entire range of public transport services offered. Unfortunately, the Indian government has been emphasizing instead the need to further develop the nascent automobile industry in India and has actually encouraged more private car owner ship and use. Indian cities are simply not equipped to handle increased volumes of private vehicle use. Roadways are already hopelessly congested, with average speeds declining each year. Even for automobile users, it will be important to improve public transport, if only to remove some traffic from the streets and thus reduce congestion to manageable levels and increase travel speeds.