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A Choppy Road Ahead: How the Pandemic is Reinventing India’s Urban Mobility Crisis

By Sudarshan RSA and Mukundan Alexander

Indian cities have always had mobility issues. Public transport is disturbingly inadequate, traffic jams are frequent and intense, and air pollution levels are distressingly high. The pandemic brought all of this to a screeching halt. But it also brought with it new behaviours, preferences and challenges. Now, as the pandemic uncomfortably recedes, we trace how the complications it leaves behind might further exacerbate the problems of urban mobility, and identify the biggest challenges faced by the government. 

Urban Mobility and the Pandemic 

In the past few decades, India has strongly felt the need to improve its urban mobility landscape. The country’s transport demand grew eight-fold between 1980 and 2018—the most for any Asian economy, coinciding with the country’s breakneck march to urbanization and economic growth. Combined with notoriously poor planning and a long list of infrastructural inefficiencies, this has also resulted in Indian cities consistently dominating global congestion rankings. In addition, Swiss firm IQAir reports that 22 of the 30 most polluted cities in the world are in India. The increase in congestion predictably claims a huge developmental penalty, reportedly leading to delays and quality of life impairments worth billions each year. But the loss to mobility due to congestion is only the tip of the iceberg; it pales in comparison to the loss of economic potential in areas that remain inaccessible regardless of congestion. In fact, reports have indicated that as much as 25% of India’s urban population may not have efficient access to a bundle of ‘basic’ services due to factors like inefficient coverage or last mile connectivity issues.

At least on the congestion front, the pandemic represented what looked to be a temporary reprieve. Through successive, intense lockdowns, platforms like Google and Apple reported predictably meteoric drops in community mobility indices—leading to widely celebrated declines in traffic jams, air pollution and roadside deaths. On the demand side, it became obvious that innovation in communication and collaboration technologies could help organizations and people dramatically decrease their need for mobility without disproportionate consequences for productivity. But an important question haunted them: how permanent would these behavioural shifts be post the pandemic? And what other implications would they have for urban mobility in the post-pandemic world?

Public Transport during the Pandemic

On the supply side, the pandemic and associated lockdowns meant deep financial troubles for public transport operators. The additional investments that had to be made to comply with the newly introduced regulations and norms, such as the mandation of periodic sanitization of the vehicles operated, meant higher fixed and operating costs for operators. Metro stations lost tens of lakhs each day because they were left non-operational. State Transport Undertakings handling public buses, with a similar fate, were forced to bear approximately 70% of their usual operational costs plunging them into debt and to a state of near-insolvency. 

On the demand side, a lack of primary public transportation services (trains, metros, buses) meant that those who predominantly availed them—largely women, school-going children, and economically underprivileged citizens—had to either turn to other alternatives or reduce commuting altogether. However, the new social distancing and sanitization norms, in addition to reduced demand, also implied price hikes in fares for all other alternative modes of public transport—be it taxis, autos, or shared rickshaws—making transport services both more difficult and costlier to avail for those who needed them most. Needless to say, investment in private vehicles is not and never has been an expenditure everyone could afford, making the cost of not operating public transport fall disproportionately on these people. .

The Recovery Post the Second Wave

The relaxation of regulations and the gradual increase in economic and social activities following the second wave has allowed for a recovery in supply and demand for public transportation. Travel demand predictions indicate a return to 2018 levels to be likely by 2024.

However, this recovery is slowed by a few stumbling blocks 

Social distancing norms and the sentiments they have inspired—negatively affecting the carrying capacity of all forms of public transport—have led to decreased revenues and even a fall in the number of vehicles operated. The current financial situation of the bus sector is representative of all the pathologies that plague public transportation today financially. With balance sheets of operators laden with debt, a complete recovery at the moment still seems temporally remote. This is especially so given that the complete resumption of operations requires a corresponding increase in costs to be incurred, which in turn requires a large sum of funds financed through means other than debt to be viably serviced. Moreover, even if these obstructions were to be cleared, another round of voluminous losses will have to be sustained due to the sector’s heavy reliance on volume of demand, which as indicated previously, is unlikely to rally as swiftly as desired. 

Furthermore, recent and persistent increases in fuel prices have severely affected the financial viability of both running and availing public transportation. In particular, modes of intermediary public transportation like autos and taxis, the prices set by private operators, have come to see large price hikes. This has had the effect of further dampening demand and forcing shifts to private means of transportation. Those who cannot do so have, of course, are likely to and seem to have reduced their travel exercises altogether. As a result, unless larger stimulus packages or efforts to mitigate even more fuel price increases are introduced, the prospect of a healthy recovery seems remote.

The Shift to Private Transport

The permanent loss of patronage is perhaps the most disturbing trend to emerge out of the aforementioned miseries of public transportation. Even as the lockdown concluded in early 2021, cities in India reported declines in ridership in public transportation reaching as high as 75%. There are widespread fears that certain segments of the population, forced to acquire private vehicles during the pandemic, have permanently turned away from public transport. Add to this, fears of viral transmission will likely persist for the foreseeable period damaging the trust that people have in the safety of public transportation services. Changes in workplace norms and the increase in the fraction of the country’s workforce working from home also imply a permanent reduction in demand. In general, much of the evidence suggests a significant commuter churn from public to private modes of transportation. Despite the negative economic consequences of the pandemic, for example, retail automobile sales rose 34% YoY in July this year.

Overall, all signs point to numerous demographics developing a permanent distaste for shared modes of transportation. A cross-sectional “perception study” from TERI sheds light on some of the intricacies of this trend: it shows an almost symmetric 10% gain for private four and two-wheeled vehicles, with Metro systems being the biggest loser of patronage. Even more worryingly, while the share of private taxis (mostly driven by ride-sharing apps) rose by 2%, the share of shared taxis also saw a decline. The survey also reported disturbing trends on other social axes—with women across the board becoming 16% less likely to use public transport and low-income individuals contributing to their pre-existing concentration of patronage for public transport.

Urban Freight and E-Commerce

The biggest behavioural shift engendered by the pandemic, however, is to urban freight. Food and grocery delivery apps have gone from strength to strength, as conveniently illustrated by Zomato’s recent blockbuster IPO. The TERI study concurs—there is a significant rise in both their overall user base and the frequency with which this user base is active. Similar growth has been experienced by out-and-out e-commerce platforms such as Amazon and Flipkart, and the e-commerce market as a whole is expected to more than double in size between now and 2022. Underlying this increase in demand is a massive uptick in the utilization by these organizations of private forms of transport for both customer-facing operations and other logistics.

The result then is a perfect storm. The pandemic has emphatically eroded public transport patronage, exacerbating pre-existing structural issues and making it even more difficult for governments to sustain them. In doing so, it has also disproportionately affected some of the most vulnerable sections of the public. The more well-endowed, in turn, have turned to private forms of transportation, resulting in obvious emissions and congestion-related penalties. As if this was not enough, the pandemic also leaves behind a private transport beast in the form of e-commerce and food and grocery delivery operators, who increase demand for mobility and make things even worse. It seems our roads are getting boxed in from every direction possible—and without an exit in sight.

Dated Executive Response

It is useful to break down the all-pervasive threat we have laid out here in terms of a few broad challenges the government faces. First, it must stem the bleeding from public transport by addressing both supply and demand-side concerns. This is no easy thing to do—both sides continue to be beset by systemic issues that successive governments have been battling unsuccessfully for decades. Second, the government must identify ways of effectively managing the churn that has already taken place—laying out a roadmap for dealing with congestion for private retail and commercial operators. An excellent starting point would be enhanced regulation of e-commerce platforms, requiring them to abide by zealously enforced sustainability standards. Third, the government must craft an overarching sustainable mobility strategy that looks beyond just the issues of motorized transportation and incentivizes the use of non-motorized forms of transportation like bicycling and walking. This will require, among other things, planning cities in a manner that minimizes the need for motorized transport—an activity most Indian cities do not lend themselves easily to.

There appears to have been no broad recognition or response from the government of the specific complications arising out of the pandemic to urban mobility. Instead, in recent months the central government has aggressively doubled down on the flagship schemes of the past—from the widely publicized National Electric Mobility Mission Plan to the perennially underperforming Smart Cities Mission. While the intricacies involved in these pre-existing projects certainly merit a deeper investigation, it is clear that they are not designed to help the government rise to the specific challenges posed by the pandemic. Most of these projects, for example, have been reported to disproportionately favour motorized forms of transport and do not contain provisions for wider collaboration with planning agencies. They also do not benefit from significantly updated global literature on urban mobility that has developed after the pandemic. The government, therefore, needs to urgently re-calibrate its wider position on sustainable mobility and do so with due consideration to the worrying trends we have uncovered in this essay.

What lies ahead is no doubt a choppy road—but it is one that we need to at least navigate with our eyes open.

This is the first in a series of essays in which we examine issues in urban mobility in India. 

Mukundan Alexander and Sudarshan RSA study Economics at Ashoka University, Sonipat.

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