Urban Mobility Crisis: India Needs to Look Beyond Metro Rail Systems

By Mukundan A and Sudarshan RSA

We continue our discussion of urban mobility this time, further elaborating on the hurdles experienced by the public transportation sector in India. Read part one of this series here.

For long, public transportation in India has been viewed with a great share of distrust by the public, be it in terms of safety, sanitation or capacity. Even before the incidence of the global pandemic, a majority of those choosing to avail public transportation chose to do so on account of necessity and its relatively affordable pricing. Moreover, with continually increasing populations, existing public transport infrastructure has often proven to be insufficient in terms of capacity, as evidenced by the surge in incidents of roadway and railway congestion in the last few years. Consequently, distrust coupled with voluminal inefficiencies have led to, as we had discussed before, the country’s urban mobility crisis. With the restrictions, fears and pricing changes brought about through the spread of the coronavirus, this scenario has only worsened. 

Contrary to expectations on account of the economic encumbrances this may cause, government responses to this loss of patronage have been found wanting. Investments across different modes of transportation have been uneven, maintenance of existing services and vehicles have been lacking and in the context of the pandemic, attitudes toward enforcement of COVID-appropriate norms have been quite lackadaisical. Overall, efforts to build public trust in the sector, at least prima facie, have been rather scant. However, this does not mean that nothing has been done. There is one outlier that governments across the country have sunk their funds and hopes for solving this problem into: metro rail systems. 

A Brief History of Metro Rail in India

The first metro rail system was introduced in Kolkata in 1984. The history of the modern metro rail system—the one we most associate with the word “metro”—in contrast, began in Delhi in 2002. Its institution was well received and has continued to remain so for the last 19 odd years as shown by its positive operational profits despite its economical fares. After the same, many metros came up in other tier 1 cities such as Gurgaon, Mumbai, Bangalore and Chennai. Currently, metro rail systems are present in 13 cities across the country, running a length of approximately 700 kilometres in aggregation. Moreover, plans to increase current capacities and establish more metros in tier 2 cities like Patna, Indore and the like are well underway. The completion of all currently sanctioned projects would take the country’s total investment from Rs 1,484 bn to Rs 6,838 bn, albeit along with an increase in average cost per kilometre built, from Rs 2.3 bn to Rs 4.07 bn.

Can Metro be the solution to our urban mobility crisis?

Do these projects and enthusiastic budgetary allocations spell a solution to all of the country’s urban mobility problems? A preliminary analysis of the theoretical benefits associated with increased investments in metro rail systems yields a few positive impressions. First, they have proven to be the most efficient in terms of energy consumption, considering the amount of people transported and distance covered. Second, at least relative to other modes of transport, they have also been demonstrated to be quite eco-friendly, causing at most minor amounts of noise pollution. Finally, and most importantly, they have also been observed to be more time and space efficient. They transport a greater traffic of passengers faster and through great distances while occupying considerably lower amounts of land-space than other modes of public transportation.

However, whether most of these theoretical benefits have comprehensively been translated into an equivalent amount of real utility is largely uncertain—and pessimistically so. Energy efficiency comes with high averages of passengers carried, which is determined by fares charged and areas connected. The former has always been a trouble with a considerable number of metro systems, especially in terms of financial accessibility to economically underprivileged individuals—especially for frequent usage. In Chennai, for instance, minimum metro fares start at double the amount that state buses and the suburban rail charges, while also scaling much faster with distance covered. The latter on the other hand, largely determined by the accuracy of demand forecasts and subsequent project sanctionings, has been filled with a history of failure in the country. On one hand, frequent overestimations of footfalls and subsequently suboptimal sanctioning of metro rail projects in many areas has led to an underutilization of these transit resources in several cities. When a significant amount is invested into relatively demand-slack sites, costs—including increased operating expenditures—heavily outweigh the revenues generated. On the other hand, heavy underestimations of demand have led to insufficient resource allocations to projects undertaken in those busy centres of the city that indubitably needed them more. Long wait lines and cramped travel experiences, as evidenced by great crowding in trains during peak hours in cities like Bangalore, are desirable to no one—especially for those like women and elders who rely on metros. All things considered, the supposed benefits in terms of energy efficiency and increased carrying capacity do not seem to have materialized as expected. Finally, it is also worth mentioning that rapid transit rail systems cannot be extensively built in all parts of the country. Varying topography and more importantly, the lack of adequate funds across budgets in many states and cities to allocate to these projects after all their regular expenditures are likely to remain significant hurdles for the foreseeable future.

Delays, Delays, Delays

We therefore maintain that metro rail is an unlikely panacea for India’s pronounced urban mobility crisis. But does that completely rule out its viability? A sympathizer of the metro system may very well claim that we have been unfair in expecting it to be the answer to all our problems. Even if not singularly effective, it can still be a vital and effective component of a broader urban mobility strategy. And at any rate, the country is already committed to more than 34 active expansion projects, and is considering 18 more proposals. It therefore becomes important to inspect the metro rail system from a wider lens, outside the context of immediate challenges we have explored so far.

This leads us to a depressingly predictable concern: delays in development. Almost every major metro line built in India has faced delays, and ended up with dramatically inflated budgets. Phase-1 of Chennai’s Metro Rail System, for example, faced multiple delays and ended with excess spending of over ₹6000 crores. Administrators have been quick to blame  oversight by the central government, with officers being constantly shifted across regions and responsibilities. Their problems are magnified by the fact that metro lines are built only in densely populated areas, where land acquisition is complicated by litigious occupants, the existence of utilities serving wider areas and concerns from citizens in surrounding areas. Combined with constantly shifting legislative standards and poor inter-agency cooperation, most metro-line development initiatives appear to be destined for stagnation even before their first track is laid.

Unsustainability: Both Environmental and Fiscal

The issue of delayed and inefficient construction is not only about fiscal prudence. Both academics and administrators have repeatedly argued that there is a pronounced environmental cost to the development of metro systems; this may nullify a good deal of the potential benefits of their operation. Most notably, the widely syndicated outrage over the clearing of a forested area in the Aarey region of Mumbai exposed the threat metro development constitutes to urban greenery. What often goes unreported is the constant air and noise pollution these activities cause, especially from the road diversions they enforce. These penalties are once again borne by the most densely populated regions in the city, which already tend to be the most polluted.

But perhaps the biggest challenge metro systems face is their sheer fiscal inviability. In the year preceding the pandemic, no major metro system in the country reported a net profit. The Delhi system was the only high profile system to enjoy an operating profit. Multiple analyses have pointed to the desire of state governments (which are often responsible for pricing) to over-subsidize fares in the face of falling patronage. But even though these governments have insisted on low prices, consumers themselves are still unhappy. Most metro systems are extremely limited in terms of the areas they serve, and no amount of subsidized pricing can fix the fact that metro lines simply do not go to most places commuters wish to travel to. The result is that metro lines in most major systems operate under capacity most of the time, and pass on their losses to the taxpayer. This has led to fears that they will meet a fate similar to power distribution companies in India, which have developed a permanent dependence on bailouts from the central government (see, for example, the UDAY scheme).

The Upshot

Certainly, given time and more funds, these are resolvable problems and decidedly, do not call for all metro development to cease. However, it is important for policy-makers to recognize both the limits and the intricacies entailed by a reliance on metro lines. It is abundantly clear that they cannot be the cornerstone of a national urban mobility strategy. But even as a limited component of this strategy, they require concentrated revisions from the government at the level of planning, development and operation. Monetizing pre-existing networks to fund future ones is not a particularly novel option in infrastructure building. Attention could also be paid to non-fare sources of income from metro stations, which tend to be located in spaces extremely attractive to commercial outlets. The government does not lack options—but it must recognize that it needs to do more than just build metro lines to resolve the imminent crisis in urban mobility.

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

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

Image credits: Dewang Gupta on Unsplash.

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