Road Less Travelled

On 3 June, the Chief Minister of Delhi announced free passes for women across the metro rail and Delhi Transport Corporation (DTC) bus.
On 24 June, the Chief Minister of Karnataka met transport corporation officials in Bengaluru and rolled back the recent bus fare hike following the demonstrations by students.
On 25 June, the Brihanmumbai Electricity Supply and Transport Corporation (BEST) sharply cut its bus fares in Mumbai by nearly 50% across the board.
These developments provided some relief to working people in three of the country’s largest cities, but simultaneously they have reintroduced the issue of public transport in popular discussion. Unfortunately, the voices heard in Delhi did not quite reflect the needs of the large majority of people who use or want to use the city’s public transport, but rather reflected the voices of a few who thought the move would be a waste of public money.

The 2011 census provided data on the patterns of commute to work for 20 crore working people. According to this data, 6 crore people do not commute and work in close proximity to their residences; of the remaining 14 crore, a quarter commute up to 1 km, while a third over 10 km.

Why do some commute, and others not?

Most cities and towns in India till the 1980s required not very long commutes and usually where commuting to work was a norm, there was an established public transport system that catered to commuters. Chennai, Kolkata and Mumbai were cities where workers came in daily from the hinterland in local trains and then took the city’s public bus system to reach where they worked. Today however, most Indian urban centres follow a pattern in which there are satellite townships around a major city which are often separated by large distances and require long commutes while there is no developed public transport system between these and the city, for example, between Delhi and the satellite towns of Noida, Ghaziabad, Gurgaon and Faridabad.

Beyond physical expansion, urban planning policies since the 1990s have heightened the need for commuting. Insufficient availability of rent-controlled housing alongside no control on house rent increases and on the skyrocketing price of urban land have pushed many working people, especially of the middle and lower-middle classes into these satellite townships from where they have to commute every day. On the other hand the poor get ghettoised into unlivable slums within the city. They are the largest section of the people who commute less than a km to work. This is because they sleep in makeshift shanties or in extremely precarious housing arrangements at relatively very high rent as they cannot afford to live too far from their point of work. Thus, new cities develop a certain skewed economic composition of people by virtue of their realignment.

At the same time, pollution has been a cause of rising concern in urban centres which has given industry a legitimate reason to relocate away from cities to areas where they have access to new first generation, often rural workers. This shift of industry from cities has pushed a large section of once formal workers and their families into seeking work in the informal economy which requires a constant search for work and longer hours of work. These are also the working families that live in the large slums within cities.

The other large section of people who live in urban centres are the migrant workers. They often live as a group which ensures their safety and security in an otherwise hostile environment. Some stay for years, some for months, others for shorter periods but despite their mobility the number of migrants in any city only increases. Some of them come alone while others come with their families. They usually live in slums closer to where they work but when work is not fixed, they too are forced to commute.


Recent efforts at slum redevelopment have involved razing shanties in the centre of town and moving the people to the edges of these urban centres where there are no school, no water and sanitation facilities, no hospitals and most importantly no work. The Delhi High Court in May 2002 gave orders for demolition of the slums at Yamuna Pushta.  Out of a total of 27,000 families, only 6000 were offered to be resettled at Holambi Kalan (22 km), Bawana (39 km), Narela (38 km), all distances from New Delhi Railway Station. Later studies revealed that the incomes of those who relocated decreased by almost 50 percent. The same is true for the city of Chennai. The metro rail construction in the city recently evicted over 500 families to Kannagi Nagar (22 km), Eranavur (17.6 km), Thoraipakkam (19.5 km) and Chemmenchery (29.3 km), all distances from Chennai Central station. The families were offered concrete houses in these areas for Rs. 5 lakhs and a resettlement compensation of Rs. 50,000. These areas have no proper schools for the children, no hospitals nearby, and most importantly, the resettled people need to commute a much longer distance now to find work. As a result, many have abandoned their new houses in these areas and returned to live in the city in slums.

Thus, commuting to work is a trade-off between the availability of work, the cost of the commute, the unpaid time spent commuting and the availability of affordable housing,basic facilities like school for the children and medical facilities. For most urban working families, average monthly family income is the greatest determinant of where they live and seek work.

The need to commute is not restricted to the poor alone. India’s top 1% who own 76% of the wealth in the economy also commute.  They do so using personalised forms of transport. In the year 2017-18, the auto industry saw a 12% growth, which includes two wheelers as well.

But the boom in the auto industry is not just because of the rich. The boom was possible because today you can buy a small car if you can afford to pay an EMI on a loan of about Rs 4000-5000 per month or a two-wheeler for as low as Rs 1000-2000 per month. The desire to own a vehicle is written in every imagery of the “aspirant” India. It is not the need for commute that pushes us to buy a vehicle, it is often the social need that governs the decision. Even demands for dowry often include a bike or a car depending on the economic status.

Financial sector liberalization has made it easier to afford personal vehicles. Employers tie up with financial institutions to extend easy EMIs to employees to buy cars and bikes to commute. This serves a dual purpose; employees no longer demand transport facilities (which also gives them time together to discuss issues at work) and their ability to negotiate with the employer on anything becomes compromised due to this new form of bondage. Net result is we have more cars and bikes on the road adding to the traffic and pollution.  By-product, is we have less union strength.

Costs of Commute

Accentuates Income Disparity: An interview with workers in Chennai revealed that some of them even spend up to a quarter of their daily wages on commuting by public transport. However, for those who own cars, they only spend a very small fraction of their income. This anomaly of course boils down to the extreme inequality in income that exists in our country.

Unpaid Commute time: Besides the monetary cost of transport, commute involves time and physical energy. The average travel speed across cities in India is just 24.4 km per hour. This means that urban commuters spend more time in our country than in the global north. In fact, a study in 2018 revealed that commuters in Mumbai spent 135% more time commuting than the average experienced in most Asian cities while in Delhi and Kolkata it is even worse. This time spent commuting is unpaid time spent to reach work. It often cannot be spent doing any other thing and it is certainly not time spent at rest. India’s commute time is almost 50% above the global standard.

Non Participation in Workforce: In many cases, especially in the case of women, long commute time means they cannot rush back home to attend to their children or old parents if there is any need. Not just that, in the resettlement colonies, there are fixed times given for water supply, for drinking water and if people miss it due to traffic, they have to live without water that day. This has forced many women, who bear the double burden of care work, living in these colonies to opt out of work and become unpaid care providers at home.

Health: Most urban areas in India are severely polluted.  Not surprisingly, 14 out the world’s top 15 most polluted cities are in India. Vehicular emissions, according to many studies, is the single largest source of air pollution. A 2015 study found that nearly two-thirds of all deaths from air pollution in India can be attributed to emissions from diesel vehicles.

The working poor are more exposed to this polluted air where they live, work and move. Further, given their low nutrition levels and hence low immunity, they bear a greater health burden.

Congestion and Road Accidents: The number of registered motor vehicles has expanded from 5.5 crore in 2001 to 21 crore in 2015. Expansion of the urban road network has not kept pace with this boom: in 2001, there were 1,630 motor vehicles per every 100 km of road, while in 2015, there were 3,861 motor vehicles. Congestion on roads increased 137% over 15 years.

Besides increasing commute time, this has also increased number of road accidents. 56 pedestrians in India die every day, along with 10 cyclists and 134 motorcyclists.

Economic cost: Road and rail are the dominant forms of transport in India carrying about 95% of passengers in the country. Leaving rail aside, most road-based transport runs on petrol and diesel.

India currently is the world’s third-largest oil consumer. The bulk of petroleum products consumed in India are imported. In fact, India now imports 84% of its petroleum needs. What this causes is a massive annual import bill, a huge trade deficit and great drain of resources to the country. Crude oil and petroleum products amounted to nearly a quarter of all our imports. In fact, in 2018-19, the oil import bill is expected to be roughly about 4% of India’s GDP.

In 2014, according to a government release, 13.15% of diesel is consumed by private cars, 8.94% by commercial cars, together adding up to 22.09% of total diesel consumption, railways use 3.24%, buses use 9.55% and trucks consume 28.25% of total diesel consumption. On the other hand, 61.42% of petrol is consumed by two-wheelers followed by cars with 34.33%. Thus, private transport including commercial cars used in lieu of private transport are the largest consumers of petroleum products.

Discouraging Private Transport

Free Public Transport: In September last year, the city of Dunkirk in France made local buses free for the 200,000 people who live in the area and saw a major, immediate increase in ridership. In 2013, the Estonian capital Tallinn was the first city to abolish transport fares for all registered city inhabitants. Luxembourg, a small European country, with a huge traffic problem, first the first country to make its public transport free.

This move as many reports indicate did not make much impact in these cities. The reason primarily being that free public transport in these centres were meant to replace cars. Cars are owned and driven by a certain income group who are not encouraged to quit their comfort with free public transport. As per the 2011 census and other studies, in India over 80% of all motor vehicles are two-wheelers. If free or even cheap public transport could be made available it could replace two wheelers, and then the shift would certainly be visible.

Taxation: High taxes on private cars and bikes could be yet another way to discourage consumption. Denmark had a tax rate of 180% on cars till 2016. Under pressure from car manufacturers and sellers, the parliament was forced to reduce the tax to 150% now. The highest tax on cars and bikes in India is 28%. Low tax rate and easy availability of EMIs encourages buying of private vehicles, sometimes even multiple.

Parking Rent: According to news reports, the rent for parking space in the city of Hong Kong, which has a severe parking problem, can often be higher than the rent of a small living apartment in the city. Even residential parking in public housing estates is expensive. High parking cost again discourages ownership of private cars and bikes.

Again the 2011 census shows that only 2% of motor vehicles are buses while it carries over 68% of all commuters. Buses are over 6 times more fuel efficient per passenger-km than cars and nearly 4 times more efficient than two-wheelers. Even in terms of pollution, if compared at a per passenger-km basis, cars are the worst offenders.

So, simply put a lot of the problems faced by all of us in urban commuting could be to a great extent resolved if we all shifted to buses or even the metro where it exists. They are cheaper, cleaner and more efficient than a car or a bike, and they certainly ensure a better and cleaner future. Maybe we should leave behind a cleaner world for our children where they can breathe than a few cars and bikes that they may not be able to ride.

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