Mobility In Urban India; Innovative Solutions Required

The question of mobility and that in the fall of mass public transport or perhaps till the time the pandemic scare looms large what could be the viable and sustainable mode of public transport.

Mobility in urban India; innovative solutions required

  Times of India

What will be the future of urban mobility, now, during the pandemic and post Covid-19? There are no definitive answers to that. Many cities in the world that had focused on public transport as a sustainable model of mobility are now debating how to make it safer. Safer, because even when the pandemic will be over there will be a threat of more frequent epidemics. A safe public transport is a challenge with which urbanists are grappling with. But before we go into the detailed description of the issue and the viable suggested alternatives let me share two anecdotes to build a context to the write up.

The first one pertains to the period when we were writing the smart city plan for Shimla city. Two of my adept officers, the commissioner and the assistant commissioner; we were of the opinion that water in Shimla city should be the first priority. This was also because the town was grappling with an acute water crisis both in terms of adequate quantity and potability. But, to our surprise the people through a widespread survey, instead, chose mobility in the city as priority number 1. This was in the year 2016. Invariably in most of the smart city plans, mobility figured as the first priority for city planning strategies.

The second one is of recent period, a few days ago I literally quarrelled with the police at one of their posts in Lakkar Bazar, Shimla. The reason for my argument with them was that they had stopped two young cyclists from riding their bicycles terming that area as no cycle zone. I had to point out that the smart city plan of the town in fact focuses on more use of cycles in the town as an additional mode of non-motorised transport. This is during the lockdown period when limited mobility was allowed.

Now coming back to the question of mobility and that in the fall of mass public transport or perhaps till the time the pandemic scare looms large what could be the viable and sustainable mode of public transport.

First let us understand the mobility challenge in major cities across the world.

In an interesting data release in which mobility since the last three months was mapped has exhibited that there was a substantial fall in people’s movement. Quite obvious, because the lockdown throughout the world was implemented by various national governments and people’s movement was restricted. In India the mobility brings a relative change of -5800 per cent. This in simpler term means that there was virtually a complete halt of the movement of the people. The change of visitors to their workplaces was -51 per cent and time spent at home increased by 15 per cent. Most of the white-collar workers worked from home and hence their movement was restricted.

But this would not remain for long and people would start coming out for work and for various other reasons. From ancient Rome to modern Atlanta, the shape of cities has been defined by the technologies that allow commuters to get to work in 30 minutes, states Bloomberg. The history of commute from pedestrian to the modern technological advanced forms should not have a commute time of more than 30 minutes, one way. In India 7 per cent of the total time in the day is spent on commute which is roughly two hours. In the metropolitan cities it is more than that. This time spent on the road is one amongst the highest in the world.

As is evident from the data a large number of commutes takes place either through walking or through the public transport. It is a misnomer that most of India commutes to work through a motorized transport. The data revealed by the Registrar General of India on the commute of 200 million working class Indian and who are into non-agricultural operations, present an interesting picture for mobility strategies for present and post Covid period.

Of the total, nearly 30 per cent of the people do not commute at all. Among the 140 million workers who commute to work, the distance is quite small. Almost 25 per cent of the commuters travel less than 1 km and another third travel between two and five km. Bicycling is another popular commute and almost 13 per cent use it to go to their workplaces. Public transport comprises 18 per cent of commute share whereas private transport’s share is 15 per cent.

Even in megacities, walking is the most common mode of commuting. In Kolkata the share of pedestrians is the largest with 39 per cent, followed by Mumbai 31 per cent, Bangalore 29 per cent, Delhi 26 per cent and Chennai 20 per cent. In Delhi, an equal proportion (26 per cent) takes the bus as a dominant mode of travel to workplaces.

In such a scenario, what is important for the urban planners is to take into consideration these commuting patterns; pedestrians-30 per cent, bicycles-13, bus-16 per cent. In the post covid situation there will be pressure from the rich and the upper middle class sections for greater use of private cars which will further harm the strategies of sustainable development. Already we have seen how the poor subsidizes the rich in the cities. Despite the clarity in the challenge the urban planning has mostly been for the affluent sections; flyovers, widened roads so that their giant guzzlers can move fast. But the reality is the more flyovers are made more cars are added which negate the construction of such infrastructure. In Shimla sections of the middle class have forced the state government to allow motorized vehicles even in century old restricted roads; Boileauganj to Vidhan Sabha and Sanjaulli to IGMC.

Despite the fact that most of the people who commute are either pedestrians or bicycle riders, the infrastructure prevalent in cities is the least in proportion to their needs.


The largest commuters must get the largest share in both the planning and execution process. Walking needs to be encouraged and more spaces should be created for the pedestrians. On the road side sanitation facilities must be made available with adequate quantities of water and soap. Similarly, cycles should be developed as a means of transport and should be aggressively implemented by the city governments.

Interestingly, the Atlas cycles closed its manufacturing plant in Delhi but in the recent period there has been a soar in the sale of bicycles, both the ones bought by the working class and some of the high end bicycles in the cities. During the pandemic there was a boom in cycle sales especially in the US and other developed countries as well. Amit Sports, a cycle shop in Shimla sold as many cycles in the last three months as they could sell in the last three years.

But commensurate to it, there must be a safe infrastructure and proper plan to make it sustainable. There are two contradictory examples. The first one is in Chandigarh where nice cycle tracks have been constructed and not just that the infrastructure has been laid, but there is a mechanism to ensure that the cycle tracks are not usurped either by the motorists or encroached. The Chandigarh police in consonance with the city administration do the monitoring exercise. Another example is that of Noida city, where very extensive cycle tracks were constructed by the previous Akhilesh government; but in the absence of proper monitoring the tracks have been completely usurped by encroachments. The Delhi government is also promulgating a move to construct such tracks. All good, but without proper planning of disciplining and conditioning the mindset, behavioural change for a couple of years; mere construction of infrastructure will not serve the purpose.

While doing a fellowship on urban mobility in Leipzig, I learnt that the city has a dedicated team of bicycle officers who are at par to our traffic cops. The conventional traffic police cannot monitor such tracks, there has to be a dedicated team who are equipped in knowledge and have the potential to act. The bicycle officers then are not just limited to the cycle tracks, rather they build an environment in the city for a safer bicycle movement.

Innovative forms of promotion of bicycles will have to be developed. I remember, immediately after winning the deputy mayor election we met the chief minister of the state of HP, P. K. Dhumal. He had suggested that increments/incentive should be provided to those commuters using bicycles as their mode of commute. It may sound quite trivial but just imagine the kind of change that it could bring about.

Secondly, it is important that the change is brought from the top. The leader must preach and practice in unison. Just imagine a situation where the mayor’s of cities, chief ministers of states start using bicycles to commute to their offices. It is not a halo of imagination rather being practiced by many countries in the world. This pandemic gives us the opportunity to explore such ideas and implement them.

The third important aspect will be to further strengthen public transport. Though there will be a behavioural change during the pandemic and people would avoid using it. But a safer environment in public transport can bring about a change. Proper sanitization and use of masks and other hygiene methods can bring in the desired change.

It is estimated that after the lockdown to make commute safer for people, Delhi metro will have to enhance the capacity six times, while Mumbai trains will have to boost services 14-16 times. Innovative forms of revenue generation will have to be worked out and just enhancing the fare model will have to be revised; for the simple reason that public transport is a social responsibility.

Some interventions for safer travel in public transport could be; sanitization, hygiene guidelines while introducing modification to ensure safety of passengers and drivers and conductors; dedicated transportation to workers from their home to their work; ensuring closing down of streets for vehicular traffic to ensure pedestrianization and cycling.

Tikender Singh Panwar is former Deputy Mayor of Shimla and Advisor to Samruddha Bharat Foundation.