Featured in Town Planning Review 92.2: COVID-19 and Public Transport Conundrum in India

The editors of Town Planning Review (TPR) have selected the following paper as a Featured Viewpoint in TPR 92.2.

COVID-19 and Public Transport Conundrum in India‘ by Darshini Mahadevia and Chandrima Mukhopadhyay

When asked to describe the paper and highlight its importance, the authors stated the following:

As a response to COVID-19, India locked down for a continuous 68 days starting on 25 March 2020, during which inter-city/state and intra-city public transport was totally suspended for the first fifty days. During this period, the intra-city public transport too remained suspended. Economic activities opened up in the cities from June 1, 2020, but captive users of public transport were immobile, particularly in the metropolitan cities. The impact of COVID-19 on public transport has to be seen against the existing larger public transport related issues in Indian cities.

The captive users of public transport are low-income groups and women; with household prosperity, the men shift to private vehicles: two-wheelers or four wheelers. Public transport is inefficient, has unreliable service and low frequency of operation, does not have enough coverage, and is thus overcrowded causing potential for harassment of women. Even with subsidy, the service is unaffordable to low-income population, while the private sector operators run on losses. The first mile-last mile connectivity remains a challenge. The first conundrum is that there is massive latent demand for public transport, particularly among the low-income households and women; the choice users refrain from using public transport due to above-mentioned reasons, and use private vehicles contributing to traffic congestion; private vehicle users, who are higher-income groups, lobby with the government to divert the funding to improve private vehicle infrastructure instead of public transport infrastructure; and hence reduced access and mobility of a segment of population continues. In the absence of affordable and reliable public transport, Intermediate Public Transport (IPT) fills in the vacuum and provides mobility options in a bottom-up approach, largely supplied by the informal sector. However, many forms of such services are highly polluting, and IPT operators threaten women safety. For IPT shared vehicles, people sit-in cheek by jowl (i.e. over-crowded), and hence are unsafe due to lack of social distance maintained specially during the pandemic, in spite of strict action taken by the police.

COVID-19 is a window of opportunity to transit to a just and sustainable future. Post COVID-19, the public transport systems and IPTs are required to improve its Quality of Service (QoS) in terms of hygiene, including the physical distancing norms. This would reduce the capacity of vehicles, calling for increase in public transport fleet as well as frequency of their operation. The need for improved mobility of the low-income populations and women has to be kept in mind. The fare of the public transport and IPT services will have to remain affordable, and hence the city governments have to prioritise investments in public transport instead of private vehicle infrastructure, and incentivising private vehicle users shift to public transport with improved QoS. Since electrification of public transport and IPT is already a priority of the national government, this could help reducing the operation costs in future. The national government has formulated programmes to deliver non-motorised transport infrastructures (cycling and walkways) as feeder services, to meet the first mile-last mile connectivity. In essence, the public-transport conundrum in Indian cities has to be a conjunction of public health, climate-change mitigation and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), meeting the SDGs of health, employment and climate change.

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