From my personal experience over the past few years I have come to the conclusion that whether a city is cheap or expensive depends on a large extent on the cost of commuting. Many think Kolkata to be cheaper than other major cities in my country. An important reason is the cheap transport options available to commuters. On the other hand New Delhi, the capital of my country, is thought to be an expensive city mainly because of the high cost of commuting. While I was in Delhi I remember shelling out Rs 60 for a 5 kilometre journey. Whereas in Kolkata, the same journey would have cost Rs 12. Not only cheap, but also a wide array of public transport options are available to its people such as, local trains, trams, buses, autorickshaws, and an extensive metrorail system. No wonder a recent study by Arthur D Little, a management consultant based in Boston and International Association of Public Transport (UITP) said that Kolkata is the most progressive city in the country when it comes to public transport. Kolkata also fares better than several cities in developed countries including New York, Toronto and Melbourne. Yes, I know it is hard to believe.
Kolkata’s public transportation system may be better, but it is not good enough. In recent times, I along with other residents had to bear the brunt of a number of buses being withdrawn from the streets. Also, there are some areas which are not serviced well by intermediate public transport (autorickshaws and share taxis) and people have to walk or take a rickshaw. On top of that walking and cycling are quite risky on most of the streets of Kolkata. Well, the city is not Copenhagen yet!
New Delhi can be a very nice place to live in if you have the money. A few friends of my mine were so fed up with the errant auto drivers, that they ended up buying cars. I might cringe at the thought of the pollution and traffic jams that the increase in private vehicles cause, but at the same time I cannot blame people who do so due to lack of transport options. I feel that the urban vision of New Delhi is a faulty one. The city’s style of planning has resulted in more unsafe places. A step by the new Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal to take away the power of the Delhi Police to fine autorickshaw drivers who refuse to carry passengers is likely to put commuters at a more disadvantageous position.
If we look at the public transport system in Tier II cities, we might see a replication of the New Delhi model. In my state Assam, apart from Guwahati I do not see much of public transport options in other cities and towns. I live in Tezpur, and I feel the most economical way of moving around the city is by walking. If I am pressed for time then the only other way is to take a rickshaw, but unfortunately most often I don’t get one near my door step. There are others like me and some have found a solution to the problem – they bought a scooter/ motorbike or a car. In the evening, I avoid taking a walk on my own because there are a lot of unlit stretches on the roads. These are times when I feel that urban planning authorities in my country need a wakeup call. It is no use copying Singapore and imposing congestion tax if public transport systems are abysmal. Give the people an option to choose. A vehicle bought by a middle class Indian may not be an indicator of economic prosperity, but it definitely will make our urban future more bleak and fearful. I might sound dramatic, but a lot of environmentalists think on the same lines.
I am not an urban planner, but from my commuting experience in various Indian cities and towns I can draw up my list of expectations:
1) Auto fares need to be regulated in most of our cities.
2) Small energy-efficient buses in smaller cities.
3) Every other city now wants to have a metro rail system. I think this is a stupid notion and the money can be well spent on new bus routes, good parking facilities and developing better traffic management systems.
4) Let us make public transport cool to ‘cool’ urban Indians. I think the BRTS in Ahmedabad is a good example of how to make public transport more appealing to the middle class.