Numerous Indian cities are spending big money on new public transport projects like Bus Rapid Transport, Personal Rapid Transport, Mono-Rail and Metro Rail. Unfortunately, simply planting one in a city does not reduce congestion just by its mere presence.  It takes more than just fancy coaches and strategic routes to make a project successful in the real sense. Success in such projects should not be based just on how many people ride the new service but also on how many car and bike users did the project manage to attract. So, although the objective is always to wean away car and bike users to public transport, what eventually happens with such projects is that they either:

1)      do not meet their ridership estimates that were made in the initial planning stages OR

2)      they only influence bus users to shift to BRT/Metro making the project just look good. In reality, it’s only an internal shift as  car/bike users continue to depend on their personal modes of transport.

In both the cases mentioned above, the project fails to reduce the number of automobiles on our roads which should be main objective behind such expensive investments. To back my assertion, I must explain the mode-choice theory that transport planners rely on to evaluate public transport projects. It’s essentially the analysis of (dis)utility of travel. It assumes that all rational commuters would like their commute cost to be as small as possible.

Without going in to the mathematics of it, the figure below presents a simplified version of the mode choice model used by planners to understand how people choose their preferred mode of travel.  Every feasibility study conducted before investing in a mass transport project uses the mode choice model and a few other tools to estimate how many people would use that service.

Mode Choice Model

mode choice

The dis-utility associated with travel is mainly due to four components; fuel/fare costs, parking costs, travel time, and comfort. A person intending to make a choice between car and public transport would consider these factors while making his/her decision. Public transport will in most cases prevail over personal vehicles as far as fuel and parking costs are concerned. Clearly, this is not enough as people still tend to prefer personal modes of transport even if it means wading through mind-numbing traffic jams. That should tell us that dis-utility due to the comfort component outweighs the dis-utility due to fuel costs, parking and even longer travel times. In my opinion, this is where most planners in India & even abroad are overlooking the basics by ignoring the comfort component probably because it becomes difficult to incorporate in a mathematical modeling process.

An obvious fact that commuters don’t fly from their doorsteps to the Metro/BRT station is often overlooked. They have to walk and wait which adds to the discomfort. To understand this better let’s consider two scenarios:

Scenario 1.   Your city builds the fanciest metro in the world which runs at a frequenct of 1 minute, is safe and gets you to your destination faster than your car could. But, you have to walk on the road along an open sewer which sometimes overflows, to get to the metro station. As a car or bike user, think if you would choose to let go of your personal vehicle and use this best Metro in the world to go to work. I bet that anyone who can afford a two-wheeler or a car would prefer to use it instead of the fancy metro just because the discomfort of walking to the station is way too high.

Scenario 2.   Your city builds a good metro which runs every 15 minutes, is safe, but takes 10 minutes longer than if you were to use your own car/bike. This scheme also includes a landscaped and paved footpath, physically segregated from the road, connecting your neighbourhood to the Metro station. Now think if you would forego your car and take the metro instead? Empirical evidence suggests that this option has a higher probability of inducing a “mode shift”, i.e., car/bike owners ditching their personal vehicles to take the Metro.

I used the above example to make the point that a landscaped footpath, which is the “first/last mile” of your travel route, will have a big influence in making the new Metro more attractive for the car/bike users than even the fanciest metro in the world can.

If reducing congestion is the goal, it is the car/bike user group that must be targeted. However, if the goal is to make life a little better for existing bus users by moving them in to a nice Metro, the landscaped footpath will have almost no impact because the existing bus user is not a “choice rider”. His economic situation forces him to opt for the only option he/she can afford which often includes walking along open manholes, overflowing garbage dumps, broken sewer lines and a host of other unpleasant obstructions.

Let me give a real life example to assert my point a bit more before wrapping up this blog. I’d like to use Gurgaon’s RapidMetro because the RapidMetro’s coaches are really cool and classy. You can see its photo here. Pretty attractive huh? But will it serve its intended purpose of sucking out cars & bikes from Gurgaon’s roads? I don’t think so, and here’s why.

One of the stops along the RapidMetro route is the Belvedere Tower station. This station is supposed to put people right at the doorsteps (of course with a short walk) of DLF Cyber City’s top end employers like American Express, Ernst & Young, Yahoo!, PwC and Oracle.  Here’s the layout of the area. The shaded area is where all these employers are located:

Gurgaon Rapid MetroNote: The Red & blue lines show the RapidMetro’s route entering and leaving the Cyber City area, respectively.

Now look at the area in the immediate vicinity of the Metro station in the exhibit below (click on the image to enlarge it):

Close up of Belvedere

Would you expect employees of Yahoo!, PwC, Oracle, American Express and other prestigious companies to take on this land mine with their polished shoes & crisply ironed trousers? Hell No!

I am not suggesting that the Metro will not get riders. It will because luckily for its promoters, there are enough poor people for whom cost trumps everything else. But these people are already captive users of buses & shared rickshaws, and are not as responsible for congestion as car & bike owners are. Now imagine if a well paved landscaped walkway were to be constructed from this station to the door steps of these employers. That would drastically reduce the discomfort associated with public transport and will make the RapidMetro a serious commute option for existing car and bike users.

What we are talking here is first and last mile connectivity which has a significant impact on the success of any public transport project. Unfortunately, neither the citizens, nor our public agencies care about this very fundamental need.  Compare the number of times you hear citizens complain about potholed roads as against the number of times they complain about footpaths with open manholes. It’s almost as if we care more about tires than our limbs.

The least we can do to manage the crazy urban sprawl being unleashed in India is to demand a comprehensive city-wide pedestrian and bicycle network. Besides reducing fatal accidents and encouraging non-motorized forms of transport, such measures will also be beneficial to car and bike users because of the clear segregation of cars/bikes from pedestrians/cyclists. I realize that Metros are sexy to discuss and walkways are not, but if we really want the biggest bang for our buck, fixing the first & last mile should be given top priority.

India’s National Urban Transport Policy (NUTP) lays special emphasis on building infrastructure to promote non-motorized modes of transport and it would serve us well if planners and investors start paying more attention to the basics.  Fix the first and last mile problem, the rest will fall into place.

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