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Will metro rail systems transform mass transit in urban India?

Metro rails can be a solution in the top 20 cities, but not beyond, says Vinayak Chatterjee

Published: Dec 24, 2012 06:18:32 AM IST
Updated: Jan 7, 2013 05:16:09 PM IST
Will metro rail systems transform mass transit in urban India?
Image: Getty Images
Bangalore is the most recent city to get a metro rail. It is not viable, or required, for all cities to have a similar service

Somewhere the equation is wrong because the moment we start talking about urban transportation, the conversation veers towards metros.

While looking at urban transportation, you must consider cycling tracks, bus services, bus rapid transport system (BRTS), and light rails, much like you find in European cities; and then there are regional rapid transportation systems (RRTS).

A metro is just one solution that is related to the size of the city’s population. There is a popular perception that towns with less than a five lakh population don’t merit a metro. Then there are other factors, such as population density, the ability to pay, and finally the intensity of commuter traffic. All these have to be taken into account for a metro rail to be viable in a city.

Of India’s 5,400 towns and cities, about 100 require a 21st century urban transportation system. To my mind, a city like Chandigarh is ideal for, more than a BRTS, an electric trolley bus. And then, of course, a big city requires an RRTS because the pattern is linked to the model of urbanisation.

There are three patterns of urbanisation. First is a corridor along which a city expands; for instance from Delhi to Manesar to Bawal. These are not even cities but one cluster after the other. Second, you have satellite cities. The third is a pattern of suburbanisation, where a city is concentrated and the circle is expanding. Gurgaon would have been called an instance of suburbanisation but now it is integrated.

All these patterns of urbanisation require interventions. For a concentric pattern, you require a metro. For satellite and sleeper towns, you require RRTS. And for corridor development, you probably require something of a metro or an equivalent that is split into corridors. I think this is the future of India.

If you consider 100 cities, you have to make choices. And the choices are also dependent on the availability of a carriage base. Trying to squeeze a BRTS ends in disaster. If we had a BRTS at Shantipath in Delhi or along the Ahmedabad-Gandhinagar stretch, where there is a wide carriage base, it would have been an automatic success.

The Kolkata Metro did not create the kind of upswing (like the one created by the Delhi Metro) even though it is close to 30 years old. It is unfortunate that it has spawned a thought process in the public’s mind that they too need a metro.

A metro is an extremely capital-intensive project and has to meet all four parameters mentioned above. Many of our cities don’t.

The lesson for the future is: Don’t plan urban transport systems that don’t feed into each other. Today urban transport and city planning are seen as distinct divisions. They will have to merge.

Another aspect is financing. There is a big debate over whether metros should only be built by public enterprise. I think wherever a public-private-partnership (PPP) model is possible, it saves government expenditure. With revenues from ticket sales and real estate in and around stations, this can be made viable. Each case has to be examined individually. For instance, in an urban sprawl like Delhi, Mumbai or Bangalore, you don’t have a choice but to go for a metro. That’s because you have private vehicles congesting roads.

The question is how to finance it? If you choose a PPP model, you need to have incentives to make it viable.

What are the other models? One is where the government funds 100 percent of it. The Kolkata Metro was an output of Indian Railways. The second model is the Delhi Metro, where there was a 50:50 cost split between the state and Central governments, topped with debt amortisation over a long period. The third model is that of the Hyderabad Metro, carried out through PPP.

You must also remember that all elevated structures are not metros. There are many lighter options. Monorail is one. They are good short distance connectors with lighter traffic handling and lower capital expenditure. They could be the main mode of transport for cities like Dehradun, Chandigarh and Bhopal. Ranchi or Raipur needs a light electric trolley bus system. There needs to be awareness about alternatives. If your city doesn’t support the capital expenditure involved in a metro then you should not consider it. The suburban model, the corridor model and the sleeper model need different types of urban transport solutions.

Today there is no construct; urban transport means a metro, which is not correct. For the top 20 cities, a metro is certainly a solution, but not beyond that.

(As told to Ashish K Mishra)

Will metro rail systems transform mass transit in urban India?

Vinayak Chatterjee, 53, is chairman and managing director of Feedback Infra, an infrastructure consulting firm based in New Delhi. He is also chairman of the Confederation of Indian Industry’s National Task Force on Regulatory Framework in Infrastructure.

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(This story appears in the 11 January, 2013 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)

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  • Anil Kelkar

    The way this article has been compiled is wrong. What Mr. Chatterjee told the author seems to have been picked up selectively. There are sweeping statements without reasons being given, e.g. Chandigarh is ideally suited for electric trolley buses. Why? Of the three patterns of urbanisation specified, an example has been given for only one. The other two have been left hanging.

    on Dec 29, 2012
  • Muhammad Sirajuddin.

    Yes, definitely when they are planned properly.

    on Dec 28, 2012
  • Sujit Patwardhan

    Dedicated lane not width of the road is the crucial factor in BRT. One needs mass transport for carrying large number of people on narrow roads without being forced to demolish houses on both sides, so BRT (can be) a good option. If the road width is REALLY a major issue, the better solution is not to stop the bus (whether BRT or not) but the personal automobile as that is the most inefficient way of transporting people. That\'s why there are often options such as these in some cities with narrow streets. -- BRT in both directions and personal automobiles in one direction, but always space for the pedestrians (and usually also for cyclists) -- Only BRT lanes (no personal auto vehicles) -- Pedestrian zones. Turn the street into auto vehicle free (pedestrian and cycling only) streets. The perception that WIDE roads are essential for BRT is more a result of our hangover from the days where transportation planners believed \"Wider the roads, better it is\". Thankfully this is not the case any more, but many continue to be under the influence of old ideas.

    on Dec 28, 2012
  • Ranjit Gadgil

    Not clear why even the top 20 cities need Metro rail. At least the author should have been consistent and claimed that one needs to do a proper traffic analysis to see whether a Metro corridor is warranted. For instance, Pune is a top 20 city, but we do not think a Metro is needed. No single corridor needs that kind of carrying capacity. BRTS will suffice. The author also commits the cardinal sin of assuming that wide roads are needed for BRTS and ignores the fact that \"too many cars\" cannot be a justification for the assumed width of roads needed. TDM measures as always are ignored entirely. Finally the author glosses over the issues of land and the power it exerts on all decision making, when glibly stating that PPP models can use land as a resource. Opaque decision making and corruption prevent any rational use of land as a financing tool. In Pune for instance it is the increase in FSI for land adjoining the proposed Metro corridor is the bigger driver for Metro than the need for transport itself. Land is a big \"tail\" that can wag any transport \"dog\".

    on Dec 28, 2012
  • Manoj

    Compliments to Mr Chatterjee for a nice article. As an ex Indian Railway design person, I saw metro plans for 17 cities from 1970s, spark off Kolkata project and then quietly shelved, and correctly too. Urban planning needs to be integrated across various modes - buses, trams, BRTS, Rail and ferries - this is still a dream for Indian cities, though Chennai and Mumbai have made some attempts. To my mind, meaningful urbanization is necessary to boost manufacturing in India - industrial parks and SEZ\'s alone cannot. And for this to happen, cities need separate self-financing governance in place of multiple agencies from state

    on Dec 28, 2012
  • Arun

    Hi Vinayak, Interesting article. Perhaps there is an awareness of alternatives, but huge capital expenditures means everybody in the chain gains in the process. Is that a reason why alternatives are not being considered? It always struck me as strange why metro rail systems/subways are seen as a magic wand for all our transportation problems.

    on Dec 24, 2012
  • Manav Choksi

    Dear Vinayak, The article was interesting. What I want to know is, will people switch to Metro from the Noida Toll Bridge? Are they competing against each other? How do commuters choose between the two? Warm Regards, Manav

    on Dec 24, 2012
  • Utkarsh

    What I find dangerous is a \'me too\' mentality in developing urban infrastructure. A lot of our cities want stuff that they have seen in New York or Paris, without considering the location, temperature, cultural and other relevant factors. Decision must be based solely on how each system fits into the greater picture of better and cheaper public transport.

    on Dec 24, 2012