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M Ramachandran: Urban transport in focus, finally

The National Transport Development Policy Committee's attention needs to seep down to local bodies

M Ramachandran 

M Ramachandran

The recently submitted National Transport Development Policy Committee Report, while covering all main modes of transport, has a section devoted to urban transport. This is significant, since this sector has never got exclusive attention and was discussed generally as part of surface transport. Cities are growing, and with the huge addition of personalised vehicles, urban mobility is getting more and more complicated. It is heartening for city dwellers that the committee has paid detailed attention to this emerging but traditionally neglected segment of our transport system. While it is a fact that urban transport cannot be seen in isolation from the overall city-planning process, what is badly needed is to give importance to such transport in the local-body governance schemes and having transport personnel in position at the city levels. The larger agenda of capacity building at the city level has to have a specific component of transport capacity building too.

There have only been some isolated attempts at understanding the complexities of urban transport so far; the fact that most city bodies do not have a dedicated urban transport wing has only resulted in lack of attention to this important aspect of urban governance.

The National Urban Transport Policy's statement of 2006 outlined an agenda, but since implementation is with the states, much of the action is pending. Then came the Urban Renewal Mission that encouraged at least the 65 mission cities to look at urban transport solutions. So bus rapid transit schemes got taken up in 15 cities. Another boost was when under the Mission, the Centre decided to finance 15,000 modern new buses in these mission cities. Also, thanks to the success of the Delhi Metro, similar projects were taken up in eight more cities and three more are lined up. Urban bus specifications have now been formulated and some metropolitan cities have started work on unified metropolitan transport authorities. But these are only beginnings compared to the huge complexities of increasing urban mobility.

So what is it that the committee has to say on urban transport?

It recommends formulation of urban transport policies and strategies in an "avoid, shift and improve" framework. Since sustainable transport is about moving less, the attempt has to be to reduce use of motorised transport, for which the urban planning system has to change and move towards judicious land use planning. Subsequently, the focus should be on "shift" - that is, change modal choice to promote lower fuel consumption for a passenger or freight for each kilometre, manage traffic and reduce air pollutants. Public transport needs to improve through an early integration of bus priority ways, bus ways and bus rapid transit into cities' expansion. Cities need dense, integrated public transport. Priority in planning for modes should focus on improving mobility through non-motorised transport, public transport, and para-transit and personal vehicles, in that order. Also, public transport should be made high-quality and user-friendly, so that the commuter uses public transport voluntarily. Energy efficiency of vehicles require to be improved, and use of efficient and cleaner fuels is to be promoted. Cities should move from a closed permit system to an open one for para-transit or intermediate public transport modes.

On the institutional framework, the committee says policymakers need to focus on "(a) the information and metrics basis for planning, design and operating aspects of urban transport infrastructure; (b) developing and implementing a strong transport demand management regime; (c) improving implementation of projects and coordination between investments in the urban transport system". As the primary responsibility of urban transport remains with state governments, state-level offices of transport strategy should be created and states should enact a comprehensive urban transport law; over time, transport responsibilities should be devolved to metropolitan and city authorities. The Centre's role will be in financing urban infrastructure and as a technical advisor while state expertise is being created. The Centre has to also create standards for urban transport performance, including safety, environmental impact and other national goals. One thing clearly stated is that the Centre cannot be directly responsible for urban transport in a federal set-up such as India. It has been emphasised that states are a natural focus for urban transport in India's current circumstances.

Investment requirements have also been projected and innovative financing mechanisms have been proposed.

The nine recommendations given in the report need to be considered on priority in the context of the proposed revision of the National Urban Transport Policy and the expected announcement of another phase of the Urban Renewal Mission. Public debate on the recommendations would help shape revised strategies and policies. For instance, whether the Centre should continue as a partner in metro projects. Another area for discussion could be regarding the perception that investment support in new buses by the Centre has been for the better as far as cities are concerned. The question then would be how can continued improvements in the bus system be ensured if the central role is to be minimised. Will it be better if City Development Plans continue to focus on urban mobility also and get support from the Centre, which in effect becomes a motivator for states to bring in changes? Transport is a state subject, but what does experience tell us about state-level priorities in undertaking required city transport improvement investments? One would keenly watch as to what steps states take once the central government, after taking a final view on the committee's report, advises states to consider the recommendations.

The author is a former secretary, Urban Development, and former chairman of Metro Rail Corporations in Delhi, Kolkata, Bangalore and Chennai

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First Published: Sat, June 14 2014. 21:50 IST