The success of any smart transport initiative lies in their adoption and usage by the citizens, says O P Gupta, General Manager, Brihanmumbai Electricity Supply and Transport Undertaking (BEST) in conversation with Sneha Mejari of ENN
What are the key challenges in financing modernisation projects in road transport?
Public transport, especially public bus transport systems in our country are run by state transport undertakings. In cities, majority of them work directly under municipal bodies through their undertakings or their transport bodies; in rural areas they are run by the state transport undertakings. A lion’s share of the municipal transport undertakings are run either as a department of the municipal corporation or as in special cases like BEST, which is a fully independent undertaking to run the transport system.
Current financial situation of all these undertakings is poor for the simple reason that recovering the charges through fare box collection is really not possible in public transport. And as we see all over the world, the public road transport in cities is subsidised directly by municipal bodies or the governments by the way of cash subsidy. In India, since the system has not yet been funded directly by the state government, apart from few cities like Delhi where the government funds the Delhi Transport Corporation (DTC) through the budget. Majority of cities in Maharashtra or Gujarat are funded through municipal budget. And this leads to severe limitations in the finances, as the municipal budget in not enough to really upgrade the transport infrastructures or introduce modern buses, modern technology, street furniture, ICT and even fall short for providing basic passenger amenities.
Will bringing FDI in road transport be a solution for upgrading it?
Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) is a boon for ailing city transport bodies. FDI in terms of soft loan to the corporation or in terms of municipal transport bonds can provide the necessary finances to upgrade the transport systems. Once the systems are upgraded to a level where the people are incentivised to leave their private transport and use public transports for their day-to-day commute, then the fare box collections in India can really sustain it. However, the issue is that the higher income group does not travel in public transport; they use private transport which is much more costly. So even today, they are spending much more money on commuting than they would in case we have good efficient public transport.
Is there a willingness to pay for good public transport services amongst citizens?
Mumbai metro is an example which can play as a curtain raiser to prove that if you provide good transport systems, then people will be willing to pay for it. Bus transports will have to have a similar standard of the mass transit systems which are coming now in most of the cities in India. This will ensure seamless connectivity in a comfortable mode of transport. It will be better for road congestion and traffic on road.
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So, once the minimum level of services and infrastructures is reached public transport will be self-sufficient through fare box collection. Till that time we need real subsidies from the government to reach that level or we need FDI.
Will bringing FDI in transport be problematic according to you?
I don’t see any problem but the real policy decision has to be taken by the central government and state government. Once the decision is taken on the higher level, then the implementation factor becomes easy. FDI can be in the form of direct cash or equipment, because the buses that we have in India for public transport are lacking in quality, or the infrastructure support. So, the money coming through FDI, once the policy decision is made at the highest level, should not be a problem at all.
What do you think can be the future of the local transport?
Indian cities are at a very important juncture today. If you look at growth of cities world over, almost every city has gone through this stage which we are going today. The International Association of Public Transport (UITP) has come up with reports which suggest that where ever the governments are putting infrastructures on development of efficient public transport, the city growth is much better and the cities are much smarter.
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The government is taking measures like congestion charges or putting restriction on number of cars in area or vehicle free zones. We are in a situation today where private vehicle ownership is very low. Lot of people are more inclined to use public transport if available. For example, in Mumbai city, 80 percent of people use public transport. These numbers used to be higher a few years back. But, if we leverage these numbers to provide the infrastructures and use our public transport network to discourage private transport inside the cities, then our cities can grow in much more smarter ways than other cities which have grown in previous years.
In terms of policy we are at a very critical juncture and the Government of India has really understood and emphasised this aspect and therefore the national urban transport policy actually talks about it. Today, the real need is to put national urban transport policy in practices and implement it in full force.
Please share your views on transformation of transport under smart cities programme?
Convergence of public transport is the first step to develop the city. World over multiple mode of transports are always integrated through such places. In cities like Hong Kong, London etc, all the modes of transport converge at a given point in the cities. And therefore we are using the world smart station; the convergence is the first step. In fact this exists in Mumbai to a great extent. We have failed to capitalise on these things and had not been able to implement them totally. Modern city planners have to keep in mind the basic needs of city with the modern technology and infrastructures. Smart cities project will push for smart and intelligent transportation systems in India.