Urban India walks to work

pooja rao | Updated on March 10, 2018

On the margins: Today's car-centric transport policies are blind to the needs of pedestrians. Photo: Mohammed Yousuf

Except Chennai, our metros largely walk to work, as the latest Census confirms. Why is public transport nowhere in the picture?

It is a fact that the majority of people in Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata and Bengaluru walk to their place of work. This may surprise many readers, especially those living in these cities and dealing with snarling traffic all the time, but the latest Census data related to ‘other workers’ — those engaged in economic activity other than cultivation, agricultural labour or household industry — confirms this. In Chennai, on the other hand, two-wheelers are more preferred for travel, used by nearly one-fourth of the population.

It’s clear that today’s car-centric transport planning policies are not catering to the majority of commuters, and pedestrian and cycling facilities need to be improved. At the same time, we need to ask questions such as: How far do these commuters walk? How much of that time can be used instead in productive work? Are faster modes of transport inaccessible to them? The answers can be found, to some extent, from two sources of information — trip distances and the cost of using public transport.

Ways of moving

Nearly 80 per cent of people travel on foot for distances up to one kilometre. Interestingly, however, there is a sizeable percentage using two-wheelers or four-wheelers even for this distance. Chennai leads with 17 per cent, followed by Bengaluru and Delhi with 15 per cent and 9 per cent, respectively.

For distances of 2-5 km, the share of walkers decreases considerably across cities, by 50-70 per cent; about 75 per cent of the trips involve walking, cycling or public transport. In Kolkata and Mumbai, almost half the people use public transport for such distances. In Bengaluru, which has neither adequate public transport nor a significantly high share of bicycles, more than half the people walk or use two-wheelers for this distance.

About 10-35 per cent of the people in Bengaluru, Kolkata and Mumbai walk even when their place of work is 6-10 km away. Among those who travel beyond 10 km, public transport is the preferred choice — 70 per cent in Kolkata and 85 per cent in Mumbai. In Chennai, Bengaluru and Delhi, nearly 50 per cent use private vehicles for such long distances.

Clock the walk

At an average walking speed of 5 kmph, those who daily walk 2-5 km spend 1-2 hours of their day on it, and those walking 6-10 km spend 2-4 hours. While it is encouraging that our cities are not completely dependent on cars, one wonders why public transport isn’t more popular when it greatly reduces the cost per km for longer distances. Technically, for those commuting more than 10 km, public transport should be the best bet, but the preference for private vehicles shows there may be no comparative benefit in terms of convenience and cost. For those walking long distances, there is also the question of productive time lost to commuting.

Cost of commuting

World over, public transport is seen as an answer to conserving energy, improving air quality and relieving congestion — all critical factors for Indian cities. However, not much has been done to promote public transport in India. According to research from Indian Institute for Human Settlements (IIHS), fewer than 100 urban settlements have some form of organised public transport system; and even where available, they have been found deficient in terms of capacity, access and costs.

The World Bank had in 2005 calculated the affordability index of public transport in 27 cities across developing countries. Two Indian cities — Mumbai and Chennai — featured in the top 10 unaffordable cities, especially when considering lower income groups. Bengaluru wasn’t a part of that study, but is likely to be included if the index were recalculated today.

Currently, a general-category suburban monthly bus pass in Bengaluru costs ₹1,050. For a person earning ₹10,000 per month, the transport cost would exceed 10 per cent of income, which is considered unaffordable. According to the Street Quality Score 2015 released by city-based non-profit Janaagraha, only 665 km of the 1,750 km of streets studied was found to be serviced by bus-stops — a score of 38 per cent. All this translates into reduced commuting options — either due to high cost or poor access — forcing people to walk for longer periods of time. As there is no incentive to use public transport, an increase in income will likely lead to owning a private vehicle.

Equitable and integrated public transport is needed not only to improve people’s mobility, productivity and job opportunities but also to resolve traffic and public health woes. That said, public transport without last-mile connectivity — walking and cycling facilities — isn’t of much use. An effective public transport will take more private vehicles off the roads. The data comes as a timely reminder.

(Pooja Rao researches on mobility and urban informatics at IIHS, Bengaluru)

Published on December 25, 2015

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