17 May 2016 16:55 IST

Metro rail: a crucial cog in the urban wheel

From London to Washington, Delhi to Bengaluru, metro rail is becoming indispensible to urban life

Humans have a unique weakness: no other species gets so quickly used to conveniences that never previously existed and wonder how life was ever possible without them. Metro rail is fast becoming one such convenience.

There are currently eight operational metro systems in India, with Delhi’s Metro often rated as the country’s best-run. Hyderabad and Kochi will get on the Metro map this year, with Lucknow, Noida and Navi Mumbai starting services next year.

Bengaluru’s Namma Metro, a project with interminable delays and poor planning which frustrated residents for over 10 years, finally opened its critical underground section in the centre of the city. This instantly brought the entire 18-km long East-West line alive. Journey times can be as low as 40 minutes end-to-end. During rush hour, this trip could take over two-and-a-half-hours by road. The line has become so popular that passengers reported that even during off-peak hours they could find only standing-room due to over-crowding. Suddenly, the system has given back the hapless commuter some of the wasted travel time..

Ideal for India

London Underground

Indian cities have among the world’s largest population densities and metro rail systems are ideal solutions. The obvious benefit is that there will be fewer cars on the road (hence, lower congestion on roads, lower fuel consumption resulting in a cleaner environment, lower vehicle maintenance costs, and fewer accidents) but cities like Paris, London, Tokyo, New York and Singapore have realised a host of other benefits.

Metro systems can delay the need to build more roads in already congested metropolitan areas. In Washington DC, transit officials estimated that the city avoided building over 710 lane miles with an estimated capital cost of $4.7 billion all because of the city’s Metro. The system is such an important element in transporting people into and out of the city that a recent fire in some Metro stations brought alarming safety concerns to the forefront. The US government, which is a major presence in the city, is likely to order immediate repairs to the entire network which might paralyze the capital city’s commutes for up to a year.

Collateral benefits are numerous. When people take public transport, they don’t need to find parking spaces for their cars or two-wheelers. Finding a parking spot results in wasted fuel and time, not to mention frustration. Spillover effects are avoided too: drivers, who drop their employers or passengers kerbside, no longer have to travel to surrounding neighbourhoods to look for parking. This benefit is less relevant in India, however, because it is a status symbol to have your driver drop you off at your destination and pick you up, all triggered by a mobile phone call.

Such symbols have little meaning for leaders like Michael Bloomberg, a multi-billionaire and former mayor of New York City, who always rode the subway to work. Even if you tried, you couldn’t imagine an Indian politician doing this.

Metro and money

Metro lines and stops are hubs of commercial activity. In New York and Paris, the multiplier effect of the Metro economy works wonders. Thousands of kiosks, book sellers, restaurants, bakeries, apartment complexes, hotels and convenience stores operate in the vicinity of the stations generating millions of jobs.

For people from working-class backgrounds and poorer sections of the society, metros are lifelines to get to and from work. Workers with early morning or late night shifts are particularly dependent because other transportation options during these hours are often unreliable or prohibitively expensive. The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA), the agency that operates Boston’s metro, recently cut back late-night service, much to the dismay of supporters, citing poor ridership. On several lines, the last ride now departs at 12:30 am instead of 2 am. This in a city that has one of the highest student populations in the world, as the region is home to such veritable institutions as Harvard, MIT, Northeastern, Boston University and Tufts.

India has a long way to go before its metro rail projects can compare to world-class systems such as the London’s Underground or the Paris Metro. The metro networks in these cities have been developed over decades through careful urban planning. A brilliant example is the Châtelet station in Paris which is a hub for lines 1, 4, 7, 11 and 14, in the heart of the city. It also connects to a regional train network, the RER. The last-mile problem — how you get to your destination from the metro stop — is rarely an issue in such cities because the network is so comprehensive that most commuters can simply walk the last-mile.

The Paris Metropolitan   -  creativecommons.org

If infrastructure costs were of no concern, India would have adopted metro rail solutions a long time ago. Unfortunately, public transportation systems the world over run under sporadic losses because the basic theory of market pricing can never work. If riders are charged the actual cost of a ride to include asset recovery, ridership will plummet to not even cover direct operational costs. To maintain financial viability, operators will then try to cut costs by cutting corners, resulting in poorer service. This leads to further ridership declines accelerating the spiral downward. The only saving grace for India is that population densities are so high that as long as passenger load factors — the percentage of riders as against full capacity — are high throughout the day, some metro systems can even eke out a small operating gain.

India has had a good record of running local train systems in the big cities. If experience in other world cities is an indication, India’s new metro rail systems will become indispensable parts of the country’s DNA, just as its long-distance bus and rail networks. The challenge for metro operators is to maintain quality of service while also keeping it affordable so as to not chase ridership away. And given India's bloated public transportation bureaucracies, this is no easy task.