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Policy Review: Sustainable Urban Transport for India's Rapidly Growing Economy

Urban Transport
Sustainable Urban Transport for India's Rapidly Growing Economy

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India's economy is rapidly growing, with the industrial and service sectors driving its expansion. These economic activities are concentrated in urban areas where a large part of the population resides. Currently, urban regions contribute about 65% of India's GDP, and this is expected to increase to nearly 70% by 2030. The process of urbanization is also on the rise, with more people moving to cities, and it's predicted to go beyond 40% by 2030. This trend is common worldwide, and cities usually stabilize at around 60% urbanization.

Given the significant role that urban centres play in India's economic development, it becomes essential to focus on building effective and sustainable transportation infrastructure. This will facilitate the smooth movement of people and goods, supporting further growth and prosperity for the nation.

Currently, public transport in major metro cities satisfies a considerable portion of the commuting demand (50-60%). Nevertheless, flawed private vehicle policies have led to detrimental consequences, such as increased congestion and travel times, as evident from the high congestion levels in cities like Bengaluru, Mumbai, Pune, and New Delhi – they have all secured positions within the top 10 most congested cities across the globe. The congestion levels recorded in these cities paint a concerning picture of the challenges they face.

In addition to congestion, the transport sector is the nation's third-largest greenhouse gas emitter, contributing to 14% of CO2 emissions. Major Indian cities, including Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore, Kolkata, and Pune, already exceed safe air pollution limits (PM 2.5) by 40%, with vehicular emissions being a significant contributor. This has severe implications for public health, as indicated by a Lancet study estimating 1.7 million premature deaths in India in 2019, accounting for 17.8% of total deaths.

The economic toll of inefficient urban transport is staggering, with an estimated 1.18 crore citizens incurring 60 Crore person-hours of time wastage annually due to congestion. The combined costs for Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata, and Bengaluru surpass USD 22 billion annually, with Delhi alone facing losses of around USD 10 billion annually. The adverse impacts of traffic congestion and air pollution on productivity and the overall economy underscore the urgent need for transformation in India's urban transport landscape. (Refer Table 1)

To overcome these challenges, this paper advocates for better adoption of modes of public transport via comprehensive strategies around better commuting experience, optimal utilization of existing resources through seamless intermodal integration and improved perception.

2.Current State of Transport in India

Despite significant public investments in infrastructure, the urban transportation situation in India has continued to deteriorate over the years. The Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs has estimated that an enormous investment of INR 39,20,000 crores (USD 600 billion) is required between 2011 and 2031. Out of this sum, 44% is earmarked for improving urban roads, while 11.50% is allocated to mass transit systems.

One such mass rapid transport system, the Metro has witnessed remarkable growth over the last decade. However, the persistent reliance on private vehicles still remains unabated. Even the number of registered vehicles in India has experienced an astounding growth rate (CAGR) of approximately 10% over the past three decades, especially in the segments of Two-wheelers and Four-wheelers in metro cities. This surge poses a significant challenge to urban road infrastructure which has grown at CAGR of approximately 4%, particularly in densely populated urban areas, exacerbates traffic congestion, leading to longer commute times and reduced overall mobility.

It has been observed that despite government’s (in many countries) huge investments in infrastructure & technology and higher land allocation for better roads & transportation, the desired results are seldom achieved as explained below:

  • Building more roads has actually led to more people using private vehicles, which has worsened congestion, increased travel time, pollution, and safety issues. This has created a never-ending cycle with no significant improvement in the situation.

  • Moreover, commuting patterns are changing, and more people are traveling at different times and within smaller areas of the city, rather than just during rush hours to and from the main business areas. This makes fixed transportation systems like Metro rail expensive and less efficient because:

a. They require dedicated and specific resources like space for depots, stations, and terminals.

b. The capacity of the transit system is fixed, while the demand for transportation changes in terms of time and location.

c. As cities grow and expand into former suburbs, transportation needs also become concentrated in those peripheral areas.

This gets reflected in the cost to capacity ratio also which is better for Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) compared to Mass Rapid Transit (MRT), as shown in the chart below.

Further, urban public transport is being under-utilized, with buses running below their capacity, especially during non-peak hours. This is also evident from the 2011 report of High-Powered Expert Committee (HPEC) on Investment in Infrastructure which states that major cities like Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata, and Chennai have an average bus occupancy rate of only 40-45%.

So, our hypothesis suggests that the Indian public transport sector faces significant challenges attributed to the following three key areas which has led to higher adoption of private vehicles over public transport:

Poor Customer Experience: Many people have a negative experience with public transport in India due to several reasons like i) the lack of seamless connections between different modes of transport, overcrowding and subpar quality of public vehicles and public infrastructure ii) the absence of integrated ticketing and long commuting times, especially during peak hours iii) Poor safety and low convenience, particularly for women and differently-abled individuals, is another crucial aspect that further adds to the dissatisfaction.

Last Mile Connectivity: A crucial factor in encouraging the use of public transport is the ease of getting to and from the main transport hubs. However, in India, the last mile connectivity remains a significant challenge. There is a lack of reliable and efficient options beyond feeder buses and intermediate public transport (IPT). Bridging this gap requires better research & data collection to predict demand and involving private players to provide suitable solutions.

Perception of Public Transport Services: A Behavioral Determinant: Simply increasing the supply of public transport does not guarantee higher adoption of public transport over private cars. Many European cities have witnessed this. Despite of investing heavily in improving their public transport systems, their adoption of same remained low. Thus, the key lies in addressing the qualitative aspects, particularly the perception of public transport services. Cities like Barcelona, Berlin, London, Lisbon, and Rome have made efforts to enhance supply, but the shift from private cars to public transport remained low. To drive this change, a clear understanding of people's perception of the existing public transport service and the major influencers in their decision-making process is crucial.

Perception is the most neglected yet a critical determinant in driving a shift in transport choices. To tackle this challenge effectively, the Indian public transport agencies need to focus not only on enhancing the service quantity but also on improving its quality and awareness. By addressing these issues strategically, the public transport sector can become more attractive, greener, and competitive compared to private car usage, ultimately benefiting both commuters and the environment.

3.Way Forward

Based on key challenges stated above, there is a need to prioritize the optimal utilization of existing resources over other efforts (like huge investments) and create an ecosystem that can sustain itself financially. So, here are some recommendations:

Firstly, there is a need to ensure seamless connectivity and for that it's essential to thoughtfully integrate different modes of transport across various operators and locations. Achieving this requires interventions at two levels- Institutional level and grass-root level. Currently, different transport operators, such as those under Central, State, and Urban Local bodies, work in silos (a major constraint).A single organization or body that overseesall modes of transportation can therefore be more effective. This way, there is a scope to have better coordination and efficiency in managing the various transport options available to the public.

On ground, there is a need to create a solution around the current mass rapid transport systems like the metro which has fixed routes but larger capacity (refer table 7). This solution can involve leveraging a real-time application for each metro city. This application can disseminate detailed real time information about different modes of transport connecting specified locations, time & fare comparison between different modes along with information about transport facilities for last mile connectivity. This application can have following additional features: -

  • Real time information of public transport system connecting searched locations like bus numbers, timings, live location tracking via GPS, occupancy status, and bus stop locations.

  • Comprehensive information about the availability, proximity, timing and fare of last-mile connectivity options to the main mode of travel.

Transparency accorded by this system can encourage people to use public transport, as also evident from case study discussed below:

Along with this, improving quality of available infrastructure, optimizing its use & tailoring available infrastructure to suit demands of time can also assist in bringing a seamless experience. Incorporating following features can assist in achieving it: -

Route Rationalization of state-run and feeder bus to complement the metro during peak hours. Further, we can introduce exclusive bus lanes on roads leading to key business hubs to reduce congestion and travel time.

Improve the quality of vehicles (state transport buses and feeder buses) and associated infrastructure, such as bus stops, amenities for specially-abled travelers, and toilet infrastructure. Further, adding work-friendly features like laptop charging outlets, and internet connectivity can attract more commuters, who currently prefer private vehicles due to these conveniences.

Embracing technology in public transport like common mobility ticketing through cards or apps to enhance the travel experience can be instrumental in this direction. This will also help collect real-time data on travel demand and supply (a major constraint- not enough end to end data of passengers journey). It will enable better analysis and eventually data backed decision-making for resource planning and creating more effective solutions, like ensuring sufficient vehicles at peak demand locations and enhancing safety for women and specially-abled travelers. Additionally, dynamic pricing can also be employed in fares to shift non-essential travel during off-peak hours which in turn will ease overcrowding and improve long commute time situation.

Also, collecting data over time from all commuting modes, as mentioned above, can be transformative. Making this data open-source, while ensuring privacy, security, and accountability can encourage interoperability, competition, and innovation. Private services like Uber and Ola could utilize this data to create better shared mobility services, which currently represent only around 20% of the total cab travel.

Next, it's essential to use data-driven approach to understand when, where, how frequently & for how long people need urban transportation options for short distances (last-mile connectivity). This information will be crucial in making the right decisions. Authorities can then carefully plan and choose various transport options like cars, vans, mini feeder buses, and LRTs to create a flexible transit system that works well with the main Metro or BRT. These modes can become the most efficient ways to travel in specific situations, not just for short distances. Information of these last mile connectivity public transport options can also be provided in above discussed application to nudge people to use public transport.

Moreover, there is a need to create wider footpaths with dedicated cycling lanes alongside roads wherever possible. This will make it easier and safer for people to walk or ride bicycles for short trips, promoting greener and healthier transportation choices.

Lastly, it is understood that in a country like ours, owning and driving a car is often seen as a symbol of prestige and status, so there is a high probability that the efforts may not lead to desired outcomes. Therefore, changing the perception of public transport is crucial for encouraging its adoption. Our media industry, including the Television, Bollywood, Social media, and influential personalities from all walks of life, have played a significant role in building this perception.

They can be the key influencer in reversing this perception by supporting and advocating for eco-friendly and sustainable transportation options. Movies, TV shows, and social media can exhibit/advocate (indirectly) use of public transportation in very subtle way, just like our western counterparts.

Next, raising awareness about the positive impacts of using public transport is also crucial. There is a need to highlight how it contributes to making our cities healthier and more livable for both current and future generations. Additionally, authorities can reward public transport users by acknowledging their efforts through regular shareable marketing campaigns that showcase the carbon footprints they have saved due to their choices. This positive reinforcement can serve as an incentive for more people to adopt public transport and become advocates for better cities.

On the other hand, to discourage excessive car usage, there is a scope to consider imposing congestion taxes and increasing parking fees. However, for this approach to be effective, it's crucial to have well-planned and efficient public transport services in place. There is a need to recognize that transforming public perception is an ongoing effort that requires the active participation of all sections of society. By collectively working towards promoting sustainable transportation, we can make a significant impact on our cities and our environment.


It can be said that the current state of public transportation needs significant changes to encourage more people to use public transport instead of personal vehicles. Simply increasing funds to expand infrastructure hasn't fixed the problems as discussed earlier. Issues like congestion, longer travel times, pollution, and safety concerns still persist despite of behemoth financial investment. It is because most investments focus on rigid core infrastructure while important aspects like enhancing overall experience and improving last-mile connectivity are often neglected.

So, through this paper, our aim is to stress on the importance of seamless connectivity between different modes of transport for cities to resolve their debilitating transportation system. Using technology is crucial to make the existing transport system better and faster. If suggested solutions are implemented in true spirit with the public and the private sector working together to encourage innovation and competition, urban public transport can be improved leaps and bounds. It would help reduce traffic, lower vehicle emissions, improve safety, enhance accessibility, and thereby, supporting economic growth of cities. This, in turn would help in bringing growth & prosperity in the country, in line with government vision of Sabka Saath, Sabka Vikas, Sabka Vishwas.

Meet The Thought Leaders

Laboni is a mentor at GGI and is currently working at The Bridgespan Group as an Associate Consultant. She takes keen interest in socioeconomic development issues, public policy, and equity across different vectors of gender, caste, class, and ability, which in turn fuelled her transition from working at a global bank to the social sector. She is an Urban Fellow from the Indian Institute for Human Settlements, Bangalore and has a bachelor's degree in Economics from St. Stephen's College, University of Delhi.

Meet The Authors (GGI Fellows)

Ravi has over 7 years of hands-on experience within the Banking and Financial Services sector. His focus has primarily centred on financial risk advisory and corporate banking, catering to a diverse array of large and mid-sized corporate clients. A notable sector where he has thrived is the Oil & Gas industry. His core competencies revolve around devising strategies for managing forex and interest rate risks, crafting solutions for debt and trade finance, and orchestrating end-to-end deal structuring.

Jigyasu Agarwal is a Political Strategist currently serving as a Manager within a political consulting firm. Prior to this role, Jigyasu showcased his expertise as a Business Strategist at ABB, where he played a pivotal role in the establishment of innovative business lines. Jigyasu is a graduate in Electrical Engineering from NIT Patna. Beyond his work, he is an avid reader of novels and a passionate badminton enthusiast, consistently balancing his intellectual and active pursuits.

If you are interested in applying to GGI's Impact Fellowship program, you can access our application link here.



9. Perceptions of the Public Transport Service as a Barrier to the Adoption of Public Transport: A Qualitative Study

10. India’s Air Pollution Challenge: Translating Policies into Effective Action

12. Emissions from India’s transport sector: State wise synthesis

13. International experience in Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) implementation : Synthesis of lessons learned from Lagos, Johannesburg, Jakarta, Delhi, and Ahmedabad (English)

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