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India’s public transport challenge

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  • Published
    26th Sep, 2019

Among the several services that haven’t been able to keep up with the exponential growth of Indian cities is public transportation. An effective mass transit system for India’s large urban agglomerations can flourish only with adequate financing of buses, metros, and suburban rail.



Among the several services that haven’t been able to keep up with the exponential growth of Indian cities is public transportation. An effective mass transit system for India’s large urban agglomerations can flourish only with adequate financing of buses, metros, and suburban rail.


  • India is experiencing rapid urbanisation and the trend is expected to continue in the future as well Hence, the focus on providing sufficient and quality public transport in cities is as critical as improving the inter-city connectivity.
  • In order to sustain this growth, the Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs estimates that during the period 2011-31 approximately INR 21,75,600 crore (USD333 billion) needs to be invested in urban roads and mass transit.
  • However, the adoption of public transport is quite low in India. This translates into greater use of personal transport modes, primarily cars and bikes.
  • It also leads to negative externalities of increased congestion, increased travel times, air pollution and consequent health issues, more road fatalities and loss of economic productivity.

Challenges facing the Indian public transport sector and the steps required to tackle them:

  • Institutional structure and capacity gap
  • Lack of an apex central body having technical expertise: Transport sector has a presence of many agencies such as bus operators, metro operators, regional transport authorities, etc., leading to the different agencies operating in silos and without coordination. The lack of technical expertise leads to inefficient operations and sub-optimal performance.
  • Changing traffic patterns in the city: Due to individuals exercising their preference for workplace mobility, flexible occupations, and choice of type and nature of places to stay.
  • Outdating of point-to-point transits at certain peak times: Due to the changing lifestyle which includes people working from home, children spending time in extracurricular activities or tuitions after school hours and start-ups/entrepreneurs travelling far and wide to access business leading to varying demand. Thus, fixed circuit systems may be either unutilised or requires an even higher degree of first and last-mile connections.


  • Traditional modes of transport need to be re-looked with more flexible options that can align the varying demands to avoid expensive redundancies and under-utilisation.
  • Comprehensive transport planning and operations have to go beyond the backbone systems like rail and road to encompass all modes that permit a seamless door-to-door experience for the customers (last-mile connectivity).
  • Public transport needs to be reimagined as the transportation system for the public at large, and not necessarily being provided by public sector enterprises.
  • Thus, the definition of public transport should cover the entire door-to-door travel span of the user involving third party infrastructure or resources and thus should cover all non-self-owned, motorised or even non-motorised transport means.
  • Inadequate public transport supply
  • Buses are the predominant mode of public transport both in intercity as well as intra-city travel in India.
  • It is estimated that an additional 460,000 buses shall be required to cater to the urban public transport demand in the year 2031 in addition to various other modes of public transport.
  • Indian cities appear to lag behind in the physical coverage of the public transport network to most of the cities across the globe.
  • Current mass transit systems with fixed infrastructure/capacity with dedicated/ committed resources will become expensive and inefficient with rapidly dropping utilisation due to shift from peak hour traffic demand to more dispersed needs.


  • The government has been driving the provision of bus and rail-based mass transit systems through organised and well-planned models under missions like Jawaharlal Nehru Urban Renewal Mission (JNNURM), smart city, etc.
  • However, significant creation of the physical assets and capacity is required to cater to the absolute varying demand for a modern transport system.
  • Recent innovations in the transport technology, such as Electric Vehicles (EVs) and Autonomous Vehicles (AVs), need to be tapped for transportation planning in a more efficient manner. However, it also necessitating the creation of aligned assets such as charging stations for EVs or sensors and dedicated lanes for AVs to navigate.
  • Poor customer experience and lack of the use of technology
  • Customer experience of public transport in India is largely poor due to the absence of seamless intermodal travel, a feeder system for first and last-mile connectivity, poor quality of modes of public transport (especially feeders), etc.
  • Public transport modes are being operated at fixed frequencies throughout the day, irrespective of the time and passenger demand or poorly-designed routes, which are not in sync with passenger travel patterns, thereby leading poor customer experience and patronage of transit.
  • Poor adoption of technology for public transport services results in poor integration- operational and financial, and also unreliable services which manifests itself in the form of bunching and over-crowding of public transport modes, longer waiting times for passengers, poorly designed routes which are not in accordance with passenger demand.


  • Technology is transforming public transport. From increasingly ubiquitous app-based information systems to the more advanced ones like Hyperloop, technology is set to inevitably change the way we derive value from transport infrastructure and services.
  • Development of unmanned vehicles/Autonomous Vehicles/Pods and rapid growth of ride-sharing, peer-to-peer networks and bus/taxi aggregators provide options for individualised transport while eliminating the cost of under-utilised capacity by sharing the vehicles or re-deploying the same for another customer or peer.
  • It has significant implications for reducing the cost of transport while also reducing job opportunities for trained drivers.
  • At the basic level, these technological innovations can bring about rapid efficiency improvements and provide information to users that can help plan out their journeys better on an everyday basis.

Way forward

  • Taking an integrated view of comprehensive mobility for the city/metropolitan areas and/or national/regional geographies.
  • Viewing the entire eco-system (and not only the transit system) as a ‘black-box’ to ascertain overall viability and act as a financial intermediary between different commercial models.
  • Providing interoperability between transport modes in terms of quality, schedule alignment and integrated ticketing.
  • Making the public transport system amenable to technological innovations that can enhance user experience and make transport safe and efficient.
  • Facilitate the inter-connect between different service providers and modes.
  • Specifying standards and deliverables on each parameter related to customer experience for any/all service providers and monitoring the same.
  • Providing a mechanism for grievance redressal for both customers and service providers with options for modifying, in light of the changing business conditions.
  • Promoting research, development and innovation.

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