Metro Rail: The Solution for India?
There's a heated debate over whether or not India should invest in metro rail. Photo via team-bhp.com.

Future metro rail cars in Mumbai. Photo via team-bhp.com.

According to Parisar, an environmental organization that works on sustainable development with a focus on urban transport, India is expected to spend 40 billion dollars in metro rail over the next 10 years. The proposed metro rail system for Pune (and other cities) has been the subject of a heated debate, given its cost and what many people see as poor integration with existing transportation.

In India, only two major cities, Kolkata and Delhi, have metro rail but a number of other urban centers are in the process of building metros, including Ahmedabad, which will have a project linking to Gandhinagar, Gujarat.  Bangalore and Mumbai are in the process of building rail systems.  The cities of Kochi, Jaipur and Luhiana have also proposed systems.

Parisar brought practitioners from Delhi, Mumbai, Hyderabad, Kochi, Bangalore and Pune to share their experiences in a two-day roundtable.  For more information on participants, Times of India has an excellent summary of the event.  Parisar sites the major concerns with India’s rail:

  • The transparency and accountability of governance systems involved in all aspects of metro rail systems – from deciding to have a metro all the way through to its construction and operation.
  • The treatment of metro rail systems as stand-alone systems rather than being a part of the larger urban transport system.
  • The lack of attention to planning that integrates land-use and metro rail systems, for better catchment, access, integration etc.
  • The lack of consideration of the impact of metro rail systems on the urban fabric including its environment, its architecture and its cultural identity and heritage.

Professor Dinesh Mohan from the Transportation Research and Injury Prevention Programme outlined his reasoning behind developing non-metro rail modes of transit in India.  He thinks that metro rail promotes urban sprawl by enabling people to live farther from cities and pointed out that metro systems do not save time when factoring in door-to-door transport, for typical travel distances of six to seven kilometers.  Instead he says that safe, pedestrian and bike-friendly cities with affordable public transportation resolve congestion.  He also mentioned that Indian cities are structured differently than European cities, which tend to have well-defined central business districts that employ large working class populations.

Another key point is that city-specific plans are necessary, not a one-size-fits-all prescription based just on city size and population. Participants at the conference also stressed that cities “must have a development plan and a comprehensive mobility vision and based on systematic and thorough studies.” They said that plans and projects should be open to meaningful evaluation and include stakeholders and actors from regions, not simply a single city.

Regional experts also attended the conference and shared their concerns in their respective cities:

Bangalore

Bangalore is currently building 40 kilometers of metro rail. The planning and proposal process has been slowed by a lack of transparency, including no Environmental Impact Assessment before the project was finalized.

Delhi

A gap between proposals for projects and actual performance signifies the concerns with Delhi’s rail system. Proposals state that metro rail trains would move 3 million users per day, which was later reduced to 2.2 million; and today, only 1 million people use the trains, despite cuts in bus routes and increased bus fares. About 200,000 families were displaced for the construction of the metro but only 50,000 have been resettled.

Hyderabad

Hyderabad’s metro rail, a private sector development, was described as being one-sided, in favor of the developer. Many viewed the proposed routes as cutting through culturally rich sections of the city.

Kochi

Participants felt that a metro rail system in Kochi was impractical, given that the ferry system is in need of improvements and there are existing suburban railway lines and bus systems that are under-utilized. Kochi supports a relatively small population of 600,000 people.

Mumbai

Mumbai has a metro rail system currently in the works, but the development process has been rife with controversy such as legality of land acquisitions, cost escalation with less than desired results, such as above-ground lines as opposed to below-ground infrastructure, as well as questions of timeliness and construction safety.

Pune

Pune’s proposed system has been characterized as poorly planned and ambiguously understood on a number of levels.  There has been limited citizen involvement in the project, the metro system is poorly integrated with other transport networks, planners have a limited understanding of local issues, and the metro system will significantly impact the landmarks of the city.

A full summary of the discussions are available here.

For many in India, metro is a last resort and should not replace multi-modal and integrated transport plans. Given the history of metro rail projects, plans should involve the public and be highly transparent. All construction should be evaluated for  environmental and social impacts.  Rather than heavily invest in one form of transit, conference attendees suggested improving pedestrian conditions and existing networks.

What do you think? In a city that needs as much public transportation as possible to accommodate its massive growth, what solutions are the most effective?

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  • Vivek Gupta

    I completely disagree. I think long distance transport are must in India else we are becoming far too dense in our cities. I sometimes wonder if some of the professors in india have any knowledge of practical challenges or just coming and providing useless opinions.

    Vivek Gupta
    PhD, IIMA

  • http://www.useful-community-development.org Nancy Thompson

    Thanks for the summary from each city, which indeed seems to support the conclusion that Indian rail systems may lack integration with the rest of the transportation system, sufficient justification, and transparency and accountability. There are similarities in American cities, I know. Yet this race to develop so many systems when previously the country only had two is troubling.

    It would be good to slow down and plan well. A metro type fixed system lacks the flexibility of other modes of transit, including the time-honored Indian tradition of bicycling. Bus rapid transit, where buses are able to change traffic signals in their favor and sometimes travel in exclusive bus lanes, may be a good alternative for the very fast-growing cities of India.

    It’s certainly possible that extending the rail line contributes to sprawl, a very undesirable characteristic in a country where sanitation and other basic infrastructure is sometimes lacking in the less desirable districts. If so, this is yet another reason to concentrate on more flexible modes of transportation that require smaller initial investments and offer the advantage of being able to be changed more quickly.

  • Akshay Mani

    Great post! Thanks for bringing the important issues with Metro rail to light, and the state of affairs in different cities.

  • Zvi

    In their race to create ‘developed’ economies, India, and many other places which are undergoing rapid motorization, are rapidly losing any semblance of ‘local character’. Western development patterns may prove to be our most pernicious export yet.

    I had the good fortune of having lunch with Dinesh Mohan some years ago. He is truly a fascinating man.

  • kellyrula

    Great summary!