Integrating India's transport systems: an interview with Rupa Nandy

Rupa NandyWe recently interviewed Ms Rupa Nandy, Head of International Association of Public Transport (UITP) India; a global organisation working with public transport stakeholders and sustainable transport modes to support and promote sustainable urban mobility. With over 12 years’ experience working in public transport, Rupa has extensive experience within this division, having taken charge of UITP in 2019.

Cities in India have developed and evolved to cater to public transportation needs through multiple modes. However, there are several challenges these cities face, including congestion, high level of pollution and a disaggregated form of a transportation system. Through its National Urban Transport Policy (NUTP 2006), the Ministry of Urban Development (MoUD) and the Government of India (GoI) recognised the need for an integrated transport system or Unified Metropolitan Transport Authority (UMTA) as a move towards creating a more sustainable public transportation system within cities.

In order to understand more about the state of developing an integrated transport system in India and how the impacts of COVID-19 have directly affected the overall demand rejuvenation of public transport, we asked Rupa what her biggest challenges and priorities will be in recovering the demand for urban mobility.

From the outset, Rupa was clear in her belief that integrated transport does not currently exist in India. This led us to question her on what the present structural and inherent focus is and how it can potentially pave the way for effectively establishing integrated transport systems in India.

Rupa begins to explain that integrated transport attributes to a seamless journey from origin to destination when commuting through different transport modes: “The journey should be completely seamless, the moment you step out of your house,” says Rupa. “For example, a walkway leading from your house to a connecting mode, which then bridges to a major mode, and ultimately brings you back to a connecting mode to complete the final walk home, is what India is missing in its journey at present.”

The major challenges in integrating multiple transport systems are rooted in the way India tackles mobility issues in isolation. Rupa elaborates that, “Nobody has a holistic picture of mobility in a city”; there are metro projects, bus projects and pedestrian projects working independently instead of building an all-encompassing perspective of mobility. Tackling this concern with a viable solution is proving rather difficult. Rupa identifies that the current approach in India needs to be improved. “We are quick to take up a new project, but we don't stop to think that if there is a metro station, can the bus agency run a bus route that would further connect people to places? That integration is neither there in terms of planning nor in terms of operators or authorities.” She points out that the lack of holistic planning is further aggravated by the governing structure of different transport modes. Most of the bus agencies operate under MoRTH (the Ministry of Road Transport and Highways) while the metros are under MoHUA (the Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs). So, there is a difference right from the start. Even if these two modes resided in the same ministry, they would still be different operators managing mobility, and as a result, still face coordinating issues.

Internationally, one of the major characteristics of a metropolitan city is its expansive and reliable transportation system, comprising of multiple modes and unhindered movement when transferring from one mode to another. The integration goes deeper when a passenger can use a single payment system to pay for multiple modes. Transportation systems in Singapore, Hong Kong, London, Paris, Toronto, among others, are good examples of such integrated systems. In the annexure of its guidance document to operationalize UMTA, MoUD highlights the Land Transport Authority of Singapore as a case study to understand how integrated transport systems work.

When considering India’s need for integrated transport systems, Rupa reflects upon the parallel between structural differences in international transport agencies and those in India. “Internationally, for instance in Europe, there is an authority which does not operate bus or rail or any other mode. It ensures that all the public transport in the city is integrated and seamlessly working. Under that authority, you can have a bus operator, a metro operator, a light rail operator, a taxi operator or an operator that runs multiple modes. When you have a single authority in place such as the above structure, it helps to manage the city in a more efficient way. However, in India’s case, this (separation) is completely missing. We do not have this authority and operator structure; the agency (of one mode) is both an authority and an operator and the multiple agencies do not coordinate with each other. If you look at any of the bigger cities in India, such as Bengaluru, Delhi or Mumbai, there is no single authority that completely plans the whole mobility (for the city) and then divides into further modes to ensure a seamless journey execution.”

In its pioneering attempt to establish a UMTA, Bengaluru city prepared a draft UMTA Bill in 2019 which has not yet seen the light of day. Rupa discloses that even while there have been several attempts to establish UMTA in India, it has not quite worked out due to the complexity of getting multiple transport agencies to sit under the umbrella of a single authority. Rupa explains that in the past different modes have not been integrated in India, thus creating a legacy issue for these agencies. Additionally, to be integrated, these individual agencies would have to dilute their powers within the city, while the UMTA would be endowed with substantial powers, exceeding what the heads of these agencies presently have. 

Despite these hurdles, all is not lost. Rupa assures us that a complete overhaul in the system can potentially pave the way for establishing an integrated system, “We must start somewhere. The need for a city public transport department or public authority is vital. There would be resistance, but these authorities would need to have considerable power in hand to take on the existing ones. That doesn’t mean just giving them powers on paper, but also substantial decision-making powers to manage these operators would be a huge help.” 

Re-boosting demand for Urban Mobility in India

At the beginning of the COVID-19 induced lockdown in India, public transport ridership stood at 92-95%. However, as cities begin to ease lockdown measures, Rupa highlights the findings from the State Transport Undertakings (STUs) in Bengaluru, cities of UP and Delhi which all indicate that ridership has picked up to about 25-30% of pre-lockdown usage.

Needless to say, the demand for public transport is yet to pick up. As cities across India, juggle between lockdown and reopening, users will still be hesitant to use public transport systems (especially as India is yet to see a cease in the number of coronavirus cases). Rupa reminds us that both public transport and the air conditioning within public transport vehicles are yet to be confirmed as a transmitter of COVID-19. Thus, to provide a short answer to what it would take to boost demand, it would essentially mean ensuring safety and fostering trust again. Rupa goes on to explain that, “Transport operators would have to ensure the safety of staff by providing proper PPE kits, hand sanitizing products, enforcing deep cleaning, disinfecting vehicles and implementing temperature checks. Masks need to be made mandatory for passengers along with other measures such as contactless only payments, in order to minimise touchpoints between passengers and staff in a bid to feel safer.” Further, Rupa suggests that the government could also run campaigns citing measures they are taking to ensure the safety of staff and passengers during their commute, which could help improve public confidence in travelling by public transport again.

A step in the right direction, Rupa confirms that contactless payment systems are currently being implemented with 1,000 buses in Bengaluru. Agencies across the cities have begun to take up sanitizing the fleet and cater to the mobility demand of essential workers by operating on new routes to service them. While the bus operators are also trying to ensure a higher frequency to mitigate overcrowding, it is challenging for them owing to a shortage in fleet.

To recapture how India can pave way for a future course of action, Rupa shared with us her top lessons learned:

  1. Use Government assistance: Implement a programme such as the 2005 Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JNNURM) that increased private investment, increased fleet size and gave a boost to the manufacturing sector.
  2. Be financially independent: Owing to social distancing and reduced ridership, the farebox revenue of STUs will decrease. Therefore, they should focus on innovating surplus operating revenue or at least break even at an operating level, reducing its dependency on government subsidy and farebox revenue. 
  3. Become agile and flexible in its route planning: The bus operators took a while to decide on how they should reroute their routing and planning to make sure that the existing demand is taken care of. These STUs need to get hands-on with data and become agile to ensure that they can change with minimum resistance.

Data and technology play an integral part in creating change for the new reality we face. “Relying on manual data is still inevitable. For example, if a certain bus route sees continuous crowding from either too many passengers or an undersupply of services, this set of data can be collected and analysed to design new routes, which will prove much more helpful,” Rupa suggests.

While India still has a long way to go, it is certainly heading in the right direction. In its effort to implement an integrated transport system and foster higher adoption of public transport, India will need to proceed with the above small steps and bold decisions.


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