The New York Times reports today that in the land of the automobile, public transport is now sought by a growing number of people due to rising ‘gas’ prices. We must note this development with satisfaction, and the NYT report quantifies the shift in various cities, ranging from five per cent to over 15 per cent, particularly in traditionally car-bound States.
There is a lesson in the American experience for car-happy Indians. If anyone thought that the present regime of artificially low fuel prices will last forever, they are living in the proverbial fool’s paradise; their daydream is being perpetuated thanks to political parties that have little environmental sense. The era of cheap fuel is well and truly over as evidenced in the spiking retail prices of fuel in the US, a country where cheap ‘gas’ has always been taken for granted (barring the 1973 Arab oil embargo).
We reiterate that this is the time for the political leadership in India to show sufficient foresight and compel state governments to invest heavily in public transit systems in cities and towns of all sizes. The American experience shows that such investments are best made when the economy is riding a high, rather than when it is recession-bound: there is insufficient tax support now in the US, when local governments would like to invest in public transport systems, and when demand is rising, because the tax realisation is reduced. In short, the best time to win converts to comfortable public transit systems from personal automobiles in India is now.
Sadly, the Chennai experience shows that an outmoded management framework governs our public transit initiatives. There is no regulatory or oversight authority, the monopoly bus operator is keen to raise more revenues through fare hikes, without a parallel and comparable investment in augmentation of fleets, services, crew competence, ticketing modernisation and comfort. Train systems run by regional Railways, like Southern Railway, are outmoded, uncomfortable with colonial era stations remaining completely hostile to passengers.
It is a shame that someone wanting to ride transit in Chennai cannot yet buy a day pass, a weekly or monthly pass with ease, when similar pay-as-you-go online facilities are made possible for mobile phone subscriptions, direct-to-home television and bank accounts. The Metropolitan Transport Corporation insists that people should queue up at virtually a handful of centres for a city of 6 million people, and buy their passes on designated days of the month. This is the worst monopolistic and outmoded method of ticketing one can imagine, and completely at odds with the culture of efficiency that people look for in a growing country. We have already stated that the MTC’s strategy of running air-conditioned Volvo services is deeply flawed, unproductive and negative in its impact.
We would like to emphasise again that the Union Urban Development Ministry headed by Minister Jaipal Reddy and other international agencies such as the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank suspend all urban development and transport grants and loans to the Tamil Nadu Government, until it begins implementing reforms to public transport immediately.