Making Public Transport Free in India will Make No Difference

Many cities around the world are mulling over reducing cars on roads – and reducing vehicular pollution as a result – by making public transport free.

Brussels, Belgium was the latest to join the parade as Seoul, South Korea, and almost all major cities across Germany seem to have taken the leap.

The concept is very simple: On days when the air pollution levels are high, the city will simply make public transport free.

Brussels went even further and cut down speed limits on the roads while placing a ban on wood-burning stoves.

Out of all the studies conducted into fare-free days, the most notable one was conducted in Tallinn, Estonia, where the scheme has been in place for over two-years.

The results they found were… interesting!

The Tallinn Test Results

The first observation from the Tallinn tests was that the primary commuter profile on public transport systems were people from lower income groups.

After a barely noticeable initial few days, the introduction of the fare-free system saw a 14% rise in public transport usage over 2-years.

However, the most shocking part of the result was that the largest share of people who made the shift to public transport were – wait for it – walkers!

That’s right – people who were choosing to walk through the city to reach their destinations (possibly short walks) were now taking public transport instead.

A free bus ride is always more pleasant than a 15-minute walk!

The number of people shifting from cars to public transport was miniscule!

Trying to Understand the Outcome

According to the Assistant Professor of Transport and Planning at the Delft University of Technology, The Netherlands, Oded Cats, the scheme didn’t work as expected simply because people’s motivations are different.

“We know from many other places where people have experimented with short-term campaigns of free public transport that price is seldom the reason that you choose car over public transport.

“We see that choices of which mode to use are much more to do with service qualities. So, for example, if this investment is made in increasing frequency rather than reducing the prices you’re much more likely to gain new customers,” says Oded Cats.

In other words – making public transport free won’t make a difference because people are not using their cars because of high bus-ticket prices.

They are using their cars because cars are more convenient!

Oded Cats also added that most of the success stories of these fare-free days comes from smaller towns where the percentage-increase of riders is high.

However, a closer look reveals that the actual number of riders is, in fact, very small and the service supply was greatly improved too!

Oded adds, “So instead of having two buses a day you have ten buses, and then you report a 100-percent increase.”

The scheme had been in place in Hasselt, Belgium for many years, but they had to go back to charging their customers because it was financially unsustainable!

The Way to Reduce Cars on Roads

Oded Cats continues to say that the more effective approach to reducing cars on streets is to increase costs associated with owning a car.

People are more likely to ditch their car in favour of public transport if their car’s running costs – fuel, parking charges, road taxes, congestion charges, etc. – are increased.

“…only when drivers encounter the real cost of the choice they make, they can make a more informed decision,” says Oded Cats.

Which brings us to the one conclusion that we’ve known and said all along – people are not going to stop driving their cars in exchange for public transport unless they are forced to do so!

Cars in India are more than Transportation

The Indian culture is very different from the European way of approaching life, which makes it harder for us to find a similar solution to our vehicular-pollution problem.

You see, Indians consider cars as a symbol of their status in society.

It is not merely a tool for transportation, it is something to denote how far you’ve come in life – how much more comfortable your life is than that of a two-wheeler owner.

Driving a car in India is anything but convenient – the population of cars on the roads means that you are inevitably stuck in traffic jams for hours – and it doesn’t have to be peak hours either.

However, we still choose to sit in the comfort of our cars and complain about the jams rather than choose faster modes of transport like the Metro.

According to a 2017 survey by the Delhi Metro Rail Corporation, the average monthly income of their passengers was between Rs. 20,000 to 50,000 per month.

Only 9.56% of their passengers earned between Rs. 50,000 and 1 lakh while numbers for those earning above Rs. 1-lakh were just 1.67%.

The number of passengers in 2014 was 23.5 lakh per day – that number went up to 28.4 lakh per day in 2017, but the number of trains didn’t rise proportionally.

So the service quality of the DMRC has been poor, which means crowded coaches bursting at the seams.

However, some car-owners still prefer being pasted to the window of the Metro coach rather than sitting for hours in traffic.

Only 18.4% of the participants in the survey indicated that they owned cars and used them to reach a station – primarily, these were people who had long commutes across the city.

Then there’s the issue of India’s weather and our people’s hygiene habits – its very unlikely that people will ditch their cars to travel in public transport where sweat and stench is abundant.

The introduction of congestion charges in parts of New Delhi are being proposed – an extremely effective move if implemented properly.

Beyond that, our societal habits and notions will probably prevent us from “downgrading” to public transport.

This is one thing we would love to be wrong about!

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