The chimera of public transport

 Advocates for public transport yearn for an idealised past when cities were compact and liveable. 

I had the good fortune of spending Christmas and New Year’s visiting Udupi and Dakshina Kannada. Apart from the rather dubious pleasure of meeting relatives and the more certain joys of consuming excellent traditional food, the region has its attractions for those with an interest in public policy. It offers a vision of an urbanised, middle-class India that does not involve cramming all its citizens into a few metropolises.


In the Western world, development and urbanisation has followed a certain pattern. Great cities arose in response to the imperative that economic activity required people to be located close to each other. As people flocked to the cities, their infrastructure was unable to take the strain, and for a period, the conditions in those cities were miserable, and people yearned for an idealised version of the rural world that they had left behind. It took decades for the cities to build the roads and metros that would make life in them livable. At the same time, the introduction of cars and other motorised transport reduced the need for all economic activity to be concentrated at city centres. Families could now live in the suburbs and commute to work. An industrialist could build a factory in a town 50km away from the city, a university town could spring up 100km away in another direction, and so on.

Such a network of cities and towns cannot be supported through public transport. It requires a road network and mass automobile ownership. Illustrating how fickle nostalgia is, advocates for public transport now yearn for an idealised past when cities were compact and livable, and when one could walk to buy groceries.

Of course, beyond nostalgia, distaste for suburban sprawl is an understandable desire to avoid the wasteful mistakes of the western world. Cars use fuel, and emit carbon dioxide. If India can build plan dense cities that are supported by adequate public transport, the argument goes, it can avoid the problem of suburban sprawl that bedevils the United States. It is better to do it now than to react after the fact, when cities are creaking from the strain of too many people.

The problem, however, is that in practice, this argument gains political traction only in places like Mumbai, Delhi and Bangalore– cities that have already grown beyond their capacity and are in urgent need of public transport. For the argument about proactivity to have force, we must see how it applies to India’s small towns. We need to consider Mangalore, Udupi and Dakshina Kannada in general.

That is where we run into difficulties, because it is as difficult to conceive of a region as large as Dakshina Kannada being served by adequate public transport, as it is to conceive of the suburban USA being served. To be sure, the region actually has excellent bus service, run by private operators. The buses are crowded during peak times and the wait times during non-peak hours are quite high. This may not be an unacceptable burden right now, but is it enough to stop people from buying cars and travelling by them as soon as they can afford it?

The solution, public transport advocates would retort, is to increase density. However, but this is not a realistic solution. Would people be comfortable with confining economic activity in Mangalore and preventing it in Udupi? Or if the town of Mulki wants to offer land to a software company to set up its campus, would that be banned on the grounds that it would reduce density? Would they be comfortable with coercing the entire population of the two districts to move into one or two cities?

Currently, land use restrictions and bad governance is doing to Indian cities what the cost of transport did to Western cities in the 19th century. Development is being confined to a few cities because of restrictions on sale of agricultural land, and because governance and infrastructure are bad outside the urban centres. If India starts fixing these issues, sprawl will be inevitable. Towns will develop and they will expect to be connected with one another through roads. A family will want to stay in one town, with the husband working in one town, wife in another, and send their kids to school in yet another.

It is clear that advocates of public transport haven’t though their solutions through. The scope of their visions of urban planning is confined to individual cities, not to networks of towns. They vastly underestimate the extent of central planning and coercion that their vision would require. India’s urban planning needs to take into account the reality of the networks of towns.

Photo: chmoss