Re-thinking Urban Transport


Re-thinking Urban Transport

Re-thinking Urban Transport



Cities in developing countries are witnessing severe congestion and deteriorating air quality. Remedial measures have focused on increasing road capacity or building highcost public transport (PT) systems. These have not helped much. Hence, there is a need to re-think urban transport. This requires recognition that urban transport is different from inter-city transport. This paper highlights these differences, arguing that different components of an urban transport system must be integrated if the system is to serve a meaningful purpose. It argues that the re-thinking has to happen around the prevailing systems of governance and the current planning and implementation strategy.


As the developing world rapidly urbanises, the share of the world’s urban population is growing. Today, about half the world’s six billion people live in its urban areas. This share is expected to go up to 70% in the next 20 to 25 years. Countries like India are expected to add as many people to its urban areas in the next 25 years as they have today, meaning that the urban population in such countries will double within one generation.

fuels has raised concerns on energy security.

While the six major cities in India have seen a doubling of their urban population between

1981 and 2001, the number of motor vehicles in these cities has gone up eight times. This shows that vehicle growth has been much faster than the population growth. This is not surprising as travel demand is not just a function of the number of people travelling, but also a function of how far they travel and how frequently they travel. As cities grow, the travel distances go up, and as income goes up, people travel more frequently.

This kind of urbanisation has led to a strain on the available infrastructure. One of the services adversely impacted has been the transport system. Severe congestion, as seen in

Figure 1

, is a common sight in most cities. Deteriorating air quality has adversely impacted the health and well-being of the people, delays in traffic have impacted the economic efficiency of cities, road accidents have taken a toll on human lives and the growing use of fossil

Figure 1: “Stuck in Traffic”

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Re-thinking Urban Transport


Of late, the concerns about climate change have also led to urban transport being viewed as potentially the fastest growing contributor, from the transport sector, to Green House Gas

(GHG) emissions.

Unfortunately, the mitigation efforts, so far, have largely revolved around widening roads or building flyovers, as shown in

Figure 2

– in short, adding to road capacity.

Figure 2: Adding to road capacity

A number of high-cost PT systems have also been built in cities around the developing world but except in few cases, they have led to little improvement in congestion. In many cases, these high-cost systems do not attract the extent of ridership that was expected, resulting in investments being sub-optimal.

It is against this background that we need to re-think what should be done about urban mobility and how this can be sustainable.

Clearly, the direction we have followed so far is not the right one. This paper seeks to suggest a possible direction that could be adopted.

Intra-city Vs Inter-city Systems

Before going into what such a direction should be, it is important to first recognise that intracity systems are different from inter-city systems. Unfortunately, planning for intra-city systems tend to occur as if it was happening for inter-city systems, perhaps because the institutions involved in this exercise have been used to planning for the latter and do not recognise the difference between the two.

Thus, metro lines get decided just as they would to meet an inter-city travel need, but do not find enough users. Similarly, a lot of effort goes into building parking space, but it does not get used despite the need for such parking capacity. Some of the key differences between inter-city and intra-city systems that need to be kept in mind are the following:

1. Mode choice decisions for intra-city travel are based on time, cost and convenience considerations for the entire journey – from origin to destination – as against time and cost considerations for only the long haul segment in respect of inter-city systems.

Thus, in inter-city travel one would not make a choice between taking a flight or a train based on how easy it is to get to the railway station or the airport but on how much it costs or how long it takes to get from one city to the other. However, in intra-city travel, the ease of accessing the metro station or bus station and the ease of getting to one’s destination at the other end of the trip would be important factors.

Thus, access and egress trips are relatively unimportant for inter-city travel but very important for intra-city travel.

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Re-thinking Urban Transport

2. Intra-city trips are undertaken every day while inter-city trips are far less frequent, thereby making cost an important issue, as it impacts affordability.

3. Intra-city trips are undertaken for important livelihood functions like employment and education, whereas inter-city trips are more for holiday or business. Hence, intercity trips have a high price elasticity of demand compared to intra-city trips. Thus, if one cannot afford an inter-city trip he or she can avoid it. However, such trips are not avoidable in intra-city travel.

Unfortunately, planning for intra-city systems tend to occur as if it was happening for inter-city systems, perhaps because the institutions involved in this exercise have been used to planning for the latter and do not recognise the difference between the two.

Further, it is important to recognise that the transport system of a city does not comprise just its roads or just its metro rail system. It has to be thought of in a more integrated manner comprising the network of roads, bridges and flyovers, the PT system along with its associated infrastructure of stations, terminals and depots, the facilities for integration of different systems, the regulatory and management systems for the transport system, etc. Within PT itself, there could be multiple components involving the trunk systems, the feeder systems, and others.

It is important that all of the above be viewed in a comprehensive manner when thinking of the transport system of a city.

Rethinking Urban Transport

Thus, there seem to be two major issues requiring re-thinking:

1. The governance structure

2. The planning and implementation strategy

Governance of urban transport

For historical reasons, the governance of urban transport tends to be highly fragmented.

Often, road based systems and rail based systems are dealt with by different agencies.

Further, infrastructure facilities like roads and terminals are the responsibility of an agency that is different from the agency responsible for public transport. To compound this problem, there is little or no coordination between these agencies and each tends to develop and implement its own plans. Thus, the PT agency may have plans to increase its capacity but the road agency is also widening its roads. This is counter-productive as enhanced PT capacity should be accompanied by reduced road space if we are to encourage a shift to PT. Hence, this kind of situation needs to be corrected and a single agency needs to be responsible for policy and planning. There may be multiple agencies for implementation, but the responsibility for planning must be with one agency that has the authority to decide what will get done and

Enhanced PT capacity should be accompanied by reduced road space if we are to encourage a shift to PT.

Hence, this kind of situation needs to be corrected and a single agency needs to be responsible for policy and planning.

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Re-thinking Urban Transport what will not. Singapore presents, perhaps, the best example of how integrated planning rests with a single agency, namely the Land

Transport Authority (LTA).

Planning and implementation strategy

In as far as the planning and implementation strategy is concerned, it is important that each city prepares a comprehensive plan for its transport system. This would usually start with a vision of:

1. What kind of a city the people want – a city that is compact and people move short distances when moving from one place to another, or one where people can have large gardens and spaces around their houses, but do not mind travelling long distances to work?

2. How do they want to travel – in good PT or by non-motorised transport (NMT), such as cycling and walking, or would they prefer to drive their own cars, despite the congestion they may encounter?

3. How much are they willing to pay for travel?

Once some of the above issues are decided upon, it is relatively easy to design a transport system for the city. Of course, in doing so, it needs to be recognised that the transport system needs to be comprehensive and takes care of the entire journey, namely from origin to destination and not just from station to station or bus stop to bus stop. The following are some key characteristics of a good transport system that have to be kept in mind:

• It must be easily accessible. This means that it must be available, within easy reach of most of the city inhabitants – usually thought of in terms of the distance to the nearest PT station. This is also measured in terms of how efficiently land markets are organised and how well land use regulations are geared to allow high density use near transit stations.

• It must be integrated. PT usually operates over a network, often extending to several hundred kilometres. Invariably, certain portions of such a network would have high demand and certain portions would have relatively lower demand. This necessitates the use of different modes, with rail based systems generally being used on high demand portions and bus based systems on lower demand segments. Other forms of PT are also common in many cities.

This means that the different modes must operate as one integrated system and not as fragmented bits. Commuters must see the system as one facility that allows them to move from any point in a city to any other point, if required by transferring from one mode to another, in a seamless and hassle-free manner. If such transfers involve purchase of fresh tickets, long waiting periods and difficult transfer from one station to another, then the system is not a well integrated one.

• It must be safe. This means that the people who operate the system must have the competence to operate it safely and the vehicles themselves must be safe and fit for use. This is usually ensured through a system of licensing the operators after they have undergone the required operational competence tests. Besides, there are


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Re-thinking Urban Transport established systems to ensure that the vehicles and other infrastructure are safe for operations and properly maintained.

• It must be clean. This generally refers to the extent of pollution that it causes. There are also requirements for the periodic testing of road transport vehicles to ensure that they adhere to prescribed emission standards.

• It must be affordable. This means that the fares for the use of PT must be reasonable and not determined in a monopoly market.

These fares must take into account the objectives of “public good” that PT serves.

This is generally ensured through external determination of fares whereby the responsibility is rarely left to the operator.

• It must be equitable. This means that it must offer equal availability to all. If roads are largely used by high speed motor vehicles then it is not safe for pedestrians and cyclists. This is not equitable. If segregated foot paths and cycle tracks are part of the road geometry, it would make the roads equitably available.

• It must be sustainable. This means that they must be financially sustainable and also sustainable from a larger environmental point of view. While environmental sustainability is sought to be ensured through the mechanisms for emissions control, financial sustainability has to be ensured through cost efficiencies and a reasonable return on the investment.

Highly loss-making services will not be sustainable. Such sustainability is generally ensured through the mechanism of fare fixation in a manner that takes this principle into account coupled with systems that allow subventions from the public budget to cover the losses in operating otherwise socially desirable services.

If roads are largely used by high speed motor vehicles then it is not safe for pedestrians and cyclists. This is not equitable. If segregated foot paths and cycle tracks are part of the road geometry, it would make the roads equitably available.


In conclusion it may be said that urban transport problems are growing rapidly in cities of the developed world. The manner in which they have been addressed so far may be suitable for inter-city travel, but need to be different for intra-city travel. Changes are necessary in the institutional structures and also in the way projects are planned and implemented.

Coordinated and holistic planning is the key.

Often, this is more an “Art” than a “Science”.


The views contained in this paper are entirely those of the author and not necessarily those of the World Bank or its Directors.

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Re-thinking Urban Transport

O.P. Agarwal is currently a Senior Urban Transport Specialist at the World Bank and functions as its Urban Transport Advisor. He assists in and advises on all urban transport projects of the World Bank, across all regions.

For nearly 30 years, he was a member of the civil service in India and on one of his assignments, he headed the Urban Transport Division of the Ministry of Urban

Development, Government of India. He was the key author of India’s National

Urban Transport Policy and also developed a five-year action plan for improving urban mobility in Indian cities over the 11 th five-year plan.

He was also the Managing Director of the Urban Mass Transit Company, a joint venture company in India, engaged in developing sustainable urban mobility solutions. He has a Master’s degree in Transportation and a Bachelor’s degree in Electrical Engineering.


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