Covid 19 has been an upheaval of epic proportions in recent memory. It has impacted people's lives to an extent that no one would have imagined. India stands second in terms of the number of people affected by the pandemic. With no end in sight, the government and people have started going about their daily activities in a ‘never normal’ setting for the near foreseeable future. This includes social distancing, maintaining hygiene, wearing masks, reducing unnecessary travel, and working from home.
Cities have been hard hit and urban mobility, an integral part of the city’s economy, has been severely curtailed, impacting livelihood and quality of life. With it the days of travelling in crowded public transport such as trains/buses and metros that were common in India came to an abrupt halt. Now with the lockdown being lifted across India there is possibly going to be a discernible shift in how people travel in the foreseeable future. There is likely to be a reduced demand for travel and public transport in particular due to fears of getting the disease. Moreover reduced job opportunities due to decreased economic activity and with many institutions offering work from home to their employees have further reduced the need to travel.
Uncertainty over how long the transport sector would be affected
Nearly two months after resumption of bus services in Tamil Nadu, buses are, for the most part, running relatively much below capacity even after considering the reduced carrying capacity of the buses due to social distancing norms. Though it is premature to predict how the Covid-19 pandemic will impact transport in the future, it is likely that the finances of State Transport Undertakings (STUs) and private operators will take a hit. This could have an adverse impact on the public bus services unless the government provides financial support to operators. At the same time, the question is, will people shift to private transportation in a big way considering millions of people in India have lost their jobs and their ability to spend money is severely affected. On the other hand, bus operators in states like Kerala have increased fares to address revenue shortfall or are unwilling to operate buses as they have become unviable. Even before Covid-19 pandemic people had started shifting to other travel modes as seen by the drop in ridership in buses. In 2010 Chennai’s MTC buses had a daily ridership of 55 lakhs while in 2019 it has dropped to 40 lakhs. Similarly Bengaluru’s BMTC have also seen a drop in ridership over the years. Considering increased fares for buses and due to fear of pandemic there is likely to be a further drop in patronage for buses. Moreover two wheelers are an attractive option for people as they are cheaper than public transport. It is possible that the middle class, a large proportion of which are salaried employees who mostly weathered the crisis, would prefer personal forms of transport. Therefore it is likely that two wheeler and pre owned vehicles sales would also see a boost in sales as they are an affordable option for this segment of the population.
A shot in the arm for Non Motorised Transportation (NMT) and public transport options
As is always said that any challenge brings with it an opportunity. Covid-19 has made cycling and walking a viable option for short distance travel while helping maintain social distancing. The Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs (MoHUA) in it’s June 2020 advisory to states has called for increasing investment in NMT infrastructure as most urban trips are less than 5 km. One of the challenges in reviving and strengthening public transport is the gaps in first and last mile connectivity of the city. Building NMT infrastructure such as footpaths, cycle lanes, and an affordable bicycle sharing system would help in increased use of public transport.
Automobile sector sees an opportunity
Over the last decade there has been a tremendous growth in the vehicle population in India, with an annual average growth rate of about 9.8% (MoRTH, 2020). Automobile sector contributes to 50% of manufacturing GDP of the country and is one of the biggest employment generators in the country. The sector is also seeing fresh space to grow their market. India’s largest car manufacturing company introduced subscription based services that allow customers to use the vehicle without owning it. If this service catches the public attention this could possibly increase car usage in India. Covid-19 pandemic brings with it two possible scenarios, one where people start using more private transport resulting in more congestion and pollution in cities. The other scenario being greater uptake of NMT based transportation with increased investment in public transport options. With competing claims for government support from the automobile sector on one side and the need for increased investment in NMT/public transport, governments are caught in a tight spot. Revenues from taxes are falling and the economic activity contracted by 24 % in the April to June 2020 quarter compared to last year and with the auto industry seeing an unprecedented downtown, would this cause governments to slash tax rates for the automobile sector or will public transport / NMT receive the much needed investment?
What ails the public transport sector
More than the automotive industry it is the public transportation sector and NMT that requires more attention. An economic stimulus package that provides easy and cheaper credit, a moratorium on loan repayments would help the operators stay afloat in these tough times. Taxes have been a major deterrent for the transport sector for many years now. Bus operators pay a plethora of taxes that include road tax, passenger tax, toll charges, parking fee, and GST on new vehicles. Over and above, interest is also applied to each cost component including taxes. If this is not enough, buses pay more tax than cars. While cars pay lifetime road tax, buses pay on a yearly/quarterly basis. Without fiscal support and tax reforms the future for public transportation, especially buses, looks grim.
Covid 19 has highlighted the importance of public transportation as it helped maintain essential public services. With the ridership decreasing and most of the bus operators struggling to remain afloat, the governments must take steps to revive and enable a transportation system that passengers can trust. This includes measures such as increasing the number of buses in the city, improving the reliability of their services through better information systems and better services like digital ticketing systems. Integrating different modes of transportation systems like the train, metrorail, buses with paratransit options like auto and cycle-rickshaws for last mile connectivity would greatly strengthen public transport in cities. Non-motorized and paratransit play a key role in last-mile connectivity to mass transit hubs in Indian cities. Chennai took the first steps in unifying these systems by setting up the Chennai Unified Metropolitan Transport Authority (CUMTA) with Tamil Nadu Chief Minister as Chairman. However the Authority has not met despite the government notifying its rules in January 2019. How effective this new arrangement would be, as the Chief Minister is already burdened with other responsibilities, and whether he would be able to provide the necessary attention to the transport issues of the city, remains to be seen.
Though tax SOPs to auto majors may aid in a short term economic revival of the economy, investment in public transportation infrastructure would result in greater movement of people and goods in the long term. This in turn will have an economic multiplier effect both in terms of job-creation and boosting growth and capacity addition in the future. It is also pertinent to mention that it's the economically weaker sections of our society who are particularly affected by the inefficient public transport. Mass transit infrastructure like metro services take long periods of time to be operational. The only immediate solution that is affordable, sustainable, and accessible, especially for the poor, is the bus. At the same time it is equally important to invest in NMT to enable better access to public transport. Though this approach was being advocated even before, Covid-19 has caused a flux in the mobility sector and this presents a big opportunity to make far reaching changes in the way we commute and travel. Business as usual approach would result in increased use of private vehicles. This would be death knell to the environment of the city, further eroding the quality of life of its people. One sincerely hopes that we as a community make the right choice.