It was around 4.30pm in a congested lane next to Jhandewalan cycle market in Delhi. The pavement was full of commercial stalls selling food, vegetables, cigarettes, and chai leaving little space for pedestrians like me. A white truck whizzed past a few centimetres away from my nose. It could have finished me. I stood gaping at the bright orange flag, mounted on the truck, fluttering in the thickly polluted Delhi air that barely allowed breath. At the intersection ahead, it let loose a burst of honking competing with an e-rickshaw, or tuktuk, and a horde of other vehicles. It was the archetypal Delhi street and traffic – congested, unsafe, polluting and noisy.
The city’s alarming air and noise pollution levels, continuing for several years in a row now, have a lot to do with its transport besides, of course, other factors. This is particularly acute in the winter months when the visibility dips to zero and forces a closure of various activities. In a city that was famously built by different powers over centuries, now housing nearly 20 million people, the modes of transport have dramatically changed.
Nearly 40 percent of the city’s commuters use metro network, Delhi Transport Corporation (DTC) and cluster bus services while the rest manages daily travel via private transport.  These three dominate Delhi’s public transport. Approximately 2.5 million commuters board the metro while 3.2 million use the buses daily. Modern-day Delhi has not been known for an efficient, safe and reliable public transport network. Yet, this holds the key to the city’s future.
The deadlock between its poor quality air – dubiously placing it among the world’s most polluted cities – and high reliance on private automobiles which contribute more than 40 percent to the city’s atmospheric pollution can only be broken by policies and decisions that make public transport accessible, safe and convenient for most people.
The city cannot avoid a certain level of private automobiles given its place as the national capital. Its expansion into Delhi-NCR (National Capital Region) has meant long commutes, for which the middle and upper-middle classes prefer cars. Besides the Parliament, the central government offices and the Supreme Court of India which call for secure private transport, Delhi-NCR houses many media headquarters, 30 universities, 66 large hospitals, and innumerable markets like the one I was in. With work opportunities rising here and in thousands of factories in the organised and unorganised sectors, the city is a migrant workers’ destination.
Its population is estimated to reach 28-30 million by 2041, according to the Master Plan. This coupled with the increasing ownership and use of private vehicles, will make its transport framework even more important. What the modal share will be between public and private will have an impact on emissions and pollution. Given the expansive layout of Delhi-NCR and high access to private vehicles, it will be difficult for authorities to persuade people to shift to public transport – even if the buses and metro were to be made safer, more reliable and comfortable than they are today. Expanding the budgets of the Delhi Metro Rail Corporation and the DTC may help.
However, another way to break the deadlock between air pollution and traffic emissions would be for all transport modes to switch to green mobility. ‘Going green’ should be an important aspect of the Delhi-NCR transport plan. The consistent campaign in the last decade by the Centre for Science and Environment and others, including in the courts, saw the city’s buses shift to Compressed Natural Gas (CNG) as fuel in 2010. This has to now move to the next level where the transport policy encourages private automobiles to go as green as possible with a mix of incentives and penalties.
The dichotomy of Delhi’s buses
Delhi’s public transport network encompasses approximately 300 metro trains covering 288 metro stations a combined fleet of nearly 7,200 DTC and cluster buses, 4,500 registered e-rickshaws and more than 3 million registered cars. The metro registered its highest daily ridership last September with nearly 7 million commuters while the bus network carries an average of 2.5 million a day.
With the metro not affordable for certain classes of people – 40 percent of women found it unaffordable in the Ease of Moving Index — the bus system acquires importance. The total fleet of DTC and cluster buses went up by 24 percent between 2017-18 and 2021-22 but, disturbingly, the commuters carried per bus daily fell by 48 percent in that time (from 878 to 487 in DTC buses and from 753 to 351 in cluster buses).
The sharp decline in bus ridership holds the key to the city’s public transport strategy. While a few commuters may have shifted to the metro, this is not a large and common shift. The DTC has among the world’s largest fleet of old buses, Delhi’s bus commuting has become infamous for its hazards, especially for women and girls, and the traffic congestion means that buses are stuck for what seems like endless hours exposing passengers to fumes and dust.
The Aam Aadmi Party government made ambitious plans to increase the number of buses to nearly 10,500 by the year 2025, of which 80 percent would be zero-emission electric buses, as announced last December. If it happens as planned, it would be a massive increase in the bus fleet for the first time after CNG buses were inducted. At present, there are only 1,300 electric buses. The journal Mongabay reported that if electric buses start running on Delhi roads, “there could be a total reduction of 44 tonnes of Particulate Matter (PM) 2.5 per year, and 1,370 cases of avoided mortality and 2,808 cases of avoided hospital admissions annually.”
The ageing fleet is hazardous to the environment as emissions increase and there are frequent bus breakdowns. On average, there are 25 bus breakdowns every day, creating or adding to hours of congestion. Paharganj area witnesses the maximum number of such breakdowns. This is not the only issue. The bus network’s infrastructure leaves a lot to desire – low-lit bus stands, lack of security for women and girls, sexual harassment on buses and so on – which means that women use other forms of transport, often spending a lot more, or do not travel as much as they would like to.
After the introduction of the ‘pink ticket scheme’ for women in DTC buses in 2019 to increase women riders, there has been an increase in their numbers. But pink tickets do not address a core issue – they may be safer inside the buses but, in the absence of improved infrastructure, the risks persist at the bus stops.
“I take a 20-minute safe and comfortable bus ride from INA to Janpath to work at the NDMC office. Pink tickets make it free for me but often men block the boarding gates to rob people,” says Shashi Singh, 49, who makes it a point to avoid buses at night or for longer routes. Others are not so confident. 23-year-old Anushka Asthana, ex-student at Ramjas college recalls her time in buses: “I could see that not just one but every man was looking at the same spot – my cleavage.” Many others speak of inappropriate touch, verbal and sexual molestation on a regular basis.
These issues cannot be addressed by ‘pink ticket’ which is about the economics – not safety – of travel. Policy initiatives could make a difference such as increasing safety levels inside buses and training women drivers and other staff too, increasing women-only buses, ensuring last-mile connectivity and so on. In public transport, safety can only be assured by a shift in the community gaze or male gaze. To the extent that women’s ridership and mobility are impacted by them, there is a need to address them.
Delhi’s lifeline metro needs a lift
“Agla station Mandi house hai” drones the announcement in the voice of Rini Khanna on the Blue Line. It is the close of the working day and Devika Saxena, 25, is balancing herself by holding the steel column. Of those who board at the Mandi house station, one man inches close to her. “He started rubbing himself on my fingers. The heavy crowd helped hide what he was doing. I looked at him, and he smiled to confirm,” she told me. Her first such experience in 2018 and many since then have taught her how to react. Devika punched him.
For all its connectivity across Delhi-NCR which brings several far-flung areas closer on a public transport grid, and for all its sophistication, the Delhi metro poses the same issues for women that the buses do. It has become the ‘lifeline of Delhi’ especially for the professional and managerial classes, and students. Its importance in the city’s public transport network can only grow given that a recent study showed that nearly 70 percent of Delhi’s streets are gridlocked most of the time, which impacts the bus system as well as the private automobiles.
The metro’s relative climate-friendliness also makes it a significant system for the future. Its expansion plans include the addition of the Golden Line connecting the southern part of the city with the Indira Gandhi International Airport, new corridors like Tughlakabad to Aerocity, Janakpuri West to Ashram Marg, Majlis Park to Maujpur, and Rithala-Bawana-Narela by 2026.
However, the Delhi Metro Rail Corporation has been weighed in under a large debt; it owes Reliance Industries nearly Rs 7,010 crore. This, along with other factors such as not fulfilling environmental conditions, has meant that construction work at several stations has been paused or delayed to an extent that the costs overrun the DMRC’s budget. For instance, an underground ramp at Krishna Park Extension over two kilometres was delayed by three months but the cost escalated from nearly Rs 489 crore to Rs 550 crore – about 10 percent. The financial crunch has also meant non-working ticket vending machines and escalators, reduced security and so on. The metro cannot, at once, be Delhi’s lifeline and be hobbled in these ways.
The disability audit and disparity
The Delhi High Court ordered a disability audit of public transport in 2021 but it has not been completed. This throws light on an important aspect of public transport: how accessible it is to those with physical disabilities. This issue flies below the radar often given the discussions around affordability, safety and comfort for riders.
“I am doing my PhD from Ambedkar University. I have Cerebral Palsy and cannot use the metro because it is dangerous for me. Taking a bus is also not viable. So, I have to use private cabs which cost me nothing less than Rs 600 both ways. This is because our governments do not do disability audits. It is not considered important,” says Adarsh Chettry, Manipuri resident of Delhi. Metro fares are usually a tenth of private cabs’ charge; buses are even cheaper.
Carpooling would have helped many disabled but it was banned in 2015.
Coincidentally, the app-based services such as Uber and Ola were launched then and have since become highly popular among the upper-middle professionals between Delhi and Noida or Gurgaon. By 2020, the Covid-19 pandemic further pushed commuters away from public transport towards personal sanitised vehicles or such cabs; the automobile sales in Delhi hit record high numbers.
The huge disparity between public and private transport in terms of accessibility, cost, safety and comfort – higher in the latter, less in public – is a limiting factor in the expansion of public transport. The disparity adds on to other factors such as the male gaze, safety for women, access for disabled, relative cleanliness during an epidemic and so on, and makes public transport less attractive.
In Delhi’s transport grid, bicycles and walking, which are the most climate-aligned modes of commute, have not been sufficiently provided for. The city does not have dedicated bicycle lanes or designated pavement space for pedestrians. The pavements are used for many purposes from parking private vehicles to setting up tents for small functions. Oscar-nominated documentary filmmaker Shaunak Sen, in Cities of Sleep (2019) visually elaborates how road dividers and pavements in Delhi are used by many to sleep.
Whither green mobility
Given this scenario with public transport, the green mobility goal is easier imagined than done. People have to be moved towards using public transport through hoardings and ad campaigns even as it is improved and augmented with adequate budgets. Another way is to make a certain number of public transport rides compulsory for all government officials, and perhaps, even for employees in private firms. Amending transport acts like the Motor Vehicle Act 1988 to incorporate green solutions like carpooling can also be done.
“Small-sized electric buses can ensure last mile connectivity within colonies of Delhi. Yamuna River can also be used to ensure connectivity between regions like Okhla to Burari,” Saket Dinkar, former journalist and currently communications officer in Municipal Corporation of Delhi told me. Providing last-mile connectivity can help.
Similarly, integrating all modes of public transport to ensure a seamless experience for commuters is important though it sounds like a wish. As government policies encourage electric vehicles or EVs, a comprehensive and time-bound plan to provide charging stations across Delhi can make a huge difference in people’s decision to buy or use EVs.
Women’s safety in transport needs urgent and deep attention beyond free travel. “The government’s ‘pink ticket’ is welcome but it must also work to make women commuters feel safe. Even the small act of installing signboards at bus stops that indicate the time for the next bus, like in Delhi Metro, can ease the situation somewhat,” wrote Priyali Dhingra in her essay for Question of Cities.
Then, data collection and analysis have to be augmented. The non-availability of data or inaccurate and insufficient data, as we have had, can lead to flawed policies. The Second Master Plan for Delhi projected 12.8 million population by 2001 whereas the actual population in the 2001 Census was 13.8 million.
Such gaps change the projected requirement of housing, water, power and transport. Greening the transport sector is crucial to Delhi’s air quality. Few disagree but the road to that is hazy, difficult or controversial.
Nitya Choubey is a freelance journalist based in Delhi. She has written and video-edited stories on women’s health, Delhi’s cityscape and visual arts. She has done her masters in Global Affairs from Ambedkar University. She likes theatre, films, books and photography.
Photos: Nitya Choubey