Urban Transport in Hyderabad (India): Observations

A couple of months ago, Dr. P.R.Bhanu Murthy suggested that I offer some comments on urban transport in Hyderabad, India along the lines of my previously posted observations on Lagos, Nigeria.

I have not been to Hyderabad. My travel in India has been limited to the three megacities (Mumbai, Delhi and Kolkata). However, some general comments can be made on urban transport in Hyderabad. Obviously, much of what follows applies equally to urban agglomerations in other emerging market economies.

Hyderabad is relatively dense, with nearly 6,000,000 people living in an urban agglomeration (continuous urbanization) that is approaching 600 square kilometers. Thus, the population density is approximately 10,000 per square kilometer. This is below that of Mumbai (26,000) and Kolkata (13,000), but is approximately average for an agglomeration of above 5,000,000 residents outside the high-income world (see: http://www.demographia.com/db-worldua.pdf).

Any effective urban transport planning process must begin with a comprehensive vision that deals with ensuring mobility from every square meter of the urban agglomeration to every other (what I call ubiquitous mobility). It is this type of mobility that virtually removes any transport restraints on economic growth and poverty reduction. Given the documented relationship between better mobility (point to point travel time) and economic growth, this is a principal concern. Cars often provide the means for escaping poverty, both in lower income nations and higher income nations.

Most, if not all “regional” transport plans or “metropolitan” transport plans fail substantially in this regard. The principal emphasis is placed upon providing transport to the core, which may also be called the central business district, hypercentre or downtown. Such plans would be more appropriately called “downtown transport plans.”

The problem with such plans is their failure to effectively deal with mobility for destinations outside the core area. Yet, in most urban areas, the majority of travel is not to the core area, but is rather between non-core origins and destinations.

There is a tendency for urban areas outside the first world to look to first world urban areas for direction in their strategies. Thus, there has been an emphasis on high-cost projects, such as Metros and light rail. This can be at the expense of less costly, more comprehensive service strategies. The problem with the high cost strategies is that they can provide only a small share of the public transport services that are needed. For Metros or light rail to provide ubiquitous mobility, would require service grids of no more than 800 meters (with an assumption of a maximum walking distance of 400 meters). The cost of any such a system would rival the gross domestic product of any urban area, high-income or otherwise (see: http://www.publicpurpose.com/ut-wctrs2007.pdf). Moreover, the inclusion of these modes in a subsidized environment consumes resources that often could be used to provide many more trips.

Other modes of transport that are less attractive to affluent westerners are more effective in many applications, such as buses, vans, shared-ride taxis, auto-rickshaws, etc. The focus should be on mobility, not mode. An urban transport system should be evaluated based upon the extent to which it makes ubiquitous travel throughout the urban area possible.

This is not to suggest that the high cost modes are any more efficient in the high-income world. They are generally not, except in the highest density urban cores. However, in the high-income nations, the unwise use of subsidy funding does not lead to the widespread denial of effective mobility. This is because in Western Europe and the United States, the overwhelming majority of people who live outside the urban core have cars and travel by cars. Public transport’s failure to provide ubiquitous service in the high-income world has doubtless been a factor in the motorization, which occurred as fast as people could afford it. The extent to which public transport's generally meager service offerings in relation to the need for mobility contributed to motorization, of course, is debatable.

Thus, there is an important difference that may not be immediately obvious. High income urban agglomerations can afford transport plans that fail to address the transport needs of much of the community. Lower income urban agglomerations do not have this luxury.

It may be tempting to think that part of the problem could be solved by improving the “jobs-housing balance,” effectively by partitioning large urban areas into smaller units that somehow make it possible for residents to find jobs more locally and not travel so far. There is considerable evidence that this policy approach is likely to lead to failure. Peter Hall has chronicled disappointing research in the Stockholm area (which is a small urban area by international standards). The 2001 UK Census showed that in the new towns --- which were to be self sufficient in terms of employment --- the average commute is double the diameter of the new town in distance.

Urban areas reach the size of Hyderabad or Mumbai for a reason. They will continue to grow so long as it is more advantageous for people and businesses to move there than to smaller areas. This is why the greatest growth in recent decades has been in the larger urban areas, rather than in the self-contained, well-balanced urban areas of say, 100,000 or less. Around the world, the rural and smaller urban areas have generally tended to capture less than their share of growth. Indeed, in many nations, urban populations fall while overall growth rates continue strong.
Much of the world’s urban transport planning is geared toward the goal of reducing the use of automobiles or reducing the growth rate of automobile use. Ubiquitous public transport systems could assist in this. However, the lack of ubiquitous public transport increases the incentives for private, personal mobility. As a result, lower and middle income urban areas have comparatively high shares of 2-wheeled motorization (motos, motor cycles, motor bikes).
Given the choice between being able to get where they need to go and not, the moto is an obvious alternative. At the same time, the prospect is for greater, not less automobile use in the future. Tata Motors will bring the 1-lahk car to market in 2008 (100,000 Rupees or US$2,500). Other manufacturers intend to compete. Lower and middle incomes lack cars not because they don’t like or need them, rather because they cannot afford them. Moreover, the reality is that once people have achieved private, personal mobility, whether motos or cars, public transport stands little chance of winning them back.
Thus, it makes sense for lower income urban areas to not look to the west or the high income world for their transport models. They should rather look to places like Manila and the African urban areas where less expensive, informal, private and smaller vehicles provide mobility that is substantially more ubiquitous than in places that have not incorporated these approaches. Again, the test is the mobility results, not the presence of particular modes. A lower income urban agglomeration is likely to be able to build a “world class” public transport system (read “high-income”) only by denying mobility to large numbers of its citizens.
(Of course, where a public transport system or route can be built and operated using only passenger fares, this problem is avoided. Most systems, however, are heavily subsidized in construction and even operations.)
But this takes me back to the principal issue — setting of standards and objectives. For public transport to replace the automobile or slow down its expansion, public transport service must be ubiquitous. This is not so anywhere and is not even being aimed for. But the following standards are suggested.

    1. Access Standard: X% of households shall be no more than Y distance from a public transport stop (in the US, a reasonable standard would be for 95 percent of households to be within 400 meters of a public transport stop).
    2. Service Level Standard: Service from each stop shall operate no less than every X minutes during particular parts of the day. For example, a reasonable standard would be service at least every 10 minutes from 5am to 10pm and every half- hour in between.
    3. Travel Time Standard: Travel times to all destinations (every single square centimeter!) shall not exceed X minutes in a Y radius, such as X1 minutes in a Y1 radius, etc. In the US, we could have a standard that says travel times shall not exceed 20 minutes for 10 km, 30 minutes for 15, etc.
    4. System Development: The standards above shall be implemented within X years. This is a real issue. American urban areas are rushing to build nearly random rail lines without any sort of longer term vision (except to build, without particular reference to the
    overall needs of customers). Those lines that are planned are many years away. Contrast that with Bogota, where the busway was in operation after just a few years and a far more comprehensive system will be completed long before a the more expensive and more limited Metro system would have been completed. It is simply a matter of maximizing mobility within the constraints of the available subsidies. Any other approach denies mobility to others.

It is well to understand the competition that public transport faces. Cars and motos have the following characteristics. Meeting or approaching these characteristics is the principal requirement of any public transport system that would provide ubiquitous mobility.

    1. Immediate access (not even a 400 meter walk)
    2. Service available on demand (not every 5 or 60 minutes)
    3. Fastest travel time to nearly all destinations.
    4. It is available now… not in a regional transport plan that may never be finished and probably does not even seek ubiquitous mobility as an objective.

Any public transport system intending to seriously compete in such a market or any sub-market thereof needs to be designed with similar characteristics.


Note: Link to latest information on the Tata 1-lakh car