Cleaner options of public transport must be encouraged but in a manner that our cities are able to reap maximum benefit out of their deployment.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel made a visit to Delhi as the national capital grappled with its worst-ever smog. She stated that “whosoever has looked at pollution in Delhi would find a very good argument to replace diesel buses with electric buses”. While the electrification of buses seems like an obvious solution to the air pollution crisis in Delhi, it actually might not make a huge dent, even if the entire bus fleet was converted to zero emission.
As per TERI’s 2016 source apportionment study, among key sectors, industries contributed 30 per cent, closely followed by transport with 28 per cent contribution to PM2.5 concentration in Delhi (in winter, when the smog is much severe ). Within the transport sector, 29 per cent of these emissions are contributed by trucks, 25 per cent by two-wheelers, 18 per cent by three-wheelers and 11 per cent by buses and cars. It is the trucks, two-wheelers, and three-wheelers that demand attention from pollution perspective.
The technology choice for public transport demands attention because this is not the first time we are fancying a clean technology. We must not forget the benefits of converting Delhi’s entire public transport fleet to CNG were quickly lost due to rapid growth in emissions from private vehicles. This happened primarily because the strength of buses could not be sufficiently augmented. The interest of public transport will be best served if the available funds are spent on sufficiently augmenting the supply of public transport.
Under the second phase of the Faster Adoption and Manufacturing of (Hybrid &) Electric Vehicles scheme (FAME-II scheme), the government has approved the purchase of 5,595 electric buses for 64 cities. Unfortunately, the government’s decision to spread out these buses thinly in three years will hardly be either able to improve the supply of buses in these cities or lower air pollution. Considering the global benchmark of around one bus per 1,000 population (World Bank’s Urban Bus Toolkit), Delhi alone would require around 20,000 buses in the current date. With 5,500 buses in its fleet currently, Delhi alone can consume the entire FAME-II subsidy.
Also, if mere 5,595 electric buses have to be run for demonstration purposes, wisdom would lie in operating them in a few cities. Mobilising a larger clean fleet in a few cities will be able to effectively demonstrate the impact of shifting to new technology while also offering cities the economies of scale in setting up charging infrastructure.
While support under the FAME-II scheme was perhaps adequate to demonstrate the viability of e-buses, it is definitely not enough to meet the mobility needs of Indian cities. None of the Indian cities fulfil the norm of one bus per 1,000 population. The country’s largest urban fleet is with Bengaluru’s BMTC that has around 6,500 buses, translating to mere 0.5 buses per 1,000 people. In 2008, Delhi had about 5,800 buses, and a decline is also seen in the declining ridership (figure below).
This is not to say that clean technology solutions be trivialised. We cannot afford to do so as they can help accelerate air pollution mitigation. They, hence, must be promoted, but in a manner that our cities are able to reap maximum benefit out of their deployment. Electric buses, for instance, would yield maximum air quality benefit only when cities improve the overall supply of public transport while also restricting the use of private vehicles.
It is recommended that along with the FAME-II scheme, the government also implement a scheme to improve the supply of buses across Indian cities. It is also a high time cities start imposing measures to discourage the use and ownership of cars and two-wheelers. Cities must adopt strategies such as pricing parking, congestion charging, building car-free zones, etc.
The sooner cities realise that the key to solving the transport-related air pollution crisis is to push people from private vehicles to public transport, the sooner we will be able to clean the air in our cities.Megha Kumar is Associate Fellow, Transport and Urban Governance Division, TERI and a PhD student at the Department of Urban Planning, McGill University, Montreal. Views are personal.LIVE NOW... Video series on How to Double Your Monthly Income... where Rahul Shah, Ex-Swiss Investment Banker and one of India's leading experts on wealth building, reveals his secret strategies for the first time ever. Register here to watch it for FREE.