Infra Vaani | How India can restart urban mobility to prepare for the future (2023)

India started with the first mover advantage in urban mobility in Asia. 170 years ago there was a light rail, 150 years ago trams, 140 years ago cycle rickshaws and bicycles, 100 years ago city buses, 90 years ago electric trolleybuses, 75 years ago auto rickshaws and in the third century BC earlier. It's time to rethink urban mobility, applying lessons learned from India's past and the world's best.

In 2023, in the epochal tectonic shift in global demographics, India will overtake China to become the most populous country on earth. Also, the urban population of India is growing much faster than the rural population, making the problem of urban mobility a key problem to be solved.

In this three-part series on India's urban mobility yesterday, today and tomorrow, I follow the growth of the country's urbanization and explain how Indian cities started with the first-mover advantage in urban mobility (both rail-based and road-based public transport) and how the momentum was then lost when the country first slowly, then rapidly switched to motorisation.

I then detour to examine how urban mobility was neglected during the first six decades of independence, before examining how cities are reinventing their urban mobility with the train of the dogged pursuit of rail and bus-based mass transit.


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Finally, I examine the existing gap in urban mobility infrastructure, including the lack of multimodal integration. I also address the yawning gap in first and last mile connectivity services and the poor state of infrastructure for pedestrians and cyclists. And I'll end with why the country, while on the right track, needs to move much faster, along with the much-needed course correction.

Context First – “Upward Urbanization”

Before I go into the problems and solutions of urban mobility, it is contextually relevant that I first present a bird's eye view-Urbanization in India at a turning point.


In recent decades, contrary to the traditionally prevailing 'India lives in its villages' governmental paradigm, the country has urbanized rapidly, with the population increasing from 16.0 million in 1981 to 21.7 million in 1991 to 28.5 million a year 2001 and 37.7 million in 2011 and probably 48 crore in 2021.

The following are the defining characteristics of Indian urbanization:

Like,In recent decades, the urban population growth rate increased by 36.44 percent (1981-1991), 31.51 percent (1991-2001), and 31.8 percent (2001-2011). This is partly due to organic population growth, partly due to rural-urban migration, and the rest due to the addition of the new areas as "urban".

Two,Since 1901, the urban population has grown steadily as a proportion of the country's total population - 10.8 percent in 1901, 17.2 percent in 1951, 27.8 percent in 2001, 31.2 percent in 2011 and 35 .7 percent in 2022.

Three,India's urban population in 2020 (48.0 million) is one and a half times the US population (33.2 million) in 2022, the third most populous country in the world.

Four,Although cities in the 5-10 lakh range and over 1 million inhabitants are emerging as major growth centers, there is a tendency in the urbanization process to be centralized around large metropolitan areas, making Indian urbanization essentially a 'concentrated urbanization' process.

Five, India's demographics are on the epochal threshold. In 2022, China's population shrank for the first time since 1961 by 8.50,000 from 2021's figure of 1.4118 billion. This means that India has dethroned China as the world's most populous nation. Also, much of India's population growth is taking place in cities. According to the United Nations' World Prospects, in 2050 years of independence, "India's population will be 167 million, of which 81.4 million are urban, temptingly close to 50 percent."

Six,Fast-moving urbanization can either combine an urbanization dividend with a demographic dividend or lead to urban chaos. According to the UN-HABITAT World Cities Report (2022), the country's urban population will increase from 48.31 million in 2020 to 54.74 million in 2025, 60.73 million in 2030 and 67.45 million in 2035. The UN also estimates the urban population at 81.4 million in 2050.

Seven,The country's urbanization pattern is complex and inconsistent. Its smaller states/UTs are mostly urban - Delhi (97.5 percent), Chandigarh (97.25 percent), Lakshadweep (78.7 percent), Puducherry (68.33 percent), and Goa (61.17 percent). Also, some states will soon be more urban than rural - Tamil Nadu (48.40 percent), Kerala (47.70 percent), Maharashtra (45.27 percent) and Gujarat (42.6 percent). And there are states with low/very low urbanization – Himachal (10.075 percent), Bihar (11.29 percent), Assam and Orissa (14 percent), UP (22 percent), Chhattisgarh (23.24 percent), Jharkhand (24 .04 percent), Rajasthan (24.87 percent) and Madhya Pradesh (27.63 percent).

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Urbanization in India needs to be viewed through a nuanced prism.

First, some states have mature urbanization, few reach it, and some states have lower urbanization percentages, but the actual urban population is high because they are populous states.

Second, the urban population of India in 2035 (67.45 crore) will be close to the total population (68.4 crore) of India in 1981. Likewise, the urban population in 2050 (81.4 crore) will be closer to the country's population in 1991 (84.4 crore). . It brings enormous problems.


To recap for brevity, the urban population more than quadrupled between 1970 and 2020—from 10.9 million to 48.31 million. Also, with just under 3 percent landmass, Indian cities contribute 63 percent of the nation's GDP and will contribute 75 percent of the nation's GDP by 2035.

What does that mean?

Looking east at China, we find that out of over 514 million cities in the world, over 150 are in China. India will soon have more than a dozen megacities and will need more than 125 to 150 million cities (old and new) with world-class infrastructure to accommodate growing urban populations. And to take advantage of the dual benefits of the demographic dividend and the urbanization dividend,It is time to banish the old paradigm of city containment that has led to the indiscriminate growth of cities without planning.

In order to reap the benefits of urbanization, the country must solve the myriad of problems facing cities large and small. There are many problems that need to be solved (sprawl, urban slums, water and sanitation, etc.), but none is more serious than the need to tame the twin havoc of urban pollution and urban mobility congestion.

This three-part series focuses on how to rethink the critical problem of urban mobility and how to make Indian cities "sustainable".

But where do I start? One way is my favorite - Look East - Learning from China. But I consciously begin with the lessons for tomorrow's urban India from yesterday's urban India.

I start the perfect with the hypothesis - India in the second half of the 19th centurythCentury and first half of the 20ththCentury began with the first-mover advantage on both rail and road. Part I is the brief history of urban mobility in India (ca. 1853-1947).


India's rendezvous with rail-based urban mobility.

Like,India was the pioneer and torchbearer of local rail transport (also called suburban railway or commuter train) in Asia. Railways connecting the city center (central business district) to the periphery (metropolitan areas) arrived in India, almost parallel to the arrival of passenger rail in England and continental Europe.

Two,Within two decades of the opening of a 50 km railway (arguably the first in England) between Liverpool and Manchester on 16 April 1953, the first train in India made a 33.8 km journey between Boribunder (now CSMT) and Thane in an hour and fifteen minutes ago.

Three,When this happened 170 years ago, it marked the arrival of the railway in India. It also ushered in the era of rail-based urban mobility, far ahead of any other country in Asia. In Japan, the 23.8-kilometer Shinbashi-Yokohama first railway line was then two decades away (October 14, 1872), and the troubled birth of the railway in China had to wait until the late 19th centurythCentury, after extensive railway networks existed in Europe, North America, India and Japan.

Four,Shortly after Mumbai, Kolkata received its first commuter train between Howrah and Hooghly in 1954. Mumbai received a second line from Churchgate to Virar in 1967. In 2925, Mumbai's commuter trains between Bombay VT and Kurla received traction in the form of EMUs. EMU services between Churchgate and Borivali soon followed in 1928. Commuter trains reached southern India, and Madras received the first electrified commuter train between Madras Beach and Tambaram stations on May 11, 1931.

Five,a detour here is in order. In 1947, undivided India had a whopping 65,000 line kilometers of railways. Even after independence, India's route of 54,000 km in 1947 was well ahead of 27,000 km in China (barely 8,000 km usable due to the civil war) and around 10,000 km in Japan.

Six,The railways' contribution to urban transport in India was enormous, but an unnoticed story. India has almost 2000 km of light rail (suburban/suburban trains) running in and around Mumbai, Kolkata, Chennai, Hyderabad, Delhi, Pune and Lucknow-Kanpur. In 2020, Bangalore also received approval to develop an ambitious modern commuter rail network. Local trains (DMUs/EMUs) also operate around clusters of other cities. Due to the lack of local trains in many metropolitan areas, local passengers often travel on postal/express trains as well. These numbers are rarely calculated correctly.

Seven,the immense contribution ofIndian train serviceon urban mobility wants to be told. Available data shows that the annual number of urban commuters using the IR network is nearly five billion, more than three times the country's total population.

Act,Aside from providing sustainable urban mobility, IR commuter trains have also contributed significantly to dispersing populations from major cities away from the CBD to larger metropolitan areas.

Neun,The country's most robust commuter trains are found in Mumbai, Kolkata and Chennai. These three cities now handle 7.5 to 8 million, 3.5 to 4 million and 2.5 to 3 million passengers a day, respectively, for a total of 13.5 to 15 million daily commuters.


Indian cities have developed rapidly around railway stations and along railway lines. Here's the story.

Like,Cities in India and elsewhere first developed along rivers, the main means of transportation. Since the advent of the railroad, cities have experienced urban growth centered around train stations and linear development on either side of the railroad lines. Japan perfected the art of this form of urbanization. Even Hong Kong's development into new territories was fueled by KCRC's rail-focused push, while the future city of Hong Kong itself was shaped by rail.

Two, India, a country with scarce land resources, has to make a choice. Honestly, it's Hobson's choice - cities need to grow vertically, with mixed land use along the rail and subway transit corridors. Mumbai, Kolkata and Chennai have demonstrated that population dispersal away from the CBD is possible using the commuter rail network.

Three,Among many are two recent success stories of rail-driven urban development – ​​the urban metamorphosis of Delhi's lower town of Dwarka following the arrival of the Metro Rail, and the expansion of Mumbai's port commuter trains from Mankhurd to Panvel. The latter has transformed Navi Mumbai's urban corridors by developing them along both sides of the route, while also rejuvenating the alternative CBD in the form of CBD Belapur.

Four,The development of the Delhi-Meerut regional railway and Bengaluru suburban railways offer more opportunities for rail-oriented growth. The same goes for the Metro rail, which I'll talk about later. With India's rapid urbanization, it is time to build more rail corridors, particularly in megacities, and guide them towards rail-led urban growth to shift the population burden away from the larger cities. In order for India to secure its place in the galaxy of developed countries by 2047, the country must plan the cities of the future now. So the British developed Bombay – 1931, when Bombay had a population of 1.31 million, EMU-based local transport services existed on both the central and western routes as early as 1925 and 1928.


Not only the railways, but India was also the pioneer in Asia in terms of trams as an urban transport. It's time for the country to reinvent this music. Here's why-

Like,The year 2023 in Kolkata marks the 150th anniversary of the arrival of tram transport in Asia. The year also marks the completion of 100 years of electric tram service in Calcutta, where horse-powered trams first ran between Sealdah and Armenian Ghat Streets for a distance of 3.9 km on February 24, 1873.

Two,soon the trams were electrified and extended to other Indian cities. At another time before independence, trams operated in at least ten cities (Calcutta, Mumbai, Nashik, Madras, Kanpur, Kochi, Delhi, Patna and Bhavnagar). But with the exception of Calcutta, tram services were dismantled after independence.

Three,I have fond memories of window seat rides on the princely first class of Kolkata trams between Howrah-Esplanade (1970s), Alipore-Chowrangi (1982) and Sealdah-Howrah (1988), either as a tourist or while I was working there. This was the heyday of the tram in Kolkata, when the city had no fewer than 52 lines. Today, with all but two of Kolkata's tram lines closed, it's sunset time for trams. It shouldn't have been the case. It doesn't have to be.

Four,For India to reinvent urban mobility, it's time to restart modern trams. And the reason is not far to seek. Also known as LRT in certain countries, trams are the most convenient, relatively cheaper to develop, operate and maintain, and environmentally friendly. A study I conducted for the Institute of Urban Transport in 2012 entitled "Life Cycle Cost for Five Modes of Urban Transport" found that LRT was the least expensive mode of transport for corridors between 7500 and 15000 peak hour peak direction traffic (PHPDT). .

Five,My insights and beliefs are supported by global data. According to UITP reportGlobal trams and LRT landscape(October 2019), As of December 31, 2018, tram and light rail systems (both referred to herein as LRT) are in operation in 389 cities around the world and are growing rapidly in terms of the number of systems, route kilometers and ridership.

Six, trams have opened/reopened in at least 110 new cities in recent years, with Europe leading the way with 60 message systems, followed by Asia-Pacific and North America with 20 and 16 new systems, respectively. In addition to the new systems, there are a number of activities including adding new lines to the existing system and expanding the existing lines.

Seven,Asia Pacific takes the lead. According to the UITP report, 1,153 km of new trams/LRT were opened worldwide between 2014 and 2018. And 2017 was the turning point when greenfield tram projects in Asia Pacific outpaced those in Europe for the first time, debunking the theory that trams/LRT are not suited to densely populated metropolitan areas of Asian cities.

Act,The drivers speak. In 2018, 14.651 billion people worldwide traveled by tram. It was twice the world population. The maximum ridership of 10.42 billion was in Europe (204 systems, 1,276 lines 9,296 km).

Neun,China relies on trams. Today, while India is busy dismantling trams in Kolkata, the only city with trams, China is investing heavily in trams. And China's focus on trams/LRT is grounded in reality. Today China has more than 150 cities with over one million inhabitants. Also, 50 percent of China's 1.4 billion population currently lives in cities, compared to 18 percent in 1978, and that number is expected to rise to 70 percent by 2030.

Ten, trams chug along in China. Along with its subway revolution that began in 2003, China has quietly ushered in the era of the tram revolution in both smaller and large cities over the past decade. In 2014, eight Chinese cities operated trams, with a cumulative distance of 192.6 km, growing to 550 km in 22 cities by 2020 and projected to cover 4,000 km by 2035. Between 2016 and 2020, China's trams chugged along quickly, with the country opening more systems than any other country in the world.Between 2016 and 2020, 58 new systems were opened worldwide, with 20 in China, the next in the US with nine, and Turkey and France with four each.

Elf,Trams are useful for both large and small cities. In China, trams are not only being developed in cities with one or less than one million inhabitants, but also in cities with more than 10 million inhabitants. There they will also be expanded as a feeder to the subway. Trams are not only suitable solutions for sustainable mobility in sparsely populated cities, but also in larger cities trams play an important role as links to the “New Quarter” or “Neustadt” (which often lie outside the existing city limits). .

Twelve,India, your time is now. In urban transport systems, there is no choice between either or. There must be a hierarchy of systems working together to provide sustainable urban mobility.

According to data compiled from the UN database, in 2021 India had 181 cities with more than three lakh inhabitants, 115 cities with more than 5 lakh inhabitants and 65 cities with more than 1 million inhabitants. Planned spatial growth of these cities, which are growth drivers of the future, is required. Like what China is doing with trams, LRT are ideally suited to these cities. These systems also play a defined role in those corridors of larger cities that are not mature for subways. Even in newly planned cities that need to accommodate millions of people from rapidly urbanizing India, trams need to be made sunrise systems as opposed to sunset systems.


India accidentally missed the first subway revolution.

Like,The year 2023 marks the 160th anniversary of Metro Rail's arrival in the world. The first underground began operating in London on January 10, 1863, when the 6 km long underground "Metropolitan Railway" ran between Paddington (then Bishop's Road) and Farringdon Street stations.

Two,However, progress after that was slow. By 1900 only four other small metro networks had been added in the world apart from London - Budapest and Glasgow (1896), Chicago L (1997) and Paris (1900).

Three,Here suffice it to say that India, the first in Asia to get a light rail 170 years ago in 1853 and the first to get trams 150 years ago in 1873, also built the first metro in Calcutta almost 100 years ago. track could have. Had it happened, it could have been the first subway in Asia before Tokyo. But the country missed it by a hair's breadth.

FourAccording to the story, Major Walter Erwing Crum, President of the Bengal Chamber of Commerce and a member of the Indian Imperial Legislative Council, first proposed the construction of the Calcutta East-West Metro at the Council meeting in Shimla in 1919. But the committee set up by the Reichsrat, despite fourteen meetings, came to no conclusion. This led to the Railway Authority appointing London Underground's renowned engineer Harley Dalrymple Hay to conduct a feasibility study in 2021. Hay's team eventually came in for £3.5m and a completion time of 4.5 years for the east-west link which would go under the Hooghly River.

Five,Had the East-West Metro started operating in Kolkata some 100 years ago, it would have been the first city in Asia to have had a Metro Rail before Tokyo, which received its first line in 1926. But the project was shelved because of cost consideration and India missed out on the first subway revolution.

Six,it proved a colossal loss. The country received its first 3.5 km long subway only in 1984 in Kolkata. But the real story of India's tryst with Metro Rail began with the opening of an 8km stretch of the Delhi Metro in 2002. Thereafter, India experienced a renaissance in urban mobility with the rapid development of Metro Rail systems in various cities.


It is time to move from rail-based urban mobility to the emergence and growth of the city bus, globally and in India. Like urban rail transport, the city bus arrived in Indian cities before its emergence in Britain and continental Europe. Here is the brief history of how urban bus transportation has evolved in the country.

Like, the history of bus-based urban transport in India goes back almost 200 years. Immediately after the introduction of horse-bus routes in London, Paris and New York, horse-buses began operating in Calcutta between Dharmatola and Barrackpore in 1830.

Two, history suggests that India has just completed 110 years of organized bus service run by T.V. Sundaram Iyengar (famously known as TVS) who established South India's first passenger bus service in 1912. The buses operated on the Madurai, Thanjavur and Pudukkottai routes.

Three,but urban India had to wait another decade for the introduction of bus service. The country is celebrating the completion of 100 years of city bus service, which first began service in Kolkata in 1922, with the inaugural trip between Shyam Bazar in the north and Kalighat in the south. Manufactured by Walford & Company and operated by the Calcutta Tramways Company, the 56-passenger capacity city bus was India's first and arrived soon after London operations began.

Four,hot on the heels of Calcutta, the city bus reached Bombay. The inaugural run of Bombay's first bus service took place on July 15, 1926 between the Afghan Church and Crawford Market. Buses were popular in Bombay from day one, and 600,000 commuters traveled in five months, and the number of visitors quickly grew to 3.8 million the next year. Over time, the BEST bus service has become arguably the best and busiest in the country. Finally, on August 7, 1947, shortly before independence, BEST was acquired and developed by the Bombay Municipal Corporation and has just completed 75 years of public ownership.

Five,Shortly after Mumbai, city bus services began in Madras around 1927. The first operations there were carried out by private operators and it was only in 1947 that the Madras government nationalized passenger transport for the first time by introducing 30 buses side by side with the buses of the then private operators.

SixAlthough the country's capital was moved to Delhi in 2011, it was not until the late 1920s that the Delhi Motor Service, a dedicated bus service, was launched to take government officials from the Central Secretariat to the walled city where most of them lived. However, regular bus service in Delhi did not start until 1935, when Jiwaji Rao Scindia, the Maharaja of Gwalior, founded the Gwalior and Northern India Transport Company (GNIT). It was acquired after independence and renamed Delhi Transport Corporation.

Seven,Interestingly, the city bus reached Hyderabad in 1932, three years before Delhi, with the establishment of the Nizam State Rail & Road Transport Department (NSRRTD) with 166 employees and 27 buses. These buses were imported from Scotland by Albion Motors and were called Deccan Queen.

Act,Soon it was time for other major cities to have city buses. Bangalore Transport Company (now BMTC) started operations in 1940, Pune Municipality with 20 buses in early 1940s, Ahmedabad had three municipal bus companies before independence - Ahmadabad Bus Corporation, Morris Transport and Munshi Bus Service. There were only a few cities with urban bus services.

The above is evidence enough that, like rail-based urban transport in Asia, India had a first-mover advantage in relation to bus-based urban mobility, an advantage it lost after independence. As of 2020, only 63 of India's 458 cities have a formal city bus system.


India's electric trolly bus rendezvous is an untold saga, and the story of pre-independence city transport would not be complete without telling the trolly bus story.

Like,Experimental electric trolleybuses emerged independently in Germany, France, England and the USA around the 1880s and 1890s. The first non-experimental system in the US was a seasonal town line installed near Nantasket Beach in 1904, and in the UK, Leeds and Bradford became the first towns to have trolleybuses in 2011.

Two,There are currently around 300 electric trolleybus systems in operation around the world, and the one in Minsk (since 1952) is the largest in the world. China has trolleybuses in 21 cities and is building more. China has also become a hub for electric bus exports. A key feature of the buses is that they are virtually emission-free.

Three, India's romance with trolleybuses began when a small route began operating in Delhi in 1935, but service ceased in 1962. Mumbai, which operated electric trams operated by BEST from 1907 to 1964, also had a rendezvous with electric trolleybuses. Worship services began in Mumbai in 1963 and continued until 1971.

Four,one-size-fits-all doesn't fit all, the hierarchy of urban mobility, electric trolleybuses play a major role in India's urban transport landscape, and Metro-Neo, promoted by the Department of Housing and Urban Affairs for smaller cities, is nothing but rubber-tired urban electric trolley bus system in which China has made a great leap forward.


Prehistoric urban India (cities of the Indus Valley Civilization) was known for its unique water-based transportation. So was the untold story of ancient India of the Mauryan, Magadha and Gupta empires that arose and prospered along rivers, with the ancient city of Pataliputra at its core.

Like,globally, urban water-based public transit systems predate the advent of rail and road-based urban transit, and currently more than 100 cities have water-based public transit systems, with a rapidly growing footprint. Many global cities, large and small, have long thrived on urban water transit, some of which include Amsterdam, Hong Kong, London, Istanbul, New York, Brisbane, Sydney, Venice, Copenhagen and Rio De Janeiro.

Two,Indian cities also have a long history of waterborne public transport. To tell the story of just two cities - Calcutta had a long history of pedal boats connecting two sides of Hooghly and Cochin has a long history of wooden boats hopping on islands.

Three,Waterways have significant advantages over rail and road transport in terms of energy efficiency, reduction of pollutants and economy. And India is endowed with a great coastline of 7516 km, its 10 longest rivers provide 12000 km of navigable routes for freight and passenger traffic and there are numerous cities along rivers, tributaries and canals.

After decades of neglect, India is seriously considering options for urban waterways and intercity transport of freight and passengers.


From 1853, when the first train services were opened between Boribunder and Thane, until 1947, when India became independent, the country had every conceivable form of urban transport except Metro Rail, which it missed by a hair's breadth. India was also among the pioneers in non-motorized public transport (NMT), with bicycles arriving in the 1870s and rickshaws in the 1880s. And just at the dawn of independence, the para-transit auto-rickshaw entered the urban landscape, with Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru taking the first ride on the experimental auto-rickshaw.

Be continued.

Part II focuses on the 75-year history of post-independence India (circa 1947-2022).

Akhileshwar Sahay is a multidisciplinary thought leader and India-based International Impact Consultant. He works as President Advisory Services of the consulting firm BARSYL. Views are personal.

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