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Lessons from Fukui Prefecture: How India can Embark on a Sustainable Transport Path

The transport sector is the second largest consumer of energy after the industry sector and one of the primary causes of air pollution. This article takes a look at how we can move from a dependency on mass scale private vehicles to a more sustainable form of urban mobility.

India has one of the largest road networks in the world. According to a World Bank report, the transport sector accounted for 5.5% of the GDP, with road transportation contributing the lion’s share. The sector is also most responsible for air pollution in metropolitan cities of India and for emitting copious amounts of GHGs. The recent smog in Delhi which broke previous records and brought pollution levels back to pre-CNG levels is viewed as an outcome of the rising number of private vehicles in the city. Delhi is the 3rd largest metropolitan city in the country and has the largest number of registered vehicles countrywide. What is paradoxical is that on one hand, there is an unprecedented increase in the number of vehicles being bought, including increase in the number of vehicles per household; on the other hand, the city’s infrastructure has already been in step to sustain this growing rise. This leads to incessant vehicular congestion on the roads, decreasing the speed of vehicles and subsequently leading to increased fuel inefficiency and even greater emissions. 

Rapid and unchecked urbanization has led to many problems, not least of them the problem of transportation. While rural areas are still grappling with inadequate access to roads, the urban world is trying to make way for the ever increasing rise in private vehicles. The roads of Delhi are groaning under the weight of approximately 7.4 million registered vehicles as of 2012. The city registered 0.5 million more cars and two-wheelers in 2011-2012 against a measly increase of only 2,562 buses in the same period. Interestingly, the number of registered vehicles increased by almost 50% from 3.3 million in 2000-01 to 6.3 million in 2008-09 while the decadal population rate at the same time was at an all-time low (slowest in last 100 years) at 21% .The increase in the road network was also a paltry 8% from 28508 km in 2000-01 to 30985 km in 2007-08.

Efforts at reducing air pollution and vehicular congestion have indeed been made by a few governments. Delhi Metro,inaugurated in 2002, is the only metro in the world to have been granted carbon credits. According to a UN release, the metro helped reduce pollution levels in the city by 630,000 tonnes a year. The metro transports about 1.8 million people every day, who otherwise would have used cars, motor cycles and buses. Initiatives like the BRTS have also won accolades from the UN, with the UN showcasing Ahmedabad’s Bus Rapid Transport System as a light-house project to highlight that climate change is not a burden, but a profitable opportunity to better the lives of people. BRTS has emerged as a successful venture, with 20-25% of commuters switching from private vehicles to the system and has reduced levels of air pollution. A recent HC judgment also ruled in favour of the BRTS in the highly congested city of Pune. Observing that 98% funds allocated under JNNURM for the BRTS have been earmarked for expansion of roads and flyovers, the High Court castigated the Govt.’s outlook at investing public resources in initiatives that will benefit private vehicles when 50% of the road passengers travel by buses.

Clearly out of box thinking is required

While Sheila Dixit might be sending people to Fukuoka Prefecture in Japan to learn more about waste disposal, neighboring Fukui Prefecture too has a lot of lessons that we would be better off learning. Fukui Prefecture in Japan came out with an action plan for local governments, businesses and citizens for better public transportation in July this year. Along with a practical guide to decrease dependence on private vehicles, the action plan also lays out specific pathways to sensitize people on concepts of global warming as also updates them on ways in which vehicular emissions result in deteriorating health conditions. It has coined the acronym CSR, which stands for – Cut unnecessary use of private vehicles, Share vehicles and Redesign society for a new age to battle the problem.

Concepts like these aren’t novel but their implementation should be celebrated. Recently, HUDA administration too announced that Gurgaon would get a taste of a new system of public transportation – the ‘bicycle sharing system’. Bicycles are proposed to be rented out under this system from metro stations to work places, so that people would have an incentive to pedal to work instead of in diesel guzzling cars. The authorities seem to be sanguine about it too, with claims of having the first four bicycle stands within a week. As noble as this initiative might be, there remains the fact that Gurgaon is also home to more than 700 road accidents per year. In such a scenario, with pot holes on roads, no provision for bike lanes, and increasing road rage, it seems doubtful there will be much enthusiasm for this. 

The rising number of private vehicles is not only because of the swelling rise of the middle class, and relatively easier access to loans to buy cars but also an insatiable and irresponsible licentiousness.  When the upper class/ upper middle class citizens trade in a 30 minute air conditioned metro ride for a three hour traffic studded road ride, one can conclude that ownership of cars have more to do with social standing than convenience. 

Not all hope is lost though. While public transportation, despite being cost-effective, isn’t perceived as the safest or most reliable, a number of innovative, cost-effective and environmentally friendly carpooling services have sprung up in the recent past. Carpooling, as a trend has seen a surge in popularity in recent years mainly because of rising fuel prices and socially conscious people who want to lower their personal carbon footprints. A host of start-ups have come up like Zinghopper, CarShuffle, CommuteEasy, SmartMumbaikar and many others which offer such services online and help connect people travelling on the same route.

These are all initiatives launched by young entrepreneurs and environmentally-conscious private players. As a society, Indians are generally wary of sharing rides with strangers and the trend while on the rise isn’t viral yet. If adequate awareness is raised about the benefits of carpooling, cutting unnecessary use of private vehicles and sharing rides, the benefits of such an exercise would be potentially enormous. Not only is it convenient and cheaper but uptake would drastically help reduce air pollution. Fukui Prefecture has a lot of lessons to teach us, mainly that the deteriorating conditions of air quality in the country is also a result of the accumulated individual carbon footprints, and that each one of us while contributing to the menace can also change behavioral patterns and embark on a more sustainable form of mobility.

The author Anindita Chakraborty is part of the Sustainability Outlook Team.
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Author: Anindita Chakraborty