public transport is the key for revival of the economy in covid19
The reverse migration from megacities has brought India’s economy to a standstill. With governments striving to revive the economy, cities need to ensure the workforce can easily access employment opportunities. Public transport will play a pivotal role in determining the success (or failure) of these efforts. Cities, considered engines of economic growth and labour markets, contribute significantly to the economic development of countries. Numerous scholars have promulgated theories and empirical observations supporting this opinion.
Alan Bertaud, in his book Order without Design extensively discusses the role of cities as labour markets. Cities offer distinct advantages of economies of scale, scope, and agglomeration and return to the sharing of infrastructure and public services.
Rapid advancements in technology and ever-increasing opportunities over the past few decades have resulted in unprecedented growth in urban population and sprawl. However, if the current trends in urban development continue; cities shall sprawl across three times the land they currently cover. This is enough to threaten the planet if left unguided.
The rising economic importance of cities is often measured from their contribution to the nation’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP). The urban population accounts for 31% of India’s total population and a staggering 63% of its economy. These figures are expected to cross 40% and 75% respectively by 2030.
The rise of million-plus cities in India
According to a McKinsey report, the number of million-plus cities in the country will increase from 42 to 68 in the next 10 years, with 4 more cities destined to become ‘megacities’ (UN DESA, 2014). With the world economy ailing from Covid-19; India’s economy has undoubtedly been pushed to the brink. With the GDP contracting by 23.9%, India is grappling with the worst figures of economic growth ever recorded, registering unprecedented levels of unemployment while simultaneously reporting the highest number of CoVID-19 daily infections worldwide.
To revive the urban economies and make them resilient; it is imperative to create work centres generating employment. Unfortunately, millions of the urban workforce in India have been displaced owing to the panic arising due to the pandemic and the consequential lockdown imposed in the initial months of the year.
The heart-wrenching scenes of reverse-migration from the so-called megacities, offering a plethora of job opportunities, to the smaller towns and cities were comparable to those of the migration witnessed in the aftermath of the country’s independence 73 years ago. Experts have pegged the country’s reverse-migration at 15-20% of the total urban workforce.
The Supreme Court in its order on June 9, 2020, had asked the state governments to create help desks for returning migrant labourers. State governments have been asked to prepare a database of employment at the village and ward level for beneficiaries to easily locate themselves at work closer to their homes. This could provide relief benefits to migrant workers and upskill the existing workers with the help of skill mapping at the city level and block level.
This was also to facilitate employment opportunities for the migrants returning to cities after the lockdown imposed due to the pandemic; many state governments have developed or are in the process of developing an online platform to register and monitor employment.
The online portals across various states are focusing to bridge the gap between the potential employers and labourers who have returned to their native places in the wake of the Covid-19 situation.
This could be the beginning of a new era of economic revival, with the secondary cities at the helm, providing adequate job opportunities to the citizens with the development of a digital job market for the work centres. These work centres can be referred to as the social and economic opportunities available in the city.
Accessibility to jobs is crucial in the smooth functioning of the city’s economy
Generating job opportunities, while a significant step, would not be a sufficient incentive to attract the unemployed workforce in the secondary cities. Access to the work centers in a city is as crucial as employment opportunities. However, providing access to employment opportunities is an approach that has been missing from the Indian urban planning perspective.
Cities are expected to perform better economically and environmentally when the resources are connected to the destinations effectively thereby improving the levels of accessibility. Though, accessibility is a term that has been constantly used and studied by geographers, urban planners, and researchers for decades.
But in the urban context, “the amount of effort for a person to reach a destination” or “the activities which can be reached from a certain location” can be referred to as the accessibility. Hence, enhancing the accessibility levels in economic centres can improve the performance of the labour market.
Higher accessibility to public transport exhibit better workforce participation
In contrast to the private modes of transport, public transport (PT) modes are open to a wider group of users across regions and are operated by public authorities or agents. Public transport in Indian cities is the backbone of mobility for the lower-income and middle-income groups. The physical distance between residential land parcels and work centres should be such that the access time is the least.
Research on the relationship between employment and mobility has concluded that higher employment rates can be expected when the time to travel in public transport is shorter.
Higher participation in the number of working populations can be expected in the region if the opportunities are made accessible to them. The planning of the public transit network should be carried in a way where it allows maximum people to participate in different activities distributed over time and across regions. Unfortunately, the current practice of network design does not focus on incorporating equity and access.
The grim condition of public transport in Indian cities
Independent studies conducted by the authors between January and April 2020 revealed the pathetic condition of accessibility levels of public transport systems in Lucknow and the twin cities of Raipur-Naya Raipur – the administrative capital and among the fastest-growing urban centres of Uttar Pradesh and Chhattisgarh respectively.
The public transport accessibility levels (PTAL) in both cities were assessed using the PTAL method devised by Transport for London (TfL). PTAL has been a practical method of adopting the measuring method of accessibility for many countries. Greater London, Melbourne, and Auckland are a few international cases which have applied PTAL. It is principally an origin-based measurement and assumes the development is at the origin end of the trip rather than the destination.
Lucknow, with an urbanized area spanning roughly 350 sq. km. and a population estimated at 3.6 million (2020), is among the top 20 employment generation cities of India. Its public transport network includes 18 bus routes with a fleet of 190 buses and 1 functional metro corridor.
The sheer size of the bus fleet is reflective of the poor quality of public transport infrastructure in the city, which amounts to 1 bus for every 19,000 citizens.
The bus routes have recently been modified to increase the effective frequency of the buses, which has resulted in a reduction from 32 routes to the presently functioning 18 routes. The only functioning metro corridor runs from the airport in the south to Munshipulia in the north, via the Charbagh railway station, the secretariat, the central retail hub of Hazratganj, and the Lucknow University.
The PTAL assessment revealed immense gaps in the accessibility of public transport in the city. High accessibility levels were observed in the city centre; the old city exhibited extremely poor levels of public transport accessibility. Further, the accessibility levels were incongruent with the population distribution. Such discrepancies often result in fewer people choosing public transport.
The Raipur story
Raipur is the capital and a major industrial centre which is home to a large labour market in Chhattisgarh. Raipur is the largest urban centre with an area of 188sq.km and Naya Raipur is being developed as the administrative capital in the south-east over an area of 237sq.km.
The heavy and light industries in the Greater Raipur Region is a major pull factor for the people to migrate and settle in the cheap available residential locations. But the current public transport sector in the region is in the dire need of drastic alterations to become a competitive alternative to intensive private car usage. Higher participation in the number of working populations can be expected in the region if the opportunities are made accessible to them.
Out of the total area (425sq.km) of the two cities, only 16% of the area is populated with a density above 5,000 persons per square kilometre. As expected, it was observed that the accessibility levels are high for high-density core city areas of Raipur.
But the areas which have poor and moderate accessibility in the high-density areas are in the need of immediate transport solutions by the authorities. Much scattered and leapfrogged areas with excellent accessibility levels are surrounded by moderate accessibility levels in the east along NH 53 and in south-east along NH 43 which is the major connection between Raipur to Naya Raipur.
But so far, the peripheries in the south Raipur have seen unorganized growth and lack of any good PT networks, and such areas between the two cities would require an immediate response in terms of PT network and stops to develop or increase the work centres.
Public and semi-public areas which include institutions, health care services, and other public spaces share the highest percentage of work centers in both Raipur and Naya Raipur. These areas are accessible within two or less than two minutes of walk time and require no intervention. This is in complete contrast to work centers with public utilities, facilities, and transportation and requires immediate action in terms of an increased number of stops and service frequencies.
Similarly, the industrial centres in north Raipur and north Naya Raipur have extremely poor accessibility levels. It is imperative to enhance the accessibility levels in these industrial growth centres to improve the performance of the labour market.
Public transport accessibility levels in Lucknow and Raipur are reflective of those in most Indian cities. The public transport accessibility levels were found to be insufficient and incongruent concerning the cities’ population distribution, which affects the mobility of a considerable proportion of the population.
It is evident from the above cases that lower accessibility of the public transport services in the cities can reduce the potential of citizen participation in the workforce or employment centers.
However, there are appropriate methods and tools at the disposal of the civic authorities and planners to improve the performance of the work centres in the secondary cities.
The first step, therefore, would be to enhance the accessibility of public transport, thereby ensuring access to jobs. The service frequencies for the public transport routes can be increased for the identified inaccessible work centres in the cities; accordingly, adding the bus stops to meet the demand.
Further, the sites for the new employment centres should be selected in either of the two ways:
- Optimum utilization of existing accessible areas: The upcoming work centres and investments for the cities can be allowed or allocated to be developed in the areas which have higher PT accessibility levels to allow maximum utilization.
- Deploying additional PT services to the peripheral areas and outgrowths: New work centres can be developed in greenfield sites in areas in the peripheries of the city, which would have to be connected to the core city with additional PT services in place.
Taking advantage of the pandemic to boost the economy of secondary cities
Secondary cities have thus far been overshadowed by the megacities as the engines of the country’s economic growth. The pandemic could prove as an opportunity for them to boost their economy, increasing their share of contribution to India’s GDP, which is currently in the worst condition ever recorded. Several states have begun attempts to recover the economy, with the launch of numerous policies aimed at employing the returned migrants. Efficient urban planning will ensure that the benefits of these policies are utilized to their full potential.
The pandemic has presented the authorities with new challenges to revive public transport operations. Regaining the trust of the citizens shall require them to ensure safe distancing and sanitization, as has been initiated by the transport authorities in different cities across the country.
The reduced ridership due to the lockdown is also a blessing in disguise for the transport authorities, who can revisit their strategies to improve public transport ridership, connecting residential areas with employment hubs. The improved accessibility will be taken as a step in the positive direction by the citizens who resume their normal life after the lockdown.
With proper incentives, the PT ridership will experience a boom, which shall end the vicious cycle of recurring losses to the transport authorities, which leads to poor maintenance of the fleet, further discouraging the use of public transport.
Don’t miss the bus: Pandemic an opportunity to accelerate Public Transport
One of the measures to improve PT accessibility is enhancing first/last-mile connectivity. The pandemic is an opportunity to improve this, through the development of cycle tracks, improved pedestrian infrastructure, and route rationalization of IPT services, among others.
The funding received under the Smart City Mission and the recently launched schemes like Cycles4Change can be utilized by the local authorities to implement plans in this regard. Some cities have started putting-in efforts in this direction, with, of course, certain precautionary regulations against the spread of the pandemic.
Thus, the pandemic presents immense opportunities for the local authorities to improve accessibility, thereby incentivizing government schemes towards providing employment.
Public transport accessibility, therefore, is an indelible component in the economic recovery of cities and the country, as a whole. Secondary cities have a choice of either continuing their past stature in the country’s economic affairs or opening-up to a new normal with new opportunities; the onus rests with the authorities.
Sameer Kumar is an architect & urban planner. He is an alumnus of CEPT University, Ahmedabad, and Amity University, Lucknow. His interests lie in sustainable development through interdisciplinary research and alliances. He is currently working as a Research Associate (Consultant) with CEPT Research & Development Foundation.