Why Delhi Metro failed to reduce surface traffic and city's air pollution

Delhi’s air pollution won’t go away. On a good day, the air quality index shows a “poor” reading. Desperate authorities are contemplating banning private vehicles. If they go ahead, the chaos that will result can be imagined. Vehicular pollution is of course only a part of the problem, but despite years of struggling with the issue the Delhi government has not increased its bus fleet — which today is smaller than it was 40 years ago when the city’s population was less than a third of what it is today. Additional public transport capacity has been created in the form of Delhi Metro, but that yields some curious statistics.


Comparisons with cities in other countries show that, for its size, Delhi Metro carries far fewer “riders” than almost any other city’s system. With 314 km of track, Delhi has a daily rider average of 2.8 million. China’s Shenzhen has a slightly smaller system (286 km) but carries 60 per cent more riders, at 4.5 million. Mexico City’s Metro system is smaller (226 km of track) but carries 4.4 million riders daily. And Singapore with less than two-thirds of Delhi’s track length, at 199 km, carries 10 per cent more riders than Delhi, at 3.1 million.


There is no uniformity in numbers across the major Metro systems in the world. The range can be from a top figure of 34,000 riders daily for every kilometre of track in Tokyo and about 27,000 in Hong Kong, to 20,000 for Paris and lower numbers in other cities: 18,000 for Moscow, 16,000 for Beijing and Shanghai, and so on. But while there is no uniformity to the numbers, here’s the thing: Delhi seems to have the lowest passenger-track ratio among all the major Metros in the world, at less than 10,000. At the least, the system should be aiming for a figure of 15,000, and possibly for 20,000 — or a doubling of riders with the same track length.


There could be many reasons for Delhi’s low number. One would be the number of cars per Metro train. The majority of Delhi’s trains have six cars, while some have eight and some four. On most Metros, a range of six to eight seems to be normal. But New York usually operates between eight and 11 cars per train. Delhi has been trying for some time to add to its existing capacity of about 1,600 cars by adding another 600, but this has been hanging fire for one reason or other. Moving to a uniform system of eight cars per train would up ridership quite significantly. With fewer cars than required, what the usually crowded Delhi Metro has done is to spend money on expensive infrastructure and then under-utilise its potential capacity.


The second problem seems to be the frequency of trains. In Delhi, the gap between two trains would appear to be more than three minutes at most times, and six minutes in outlying areas. Peak traffic times see the frequency increasing to a little over two minutes; the system seems unable to reduce that further to 90 seconds, achieved on other Metros. Surely there must be a technical solution to the problem.


Finally, there is the issue of the design of the network of tracks. In many cities, the heart of the city gets special treatment in terms of a very dense network of lines and stations. Paris has 245 stations in 87 square kilometre area in the heart of the city. In comparison, Delhi has only 229 stations in all, and much of the track length stretches out into the suburbs, near and far. Again, Moscow has a 50 km line that circles the historical centre of the city, and takes much of the traffic load. London too has a Circle line that touches the major traffic points in the heart of the city. Should Delhi Metro’s future projects be focused more on the city centre, rather than places like Bahadurgarh or Faridabad, to increase ridership, reduce surface traffic congestion and improve the city’s air quality?

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