A recent survey of metro rail commuters in three cities says improving access to stations, or better last-mile connectivity, will encourage them

India has invested heavily in transitioning the urban transit infrastructure towards clean mobility, particularly by introducing metro rail services in several cities. Boosted by the Delhi Metro’s better performance, the government has undertaken metro projects in Bengaluru, Nagpur, Mumbai and Hyderabad. Metro projects are also being developed in Tier-II cities like Lucknow, Patna, Jaipur and Kochi. Recently, Union Urban Development Minister Hardeep Singh Puri said the country is set to have the world’s second-largest metro network.

On the face of it, the metro rail network is sleek, comforting and sustainable. It addresses a vital and rising demand for urban commute, tackles the rising traffic pressure on roads and helps reduce road crash fatalities and emissions due to private and commercial transport vehicles. Still, the metro system has remained surprisingly underutilised. In some cases just 10% of the projected ridership has been achieved.

Recognising The Problem

A recent survey of metro rail commuters in three cities – Delhi, Bengaluru and Nagpur – sheds some light on this intriguing issue. It says access to the stations, or last-mile connectivity, needs to be ramped up through data-driven solutions to encourage metro commuters to take this mass transit system. For instance, most metro users walk or use low-cost shared last-mile modes to reach their boarding stations. They appear to be willing to travel not more than 20 minutes, including the waiting period for last-mile mode, to access metro stations.

This is because metro commuters are from specific demographics: those aged between 19 and 35 (office-goers or students), and those with a monthly household income between Rs 10,000 and Rs 40,000. They are highly price sensitive and prefer taking shared transit modes such as auto-rickshaws to reach the stations. More affluent users, who may own personal vehicles, are yet to shift to the metro system.

Over 70% of the metro rail commuters walk or cycle to reach a station in Nagpur, and 66% in Bengaluru, but only 39% use non-motorised mode to reach their stations in Delhi. The national capital has the highest number of passengers using low-capacity shared modes of transport such as auto-rickshaws and grameen sewa vehicles, says the WRI India and Toyota Mobility Foundation survey.

Fig 1: Ensuring dependable and frequent last-mile connectivity options can dramatically boost ridership.

Women form a significant group of the commuters. One of the reasons they prefer the metro service is the safety offered by it. However, they usually have to wait for last-mile modes outside the stations for more than 10 minutes due to various reasons. Aversion to waiting makes them pay more for a faster alternative.

These findings are consistent across cities, says the survey, and suggest that the time spent on accessing a metro station mainly determines the “catchment region” of that station, and not the population density of that area.

Finding Solutions

The survey is revealing for many reasons. It suggests last-mile planning for metro commuters continues to be driven by the “intuition” of local-level planners or the number and type of buses that can be spared for the route, rather than by data. Recognising the problem, the government has focused on improving last-mile connectivity to increase metro rail ridership.

In its Metro Rail Policy of 2017, the government mandated last-mile services planning for projects that seek Central funding. “Last-mile connectivity through pedestrian pathways, non-motorised transport infrastructure, and induction of facilities for paratransit modes will be essential requirements for availing any central assistance for the proposed metro rail projects,” said the policy. It also said state governments will have to make provision for feeder systems for availing central financing assistance. These feeder systems should help enlarge the catchment area of each metro station to at least to 5 km.

That said, some other steps also need to be taken to make the metro rail system attractive to both low-income groups and those that own personal vehicles but are amenable to shift to the public rail system.

There is a need to increase the frequency of last-mile shared services to significantly reduce the waiting period. Instead of running high-capacity feeder buses, authorities need to understand that smaller vehicles at a greater frequency can motivate commuters to shift to metro systems. In areas with a greater population of higher-income groups, app-based on-demand mobility services can be started. These last-mile connectivity services can be based on clean fuels – such as electric vehicles and electric bikes – to make them sustainable and cheaper to travellers.

For instance, the Delhi Metro has set an example by its sustainable initiatives to reduce its carbon footprint that also boosted its ridership to a peak average of over 50 lakh commuters daily. It runs feeder services in many areas and has launched an electric-bike service at many of its metro stations for last-mile connectivity. These bikes are easy to use and their services can be booked via a smartphone. The United Nations has certified the Delhi Metro as the world’s first metro rail to get carbon credits for reducing GHG emissions.

The Indian metro rail infrastructure has come a long way since the first such system was rolled out in Kolkata in 1984, after 12 years of planning. The second metro rail system was operationalised in Delhi in 2002. Today, at least 19 cities have an operational metro rail system and several more networks are under construction.

But a one-size-fits-all approach is not likely to deliver desired results in boosting metro ridership. It is imperative to formulate policies based on data that reflect the local realities and demands. Different cities have different commuter groups and their requirements for mobility and travel patterns may vary. Understanding this diversity is critical to make the metro rail services more appealing and more sustainable.