Metro rail: Inter-modal connectivity missing for a seamless travel

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Bina C. Balakrishnan points out the basic flaws in Indian metro rail systems, which she says have been designed as stand-alone systems, completely ignoring the need for inter-modal connectivity, leading to high commuter stress.

The transportation systems in Indian metropolitan cities have far outgrown their capacities for meeting the demand for movement. The cities desperately need more efficient modes to cater to the daily journey to work. The modes of transportation that predominantly exist in our cities today are still the “traditional” forms of transport – buses, intermediate public transport (IPT) and cars. Although cities like Delhi, Mumbai and Bangalore have implemented heavy metro at least on certain routes, they are not yet in their most efficient forms, thus operating at far below their capacities. Delhi, especially, has a fairly large length of routes, and the metros carry a fairly heavy load during peak hours, but these systems could, with a little better planning, operate at a much higher efficiency.

Flaws in the systems

So what is not quite right about our metro systems? Primarily, it is the fact that these mass transportation systems seem to have been designed in isolation, as stand-alone systems. No journey starts and stops on the metro. Most journeys require the commuters to change at least one mode of transport before they reach their destination. Every journey has two last mile connections, with the metro, suburban train or bus supplying the transportation for the major distance.

With all the metros in India, the primary problem is the complete lack of inter-modal connectivity. This means the facility to transfer between modes during a journey.

The journey to work, or commute, is the most important trip made in an urban area, because it is one trip that cannot be avoided, and transportation systems are therefore designed primarily for these trips. One can change the timings of the trips, and move the trips around the city, but you cannot avoid them. Unless, of course, we reach an ideal level of tele-commuting where majority of people can work from home, but that stage is a long way off.

Improve inter-modal transfer

The ideal commute would be walk from your home to the train station, ride the metro, exit at the destination station, and walk to your final destination. The walk trip at either end is commonly called the “last mile”, and ideally should be less than a five minute walk, or within 500 metres. Unfortunately, this is very rarely the case in Indian metro cities, although this is exactly how it is in several cities of the world, where a bus or a transit stop has been located within 400 meters of every home, so that regardless of the number of changes you make on the metro system, you can walk from it to your destination. In India, this “last mile connection” is often made on another motorised mode, which includes autorickshaws, buses, taxis, motor-cycles or even cars.

The points at which one changes modes from a secondary mode to the primary mode and vice versa is called inter- modal transfer and if these transfer points are not well designed, they can become major bottlenecks in the system, affecting the operational efficiency at which a system functions. The commuter experiences the highest stress during his commute when he is making these changes between modes, as he is trying to optimise the time he spends in the system. It is desirable then that the commuter is presented with the least inconvenience during the time that he transfers from one mode to the other. Stresses can be imposed in the form of a poorly designed boarding/alighting place for the secondary mode, a long walk from this point to the train/metro station or platform, poorly designed holding spaces, resulting in crush of commuters walking in all directions (and consequent loss of time), and lack of information on the arrival/departures of the modes in the area, resulting in uncertainty about the onward journey. In India, all these factors hold true at inter-modal transfer points.

The inter-modal transfer points have to be designed to affect rapid changes from one mode to the other —ideally, the various modes have to be brought as close to the main mode as possible; in cities in Europe, the bus stops are exactly in front of the train stations, so the commuter gets off the bus and walks directly into the train station. Auto stops and taxi stands also need to be located within the station premises and not far out on the street as is currently the case. The movement path from a parking lot to the concourse has to be smooth, logical and as short as possible. Information on the various modes available needs to be easily accessible, and friction between modes and pedestrians should be eliminated to the greatest extent. This is the greatest stumbling block in the great Indian transport scenario. This is what our metros are lacking – integration with the other modes on offer in the cities.

Lack of coordination between various authorities

Integration has to be at three levels – physical integration, information integration and ticketing integration.

In India, transportation is handled by a range of authorities, who report vertically to different departments in the state government, and then on to different ministries at the Centre. To an unfortunately great extent, these agencies operate in water tight compartments, focusing exclusively on their work alone, regardless of the impact that may have on the working of other departments, and consequently the impact on the convenience, comfort and safety of the travelling public.

What is required is co-ordination between these authorities in the planning of the systems, terminal buildings and routes because none of these transportation systems can operate in isolation. The transportation systems in an urban area need to operate as a composite whole: the metros and suburban trains need to be complemented by the road based systems like bus and autorickshaws/taxis. Where the heavy metro cannot or does not reach, it is necessary for the bus services to provide a feeder service, connecting the further areas to the metro, at timings that meet the requirements of the travelling public. Mode changes should be designed at the convenience of the commuter; metro authorities need to work along with other authorities to locate boarding/alighting points for taxis, auto rickshaws and buses conveniently, and the pathways leading to the metros should be clearly identified and free of obstructions. The exits for passengers should be carefully designed: in denser areas, where the last mile may be just a walk trip, metro exits should be located on more than one street.

The current scenario is that passengers alight on the streets from various modes at various locations, and flow towards the entry points of the metro. When the flow of commuters exits the station, they become an uncontrolled sea of humanity, emerging from one or two exits, and then flowing at random over the surface streets, to reach their destination. If they are allowed to select their exits within the metro station itself, the volume emerging at each exit on the surface will be smaller, and the commuters will have a much shorter distance to walk to their final destination. In the absence of this, they look for another form of transport, or just take over the streets, causing delays to the surface transport and increasing the risk of accidents. If the distance to be covered here is inconveniently long or the inconveniences imposed are large enough, they will simply eschew the metro for a car trip, rather than risk life and limb on treacherous footpaths. People will also tend to use a motorised mode to avoid the inconvenience of frequent changes of modes.

The authorities are working on a common ticket that can be used on the trains/metros as well as the buses, and to an extent also on the taxis, but the physical integration, which actually causes greatest discomfort and is more time consuming, is almost completely absent. Information integration requires that passengers be able to access real-time information on the most convenient mode for completion of their journey on their cell phone, or on boards that can be noticed and read from a distance. This information should include the location of the mode, its timing, its route and the time taken to reach the destination. If this is available, the commuter will be in a position to plan his journey more efficiently.

Early implementation of Unified Metropolitan Transport Authority

In recognition of these stumbling blocks, the National Urban Transport Policy has recommended the setting up of a Unified Metropolitan Transport Authority (UMTA). Several cities have set up some form of UMTA, but these are more like committees that have no statutory powers, and therefore there is no real coordination of planning or dove-tailing of design that takes place. Early implementation of UMTA is required if this co-ordinated planning is to become a reality, and the metros are to become efficient transportation systems that make commuting a stress-free experience.


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Bina C. Balakrishnan

The writer has over 35 years of work experience as an engineer and a planner and has been working as a transport consultant.

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