“Mumbai is upgrading,” is the message written across several boards at sites of the Mumbai metro construction work in the financial capital. Although it has made traffic worse, many residents see it as short-term pain for the long-term gain of an efficient public transport system going forward.

However, experts at a panel discussion at the Move Global Mobility Summit in Delhi on Friday seemed to unanimously agree that a robust bus network, and not metro lines, is crucial to the reinvention of India’s public transport.

“After 20 years of efforts towards the metro lines across India, the country today has around 500 km of operational metro routes and another 500 km are in the process of being constructed. But 1,000 km is what London has today, and that is just one city,” said Shashi Verma, CTO, Trasnsport for London.

He added that despite this, London saw more bus journeys than tube/train journeys. “The bus is the backbone of the urban public transport system,” he stressed.

Shreya Gadepalli, South Asia director at the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy, echoed his views. “London has around 10,000 double decker buses, equivalent to around 16,000 standard buses; while India has around 30,000 urban buses across the country,” she said, adding that the figure comes to about just 10 buses per 1 million people in India. “We need to increase this number 12-fold to 3 lakh urban buses… That will be the game-changer.”

She further went on to say that simply making the bus system more reliable, comfortable and efficient will not be enough to draw those with cars to start using public transport. “We need a carrot-and-stick approach,” she said, explaining that policies to constrain and discourage car use are required, in the way of higher parking and congestion charges.

Yudhvir Singh Malik, secretary, road transport and highways, too stressed the need for more buses across the country, pegging the figure conservatively at 20 lakh more buses, but adding that ideally India should add 40 lakh buses.

In his keynote address before the panel discussion, road transport minister Nitin Gadkari too made a passing mention of how if bus travel is made as comfortable as air travel, people would be attracted to it.

By the end of the panel discussion, where experts focussed on the need for more buses, a member of the audience used the Q&A session to point out that it is the government that needs to implement these steps, but no representative from the government remained in the room for the presentations and discussions till the very end.

The message from the panel seemed to be a clear one. But the question is, is the government actually listening?

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