Urban public transport across the developing world is in the midst of a crisis. Cities like Delhi, Mumbai, Sao Paolo, Jakarta and Nairobi have grown dramatically in the past few decades thanks to migration from rural areas and natural population increase. Every new resident requires a place to live, employment and a means of getting from one to the other - be it from a jhuggie cluster to the centre or from a posh colony to an office complex.

The demand for urban mobility is rising, just as the pressure on housing and other infrastructure increases. Struggling public transport systems across the Global South need investment and the auto-rickshaw has an important role to play.

India epitomises these trends. The urban growth rate is running at 31.8%, almost three times faster than rural areas, according to the 2011 Census. 336m Indians now live in urban areas, 27.8% of the total population. In 1991, 17 metro areas had a population of over one million people. That figure rose to 35 by 2001 and currently stands at around 47.

Large cities are more dependent on public transport that smaller, more “walkable” cities, so, as the big cities expand, the need for public transport grows faster than the population itself!

But in India, as across the developing world, urban public transport systems have largely failed to cope with voracious demand. Public transport in Indian cities is, to quote an academic paper on the subject, “overcrowded, undependable, slow, inconvenient, uncoordinated and dangerous” (Pucher et al 2004).

Those who have the cash to opt out of public transport do so. For the middle classes with their rising incomes, the car and the motorbike are becoming ever more popular, especially in the big cities. The four Metro cities have 32% of private motor vehicles but just 11% of the population. Delhi alone has 11% of the nation’s private vehicles but just 1.4% of the population (Badami and Haider, 2007) and is registering over 1000 new private vehicles per day (CSE 2009).

As the middle-classes abandon public transport in favour of cars and motorbikes, the roads become more congested, the air becomes more polluted and the sounds of everyday life are drowned out by motors and horns. Traffic in Delhi crawls along at around 15kmph. Private traffic take up 90% of the city’s road space, but meets less than 20% of the demand (CSE 2011). By 2008 the rapid growth of private petrol and diesel powered vehicles in the capital had already eaten up the air pollution improvements made by the switch to CNG of the city’s public transport in 2001-2 (CSE 2011b).

Meanwhile, despite rising demand for public transport, the number of autos fell from around 83000 in 1997 to around 55000 in 2003, thanks to the poorly thought out implementation of the CNG policy. The number of buses has also stagnated. Bus and auto journeys are growing at 7% and 5% respectively, whilst private car and motorbike trips are sprinting ahead at 12% and 15% (Han et al, 2010).

Delhi, like many developing cities, in is the middle of an urban transport crisis. Demand for public transport is outstripping supply. The existing supply is so shoddy, badly run and unreliable that those with the means to do so abandon it for bikes and cars, which add to the already debilitating congestion and filthy air.

State intervention in the bus sector has led to the introduction of impressive new buses. But there are simply too few to meet the demand. The metro may be a “world class” system, trumping London, Paris and New York for quality and maintenance, but Delhi is a sprawling city free from the geographical constraints straight-jacketing places like Mumbai . This means there are still lakhs of Delhites living long distances from Metro stations.

Delhi needs to invest in mass public transport on a bigger scale in order to prevent further growth in private vehicle numbers, something which could cause chronic gridlock on the city’s main transport arteries. Autos play a vital role in this investment.

All 55000 of Delhi’s autos run on small, clean CNG powered engines and have one-third of the road footprint of a car. They are incapable of causing congestion and air pollution.

Delhi spreads out in all directions across the Gangetic plain. It is multi-centred, which means that journey patterns are more diffuse than other cities, such as Mumbai where people tend to travel on a North-South axis (Pucher et al 2004). The diffuse and unpredictable travel patterns found in Delhi are a headache for bus operators and Metro planners. They simply cannot cater for all journeys. Not now, not ever. That’s where the auto comes in: for the journeys where bus and metro are not options and for “last mile connectivity”, in other words, linking colonies, shopping centres and office complexes with metro stations and other transport hubs.

The current level of private vehicle growth in Delhi is unsustainable. Public transport must improve in order to tempt drivers back out of their cars and dissuade their existing passengers from abandoning public transport. Thanks to Delhi’s sheer size, there will always be a role for the small, clean, affordable auto-rickshaw because the bus and metro systems cannot cover every street in every colony in this vast and ever expanding city.



Badami, M and Haider, M (2007) An Analysis of public bus transit performance in Indian cities. Transportation Research Part A: Policy and Practice, 41, 10.

Centre for Science and the Environment (2011) Alarm over worsening air quality in south Asian cities: Ongoing Action must gather Momentum, Press Release, available at: http://www.cseindia.org/content/alarm-over-worsening-air-quality-and-traffic-congestion-south-asian-cities-ongoing-action-mu Accessed 16/8/11

Centre for Science and the Environment (2011b) What is the status of air pollution in Delhi? Media Q&A, available at: http://www.cseindia.org/node/835 Accessed 16/8/11

Centre for Science and the Environment (2009) Choc-a-Bloc: Parking Measures to Address the Mobility Crisis, Report, available at: http://www.cseindia.org/sites/default/files/parking.pdf Accessed 20/7/11.

Han, J, Bhandari, K and Hayahi, Y (2010) Assessment of Policies towards an Environmentally Friendly Urban Transport System: Case Study of Delhi, Journal of Urban Planning and Development, 136, 1.

Pucher, J, Korattyswaropam, N & Ittyerah, N (2004) The Crisis of Public Transport in India: Overwhelming Needs and Limited Resources. Journal of Public Transportation, Vol.7, No.4.