Lucknow Metro: Urban Transportation Systems Must be Accountable to Local and Subaltern Needs

While the city’s North-South Corridor (NSC) of the Lucknow metro has been functional since March 2019 and has recorded a daily ridership of about 40,000–70,000, this is only 16% of the projections made by planners. This shortfall is a result of the government adopting a “one-size-fits-all” approach that fails to take into account existing transportation services (both public and private) and local needs. 

Sound infrastructure is indispensable to expand the economy, but infrastructure and development have to be synchronised. As India plans to boost its secondary sector, an efficient public transportation system cannot be compromised. The challenge before policymakers and urban planners is to design and implement an inclusive system. I will examine whether, and to what extent, the Lucknow metro has met this challenge. 

In 2013, the Delhi Metro Rail Corporation (DMRC) prepared a report titled the “Updated Final Detailed Project Report for Lucknow Metro Rail Project” (referred to here as the DPR) that advocated for the construction of a metro project in Lucknow. The DMRC argued that Lucknow had inadequate public transport, and this encouraged commuters to purchase motor vehicles (DMRC 2013).[1] Lucknow metro’s North-South Corridor (NSC) has been functional since March 2019 and the East-West Corridor was approved for construction in June 2018 (Rawat 2018). The report forecasted the daily ridership of the North-South Corridor to be 4,29,250 in 2015 and 6,44,659 by 2020 (DMRC 2013: 93). In 2019, however, the ridership hovered between 40,000 and 70,000 riders per day, at about 16% of the 2015 projection (Srivastava 2019). The Lucknow Metro Rail Corporation Limited (LMRC) suffered a net loss of about Rs 18.97 crore in 2016–17 and Rs 25.38 crore in 2017–18 (LMRCL 2019a).

Exclusionary Infrastructure

Metro fares in Lucknow are high (even higher than the fares of the Delhi Metro), suggesting that the metro was designed keeping in mind the city’s middle class. While the Delhi metro charges Rs 60 for a distance greater than 32 kilometres (km), the Lucknow metro charges Rs 60 for any distance greater than 21 km (18 stations) (DMRC 2019a; Lucknow Metro 2019). For example, for the same fare, a rider can travel a distance of about 38 km in Delhi and a distance of about 23 km in Lucknow  (DMRC 2019b; LMRC 2019b). Moreover, the Delhi metro gives discounts on Sundays and National Holidays (DMRC 2019a).

However, given that even Lucknow’s middle class appears to not use the metro as widely as anticipated (as seen from the low ridership), even their needs seem to have been overlooked. Taxis provide commuters comfort by providing a combination of air conditioning, decongested seating and door-to-door service (given that one does not have to walk to and fro from a station). In addition to taxis, the middle class can also continue to use either two-wheelers or four-wheelers given the limited incentives provided by the Lucknow metro. These preferences underscore the need for urban planners to synthesise both affordability and comfort. Moreover, these preferences also show that planners need to study not just economic and demographic characteristics of commuters, but also social and cultural aspects (such as how people spend their money). 

There are other reasons to believe that the metro was not designed to cater to the needs of Lucknow’s commuters. According to the DPR, a rider’s average trip length on the Lucknow metro will be about 7.6 km by 2020 (this figure is projected to decrease in subsequent years) (DMRC 2013: 93). People are likely to be dissuaded from using the metro for such short distances for three reasons. First, it takes time to access the metro, including the time it takes to reach a station, purchase tickets (in cases where the passenger does not have a metro card) and exit a station (Mohan 2008). Poor first-mile and last-mile connectivity is also a serious issue as the feeder service that connects stations to residences is not yet functional (as of December 2019). Moreover, given that most Indian cities have expanded irregularly and lack a dedicated central business, jobs are dispersed. In this context, a high-capacity public transport system would fail to meet the needs of daily commuters (Mohan 2008). Second, Lucknow’s metro stations lack organised parking facilities. Third, cheaper and faster alternatives such as para-transit vehicles (including auto-rickshaws and tempos) are well established. 

However, to increase the metro’s ridership, officials suggested stopping public buses and para-transit vehicles from running on the same route as the metro (Navbharat Times 2019). The union of auto-tempo drivers vehemently opposed the move. This policy had the potential to gentrify neighbourhoods by driving away transportation providers. Moreover, this policy demonstrates how the administration is more comfortable with the “elimination of the poor” rather than the elimination of poverty. Why must auto–tempo drivers and others face the consequences of the administration’s haphazard and subpar planning? Para-transit vehicles not only provide a livelihood to the urban poor, but they also provide affordable transportation to the working-class. A decision to stop para-transit vehicles from operating affects not just the operators themselves, but also the urban poor who use these options owing to affordability. This move would force them to use more expensive modes of transportation such as the metro.

Although the suggestion was not enacted owing to fervent opposition by the union, it points to a larger problem in India, namely that metro systems are usually not integrated with other modes of transportation (Tiwari 2013). City planners must make efforts to plan and implement the Lucknow metro to complement, rather than compete with or, worse yet, to thwart existing modes of transportation. Given that creating new feeder services as a part of metro projects can prove to be expensive, existing para-transit vehicles could be used for the purpose, as envisaged in the National Transit Oriented Development Policy (MoHUA 2017: 10). Para-transit vehicles also run on compressed natural gas (CNG) in most big cities, and hence, should not be seen only as adding to pollution and congestion. 

Metro projects require a lot of initial funding and are often sustained by high ticket prices, making the service inaccessible to low-income groups. In Lucknow, for instance, urban planners’ top-down approach has failed to provide availability, affordability and accessibility to commuters. Given the urgency of a situation where taxpayers are paying for the losses incurred due to vacant seats and ill-conceived planning by the LMRC, what can be done to learn and rectify the situation?

Creating Vibrant Transportation Systems 

It is clear that infrastructure in India needs to be more inclusive, and public transport must be democratised. Therefore, a bottom-up approach, which takes into account the needs of commuters, must be incorporated to create a vibrant transportation system. While one of the tangible advantages of the metro systems is their ability to avoid traffic, bus systems (with dedicated corridors) can also achieve the same. This is important because fast transport systems tend to also be costly; this pattern steals time and productivity from the poor and reallocates it to the rich (Badami 2009). Bus services (using electric buses) can be valuable in a city with ill-conceived and irregular growth. Besides, given that there are fewer commuters in tier-2 cities than in tier-1 cities,[2] light rail transport systems, which require lesser capital than metro systems, could be explored as potential alternatives. 

Public transportation services should prioritise the safety and the needs of women, senior citizens, persons with disabilities and low-income groups. One way this can be done is by offering fare concessions to marginalised sections of society.  Moreover, women’s rights groups can be hired as consultants, and their suggestions can be incorporated by urban planners to effectively democratise spaces that are supposed to be “public,” but which remain highly exclusionary to specific groups.

Contrary to popular perception, a study conducted by Sreenivas and Sant (2008) in Pune has argued that cars and motorbikes utilise more subsidies than public transportation systems. The government must provide appropriate incentives to encourage the use of public transport while simultaneously establishing disincentives for private transport (Mitra 2006). Awareness through public outreach programmes can help persuade people to minimise the use of private vehicles. Comprehensive bus systems can serve as an alternative not just to metro systems, but also to private vehicles. 

The transportation crisis cannot be solved by implementing strong public transportation systems alone; plans have to include developing infrastructures for cyclists and pedestrians. This is important because the poor and marginalised overwhelmingly rely on these modes of commuting. Countries such as the Netherlands, Sweden, and Japan have shown that bicycles can be used effectively for short trips (BBC 2013; Badami 2009; Kidd 2012). Moreover, facilities for cycling and walking are affordable, environmentally friendly, and can decongest roads. 

Although Lucknow has dedicated cycle lanes on some roads, these are frequently encroached upon. It is paradoxical that good cycle tracks and footpaths exist in affluent urban areas and not in the peri-urban areas, where they can be better utilised by the low-income groups who do not own private motor vehicles for short-distance travel. Dedicated cycle lanes are required not just in cities, but also in highways. Given that high speeding vehicles ply on highways, the safety of the cyclists and the pedestrians needs to be ensured.  A 207-km long highway that was constructed in 2016 in Uttar Pradesh (between Agra and Etawah) is a good example of prioritising the needs of cyclists and low-income groups (Siddiqui 2016). Although the National Urban Transportation Policy (2006) tried to address this issue, it was poorly executed. The transportation policy needs to be updated with a comprehensive account of the multiple modes of transportation including taxis, para-vehicles, metro systems, cycles, private vehicles, and the changing needs of different sections of society.  

The Delhi metro cannot be seen as an ideal model for all cities in India. Mass rapid transit systems (MRTS), such as metro projects, are capital intensive and are effective only in specific contexts. Urban planners should not adopt a “one size fits all” approach; instead, they should design and plan transportation systems according to the nuances of different regions. Transportation planning must be decentralised (to the district level) to adequately consider, incorporate and be accountable to local needs and practices, especially those of the marginalised. 

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