IMAGINE Panaji Smart City Development Private Limited (IPSCDL), the special purpose vehicle engaged in implementing the Smart City Mission for Goa’s capital, aims to solve the city’s traffic congestion not by building more car parks but by developing public transport. The idea sounds like a fantasy and it will remain a fantasy if the IPSCDL does not resolve the structural and institutional problems involved. It is not within the means of the IPSCDL alone to bring about a transformation in the city transportation system. The IPSCDL is taking the help of private consultants to make its Comprehensive Mobility Plan. We are not sure if even after the consultants give a plan the IPSCDL will be able to implement it. For one thing, there have been proposals and recommendations made by experts earlier about how to reduce congestion in Panaji by introducing a good public transport. Ministers and civil servants of Goa take a flight to Europe, the US and Asia on the slightest excuse: they must have seen how their cities manage their congestion and public transport, but never put their learning into practice. Panaji has been twinned with a few world cities. However, nothing changed about the city’s public transport.
IPSCDL director Siddharth Kunkalienkar and chief executive officer Swayamdipta Pal Chaudhuri must not give the residents of Panaji false hopes that once a Comprehensive Mobility Plan is in, the congestion will be out. Very complex structural and institutional problems need to be surmounted before such a plan can be implemented. Let us discuss the structural problems first. One, Panaji is a very different kind of city. It is bounded by the Arabian Sea and the River Mandovi. And it is not large in area. The city therefore does not provide scope for building a railway or subway. The New York City has the best public transport among all cities in the US despite having a very large resident population and huge numbers of tourists throughout the year. Yet there is no chronic traffic congestion in New York because 1.7 billion of the 2.5 billion public transport users, almost 70% of them, ride the subway.
The only choice left to Kunkalienkar and Chaudhuri is to give the city an ideal bus transport, and that is where the second structural problems start. The bus transport that the city has is only a motorized avatar of the caminhão. It collects passengers from anywhere, apart from stops, where it really stops for a feudal time, while its boys keep calling out for passengers. Overcrowding is common in them. Kunkalienkar and Chaudhuri must understand that one of the major factors that can induce a larger number of commuters to use buses is the reduction in the time of travel. Why would anyone take public transport when the commuting time is more? Do Kunkalienkar and Chaudhuri have a solution to the problem? Can they compel the bus owners not to pick up passengers anywhere along the route and not to stop at the stops for longer than permitted? The structural problem here gets complicated with the bus owners using various influences including the patronage of politicians to defy any directives.
It is a Catch-22 situation. Today only those travel by buses who do not have motor vehicles of their own or do not know driving. They are usually lower-income people. Kunkalienkar and Chaudhuri cannot expect men and women from the middle and upper classes to ride public buses unless the buses offer quality service – quality in terms of seating and standing space, in terms of reduction in commuting time, in terms of punctuality. If someone has to reach office by 9.45 the bus arriving at the stop near his or her home at 9 should arrive at 9 every day without fail and take half an hour or a little more to reach the commuter’s getting down stop near the office. The buses of today do not provide an attractive option for commuters of all classes. And if the middle and upper classes are not attracted to ride buses, they will continue to drive around in their cars, preferring to suffer congestion and losing hours in jams. Kunkalienkar and Chaudhuri have a near impossible task of breaking down the social walls between poorer and middle and upper classes by making bus transport New York class. As of now, they do not look up to the task.
Then there are institutional problems. To implement the Comprehensive Mobility Plan, the IPSCDL will need several departments of the state government and the Corporation of the City of Panaji for well-coordinated action. A good bus transport is not possible without good roads, wider roads, unfailing street lights and without replacing today’s individual bus owners with a public or private company.