Hybrid buses: An exercise in vanity environmentalism

Missed opportunities outweigh any gains hybrid buses make in terms of  fuel efficiency.

In a move that has been in the making for several months, the Ministry of Urban Development has decided to fund the roll-out of hybrid buses as a part of JnNURM:

The urban development ministry plans to fund hybrid buses — that use a combination of electric battery and diesel engine — as part of the next lot of buses under the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JNNURM).

During the budget session, finance minister P. Chidambaram had announced that the Centre would fund 10,000 buses under the mission. The ministry has not put a cap on the number of hybrid buses, as it will depend on proposals coming from states, but officials said they may not exceed 50.

While normal low-floor buses cost between Rs 60 lakh and Rs 70 lakh, hybrid buses — which are more fuel-efficient than normal buses — cost around Rs 1.25 crore.

The urban development ministry had proposed that there should be additional financial assistance for hybrid buses.“We had suggested that since hybrid buses are expensive but at the same time we want to promote them for their fuel efficiency, we should give state governments 10 per cent additional financial assistance,” said a senior official.

However, last week, the expenditure finance committee, while sanctioning Rs 4,900 crore for the project, rejected the idea of additional monetary help. [The Telegraph]

At first glance, this looks like a good pro-environment move, where switching to fuel-efficient hybrid buses reduces both carbon emissions and urban air pollution. Though the buses cost almost two times what other modern low floor buses cost, it feels justified because of the fuel savings incurred.

Clean air in urban India is a quickly disappearing public good. Just like we feel the need to purify water before its use, commuters in cars effectively purify and control their air through air conditioning before breathing it in. But are hybrid buses in any way a solution to this problem? In foreign cities with widespread public transport, hybrid buses may indeed be the solution. If we assume that the share of public transport in city commutes is mostly saturated, for every regular bus that can be replaced with a low-emission hybrid, the city reduces its overall pollution.

This is hardly the case in India as public transport’s share in intracity travel is far from optimal! Most of our cities do not have metros or commuter rail, and have to rely solely on city buses, private buses and “share-autorickshaws” as modes of public transport. The environmental gain in Indian cities comes from people switching from cars and personal vehicles into public buses. So while a hybrid bus might be low on emissions, the opportunity lost because of its purchase is the acquisition of an extra regular bus – which would have taken more private vehicles off the road. If 50 hybrid buses could be replaced by 100 regular buses, the transport service might spend more on fuel and have higher emissions, but the city as a whole will spend less. Investing our scarce financial resources in hybrid buses is not a very environmentally friendly move.

City buses in India

The chart above (Source: *, **) shows you some quick numbers on buses in India and Karnataka. The first three cities have other modes of public transport that coexist with buses (commuter trains and metros). However, as the graph shows – even the best performing cities have too few buses for our public transport to be saturated.

The Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission has been India’s flagship programme to finance urban infrastructure and catalyse urban reforms since 2005. It is noteworthy that the acquisition of buses was not a valid item of expenditure under the mission for the first four years. It was in 2009 that under a union stimulus package, the Ministry of Urban Development decided to finance the procurement of about 10,000 high tech buses, to ‘transform city bus transport in India‘.

It is beyond the scope of this blog post to evaluate whether bus acquisition and deployment served Keynesian ends, but the move was politically astute and was fairly well received. The JnNURM labeled buses on Indian (and Bangalorean) roads today are the most visible output of the mission. The move to deploy high quality buses with low floors, pneumatic doors, good suspension and comfort was also a welcome one. By providing a means of public transport that is on par with cars on comfort and safety, these Volvos and Tata Marcopolos were likely able to get more cars off the road than regular buses. In cities like Bangalore, these high-end buses have appropriately priced tickets, are profitable and are even able to subsidise other bus fares.

In the mean time, many bus manufacturers have come out with hybrid buses, including Tata Motors with a CNG-hybrid. Tempting as they may appear, policymakers in the urban development ministry have to seriously consider whether these are necessary – or an exercise in vanity. As the Telegraph article points out, the ministry correctly ruled out the provision of extra assistance for hybrid buses. However, even giving an identical percentage of assistance is too much – as it can buy two regular buses in its stead.

Good public transport has several outcomes that benefit cities: less air pollution; reduction in congestion and in travel time; and also an opportunity for social mixing. This blog strongly believes in the single-minded pursuit of better public transport in Indian cities – but alas, hybrid buses are an expensive and unnecessary detour from that road.

Note. 40 buses per lakh population appears to be a subjective norm fixed by the JnNURM. One World Bank initiative recommends between 50 and 120 buses per lakh population. That said, these are but useful guidelines to follow. What matters most are outcomes – and among them, the public share of total city transport, a control of travel time with urban growth and an overal reduction in urban air pollution.

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2 Responses to Hybrid buses: An exercise in vanity environmentalism

  1. Karthik July 2, 2013 at 1:53 PM #

    Tangential but it is interesting how the smaller the city gets, the lesser the provisioning of public transportation! it’s a secular decrease in Karnataka.

    Of course, people might say that this is because of Bangalore-centric growth in Karnataka. It would be pertinent, though, to see the provisioning of public transport in other smaller cities in India.

  2. B.S.RANGARAJAN July 2, 2013 at 11:51 PM #

    A good public transportation is absolutely essential to a developing nation like India with a relatively poor infrastructure. However, the prohibitive costs of these hybrid varieties is something that India can ill afford. Mass transit systems such as the Metro is a better answer in the long term even if the initial development costs are a bit higher.