Train Rides: A Love Affair

I still remember my first visit to the central bus station in my hometown, Bangalore, India, known colloquially as Majestic, or Kempegowda Bus Stand, after the city’s founder. Bangalore is the capital of the state of Karnataka in southern India. With over 8 million residents it is the largest city in the state and third largest in the country. Majestic Bus Stand serves as its central hub for intra-city and inter-city bus services; it teems with buses throughout the day.

My first visit here was as a child, and I was immediately terrified at having to cross between its semicircular bays while those huge buses were moving! But after a few visits I realized that the drivers drove slowly and carefully, because everyone crossed the semicircular bays while those huge buses were moving. So, I got used to it and soon looked forward to my next bus trip.

Public transportation remains fascinating to me because of its sheer scale and capacity. While there is a lot of work that goes on in the background to build and maintain public transit, we usually don’t notice it until something goes wrong.

Bangalore has a fairly extensive public transportation network, though not as well developed as other major Indian cities. There are buses plying routes through the city and suburbs, the metro connecting the busiest areas of the city to the outskirts, and some suburban trains connecting nearby towns. In addition to these, you have the iconic green and yellow auto-rickshaws.

What this meant for me is that I had great freedom of mobility to meet friends, go to school, or even independently explore the city well before I was of legal age to get a driver’s licence. In fact, because of this freedom of movement, I found I didn’t even need to get a licence.

Then I moved to a different town for college between Bangalore and Chennai. As they are major cities and industrial hubs, they are well connected by train, and it was very easy for me to visit home each month. Issues of punctuality aside, these electric trains are fast, clean, and affordable. And there’s an element of excitement about train travel that never seems to get old. Something about relaxing in your seat and taking in the passing sights of fields, roads, cities, people going about their day. And the whole experience costs less than the gas it would take to drive!

I have sorely missed that freedom of mobility since moving to the United States to study at Duke University. Durham, North Carolina is a fairly car-dependent city with only a basic bus transit system, and footpaths are often only on one side of the road or none at all. To be fair, the bus service was fare-free in 2022-23 and this has been renewed in the city’s latest budget until June 2024. It is nice to, in effect, get to enjoy fare-free bus travel within Durham and the Triangle area throughout my time at Duke. But, I am getting my fix of public transportation while spending time this summer as an RCC Stanback Fellow at the Rachel Carson Council. I absolutely love how walkable the city is, how well connected by bus and Metro! It has been a pleasure living here; I will cherish it for a long time.

But we need far more mass transit nationwide. The EPA estimates that in 2021, 35% of the US’s CO2 emissions came from the transportation sector. That is more than the electricity sector’s emissions! Further, the US has pledged to become carbon-neutral by 2050, and states and cities have set their own targets towards this common goal. As part of the broader effort to meet these targets and avert the effects of climate change, we need to reduce the emissions resulting from the basic need for mobility. Public transportation is the most effective tool to meet this need while minimizing environmental impacts.

There are numerous benefits from building a public transport network within and between cities, versus building more roads and parking for cars. The amount of energy consumed per person per mile is significantly lower, and so is the pollution of air and water. Further, these networks are space-efficient, and take less physical space in our cities to move the same number of people. It is more affordable than owning and maintaining a car, and, when built out extensively, offers tremendous freedom of mobility.

When cars first came out about a century ago, people of the time were opposed to the idea of surrendering so much of their public land to cars, roads, and parking. These pain points still hold true and are worsening with a growing population of people and cars. Further, cities by design are sprawling with buildings separated by vast swaths of empty land in the form of lawns or parking grounds. This is often used as an argument for why public transport is ineffective in the US. But that is a city planning problem and a land use problem that can be solved. Cities built before the automobile age are far denser and more walkable. They had or still have systems in place to enable a large number of people to get to their destination quickly and safely. They are centered around their train stations because that is how people got around before cars!

Dedicating more space in cities for cars through broad roads and vast parking spaces only creates incentives for their use. It increases the total energy consumed to achieve the same tasks, whereas we want to decrease the energy consumed and pollution emitted. Instead, imagine how convenient it would be to be able to walk or bike to where you want to go, instead of being forced to take your car because it’s simply too far and or to unsafe to walk.

RCC Stanback Renewable Energy Fellow – Nagarajan Subramanian

Nagarajan Subramanian is from Bangalore, India, pursuing the Master of Environmental Management degree at Duke University. He is deeply passionate about the environment and nature, and his ambition is to find ways to reduce the environmental impacts of the energy sector and meet our energy needs sustainably. With a major in Mechanical Engineering specializing in Energy, he joined Duke to learn about the influence of other factors – economics, policy, business, management – on the energy sector.