In the last ten years, I've travelled to twenty-one countries across three continents, and in doing so have attempted to figure out the right way to engage with the cities I visit. Over time, I've come to realise that the best way to see a place in a pocket-friendly manner necessitates using a combination of walking, cycling, and public transport, making cities in Europe and the USA extremely inviting. Footpaths, dedicated cycling paths, and metro and bus connectivity create an atmosphere conducive to travel. These methods of city navigation, sadly, are unknown to most parts of India.
Most Delhiites will know the pain involved with getting around the city. Traffic clogs the street at all hours, with a mix of two-wheelers, cars, buses fighting for barely existent road space. Despite the prevalent congestion and never-ending complaints about it, I've seen the number of cars in my colony increase exponentially, with the lack of parking space resulting in the children's playing area being taken over.
Footpaths in Delhi are often less than a meter wide (unless you're in Chanakyapuri) and have been taken over by vendors and hawkers through no fault of their own; after all, they do need a place to ply their trade. Cycling paths are almost non-existent, and where they in the few spots that they do exist, they are almost always used by people on motorbikes and scooters. Walking and cycling then, are almost laughable ideas when thinking about convenient commuting, leaving public transport as the only option.
I've been a faithful patron of the Delhi public transport system for some years now. Buses and metros have been my primary mode of travel, especially before I was eligible for a driving licence. The metro, of course, is one of the few things Delhi can brag about. In terms of quality, it beats most systems in the US and Europe, though mainly because it was set up in the last decade whereas cities in the West have had these systems in place for far longer. The bus system in Delhi isn't bad either, especially after the old, rickety DTC buses were replaced. The problem with both these systems, however, lies primarily in the number of buses and trains in operation.
The distance between home and the office I'm interning at is just about four kilometres. Were Delhi summers not so harsh and proper pavements available for use, I might have been tempted to walk it. In the absence of such luxuries however, vehicular transport seemed the only option available to me. The choice was then between borrowing a relative's car or taking the bus. The problem with the latter was that doing so would involve waiting anywhere between 5-20 minutes for a bus, taking a twenty minute bus ride and then walking a little over a kilometre from the bus stop, because there were no direct buses plying between home and work. All in all, what is a fifteen minute drive ends up taking about forty-five minutes by bus. Making this journey in the morning is especially difficult, because bus rides in the heat result in me getting to work all but drenched in sweat. To remedy this, I now take a rickshaw in the mornings and a bus in the evenings, which in total cost me between Rs 55-60 a day, around the same that it would cost me if I drove.
The recent odd-even scheme introduced on an ad-hoc basis by the Delhi government was the first policy that attempted to curb pollution in the city, which had been awarded (no longer) the not-so-flattering title of the most polluted city on earth. Public transport was put to the test with a number of cars being forced off the road in the daytime, and the limited capacity and reach of the system created more problems than it aimed to solve.
Getting to know Delhi on a budget, then, is far from convenient. The extreme climate of the city ensures that for most months of the year being a flaneur is all but impossible. To add to this, the inadequacies of public infrastructure mean that true engagement with the city's heritage is a task only the brave can aspire to.