In all cultures there are traditions of giving up something one loves for some period of time. In today’s world, these would be termed a challenge or a detox - going without social media for a period of time, for example. So here’s another one - travel solely by public transit for a month. The only concession would be if you were travelling out of your city, even then travelling to the airport, railway station, or bus terminus would have to be by public transit.

Would you take up the challenge? The reason I ask is that many people don’t even consider public transit as an option. People assume that it’s very inconvenient and difficult to navigate. Yet a multitude of people, particularly those in lower-income groups, use public transit all the time. This is their default; an auto is a rare indulgence. I wouldn’t say these are people who cannot afford a car because that means there are others who can. In today’s world, the planet cannot afford cars.

Making public transit the go to option
So, is our public transit so tough to use?  

First, what do we want in a public transit network? Obviously the network should be just that - a network - interconnected and easy for the commuter to switch modes and lines; two, an integrated payment system with various payment modes, three, information (on fares, timings, routes), four, access for all; and lastly, a commuter shouldn’t have to walk more than 5 to 10 minutes before finding a public transit mode.

Interconnected public transit systems
Let’s look at the public transit in Chennai. We have buses (MTC - Metropolitan Transport Corporation), and trains (suburban train, MRTS - Mass Rapid Transit System, and metro). They are sort of interconnected in that at some points their stations/bus stops come close to each other. In metro stations such as Central, you will see signs pointing you to the suburban and MRTS stations. Switching lines/modes can be done if you are game to walk a bit and climb up and down stairs. 

But why on earth do all our trains in Chennai run north-south and there is no connectivity east to west except for the line from Central towards Avadi? To switch from MRTS to the suburban or to the Metro is such a convoluted, time-consuming matter that it’s just simpler to take a cab! Sometimes I adamantly take public transit from the airport back to my home in South Chennai and then at the end of an arduous journey consisting of three modes of transit, I really wonder if it's worth it!

Integrated payment systems
We cannot switch modes seamlessly though as ticketing is separate for each of these modes. Only the suburban train and MRTS have common ticketing. 

Wouldn’t it be great if I could buy one ticket and use it across transit modes? That I don’t have to hoard small change, wait in queues. But nowhere in India do we have an integrated payment system. There has been much talk of a National Common Mobility Card (note that this requires you to be tech savvy and use ‘smart’ systems) but nothing has come of it yet. Last year I got myself a Delhi Metro Card (yes, I live in Chennai but have a Delhi card!) which indicates that I can use it in the Delhi Transport Corporation (DTC) buses too. I am yet to try it; perhaps on my next visit to the capital. 

The one good thing though is that our public transit system has not fully been caught up in this mad rush to go digital! We still have some options in modes of payment. All our modes of transit take cash which is important as many in our country work in the informal sector and depend on public transit. For such people, bank accounts, let alone smart cards and the internet, are alien concepts. In the suburban train and MRTS, one can use the ticketing app. I must admit I have not bothered to download it and do not know how convenient it is. In the Metro, tickets can be bought by cash or debit/credit card or one can use the Metro smart card that one can top up. MTC continues to be cash only. The tickets themselves are all paper except for the Metro or if one buys the suburban train/MRTS ticket through the app. While there is a push to go digital, which can be useful for certain types of commuters, it is vital to keep the cash option as is keeping ticket counters open in all public transit systems. 

While not integrated, there is another time -and money-saving payment option - the pass. MTC has a Rs 1,000 monthly pass that lets one take any bus and a Rs 30 one-day pass and of course the student pass. Today, I have the MRTS monthly pass which lets me take as many rides as I like for Rs 120. But this information is not clearly advertised and promoted. 

Information systems
The preferred option for information is to go SMART. Everyone talks of apps for the smartphone. Metro has an app on which one can buy tickets, check routes, timings, etc. The suburban and MRTS system have a combined offline app which basically gives routes and timings and is useful since one doesn’t need the internet to check it. However, when the train timings change, the app doesn’t update for days and months and the ticketing app is separate! MTC too has an offline app for routes and timings but it is not user-friendly. The names searched for have to be exactly what is entered in the app. For example, if I type in Adyar instead of Adayar, I won’t get a result. 

What these apps do, of course, is ignore people without smartphones, who are not tech savvy, and who don’t know English. Our cities are truly melting pots with people from all over India so how do we cope with people being illiterate, not understanding English or the vernacular spoken in that region? 

The only other way to gather information is to head to the station itself based on partial information from friends and family. Several times I have had people in the bus stop or train station ask me how to get to X destination. 

This is a tough problem; how can public transit be made easy for someone who cannot read? In the train systems, some announcements take place so one can at least know which platform to head to and when the next train will come in. This is especially true in the metro; in the suburban and MRTS, only some stations and trains have announcements. In some bus stands like Broadway, I hear announcements being made in Tamil but what about people who don’t know English and Tamil? And what can be done at bus stops? I don’t know how we can overcome this but at the very least bus stops should have route maps and bus routes clearly listed in English and Tamil. At least MTC buses’ route board is bilingual unlike some cities!

Accessibility 
There are many pockets in the city that are poorly served by public transit. At the quarterly consumer groups meeting with the MTC, there are always a lot of requests regarding bus routes and frequency in peri-urban areas. Even in the heart of the city, areas like Alwarpet and R.A Puram are not well connected. So rationalisation of routes is required and for that what is needed is data on commuter movement on all systems, as well as perhaps a detailed study with commuter inputs on which areas need attention. While planning big projects like the Metro, feasibility studies are of course done and the Chennai Metropolitan Development Authority (CMDA), for its second masterplan, had in 1992-95, carried out the Chennai Comprehensive Transportation Study (CCTS) that continues to be the basis for transport planning. Presumably once several lines are done the Metro will be more network-like and ridership will increase as well. That will take another decade at least. In the meantime bus routes could be rationalised to ensure that the trains and buses are not competing for custom but are complementing each other.

Public services are meant for everyone and therefore have to cater to a range of needs. As discussed earlier, most of our public transit does not provide information in multiple languages and discriminates against those who cannot read. Then there is this craze for escalators, automated turnstiles, and ticket vending machines. Many people in India are still unfamiliar with escalators and turnstiles, reading maps and so on. The other day at the metro, an elderly man asked me to show him how to use the token and figure out which platform to head to. Often I see people in the MRTS, looking at the escalator like it’s an alien being that’s going to chew them up. 

The whole point of ticket vending machines is to skip employing people to issue tickets but with these machines intimidating people who aren’t tech savvy, people tend to look for a ticket counter. In addition the machine can’t answer questions on where to get off to go to a particular destination! In general, I find Indians prefer a human interface rather than an automated system. 

Perhaps, those in charge finally realised this because we now have staff manning ticket vending machines. 

We cannot do away with ticket counters or with lifts until people become more comfortable with automated systems. Even then, lifts or ramps are essential for people in wheelchairs or with other disabilities. So far, the metro has been the best of the lot with lifts, ramps, textured tiles for the blind, etc. Even this is not a great experience for people with disabilities or special needs. A disability rights group who audit many public spaces told me that the metro is not disabled-friendly. The other public transit systems are quite abysmal in this area of accessibility. Train stations require one to climb steps while the lowest step of an MTC bus feels like Mt Everest. This morning, an elderly lady and her companion had such a struggle to get her into the bus. She needed a couple of young men to almost haul her in. People are always happy to help but often the differently-abled don’t want kindly help, they don’t want to feel dependent on others for small, daily things.

Last mile connectivity 
First and last mile connectivity i.e the question of how do I get to the station and from the station to my destination is always a sticking point. Most people do not want to walk for more than 5 minutes to reach a bus stop or train station. Fair enough. Unfortunately, often public transit is just a few inconvenient kilometres away. 

Hence, when providing public transport options, cities invariably also have to tackle this issue. One way is to augment the network with share autos, rickshaws, mini buses, share cabs, or bike shares which do short trips to train stations or locations with good bus connectivity. In Chennai, the MTC introduced a mini-bus service a few years ago that helped link interior localities with the main bus stop or suburban train station. While some of these routes have dwindled, some continue to valiantly ply. 

There are also share autos on specific routes. I have not found any documentation of the routes that the share autos ply. This is not available in the public domain. Certainly one can forget getting information on fare and frequency of service.

Recently I used the Chennai Metro and when I got out of the station, I found a metro feeder car outside which I was told, for Rs 10, would drop me about a 10 minute walk from where I needed to go. The Chennai Metro’s website informs me that there are three types of feeder service provided - share auto, share cab, and metro cab that start from a base price of Rs 5, 10, and 10 respectively. However not all metro stations are equal; the feeder services, for now, run only from some metro stations. Route details are available on the Chennai Metro website; look for the tab on the top that says ‘feeder service’. Detailed information on timings are available at the concerned metro station and apparently on the Chennai metro rail app.

Using the feeder bus to reach the metro is hard. There is no information on the next feeder bus and where to stand unless one can access their website and check the exact route. Then there is the issue of payment. Recently I tried to take the share cab to the metro station when the driver told me that I could only pay via the Chennai Metro card! A few days later I saw a notice in the metro which basically said the same thing. It certainly doesn’t encourage more people to use the metro. Why should users be penalized for not having a metro card?

The bike share is a great idea and the Greater Chennai Corporation, under its Smart Cities project, has been putting up smart bike (note, this is also SMART!) stands in quite a few places. Slowly but steadily the number of stands has been increasing. The one time that I did try using the SmartBike, the app didn’t work. Although there were three bikes in the stand, none of them would unlock and it kept saying the bike was already taken. Recently, a media report said that due to glitches in the current app, the GCC is going to bring out its own app for the bikes. Here’s hoping that works well!

What does it take to efficiently use public transit?

A lot of pigheaded conviction.

Just kidding. Most Indian metros can be navigated via public transit for the most part. One needs some patience, a little time, and willingness to do some ground work. 

Patience, because not everything runs like clockwork; time as in don’t keep insane schedules based on Google’s estimate of how much time it would take you to cross the city and such; and finally ground work in that you need to spend some time online digging up information. This helps retain your sanity when actually using public transit!

Whenever I need to head out in Chennai (or any city for that matter), I do some Googling. For Chennai, I know the metro routes (as the network is much smaller than Delhi right now) and suburban/MRTS lines which are also straightforward. So for bus routes, I rely on Metro Commute. This is not completely accurate and I don’t know if they update the routes often but 80% of the time it works. Some friends have tried to Google bus routes and if you do that, Google itself gives you directions with purported timings for the next bus/train. These aren’t accurate either. Honestly no one can give you bus timings in India except at the start point and even that is an approximation. At the most they can indicate frequency and even that is just an approximation for the commuter to know if the bus route has many or few buses.

Sometimes I take the train upto a point and then switch to the bus. I may even Google walking directions from the train station to the bus stop so I know if I have a long walk in the hot sun. Finally I rely on good old commonsense by asking people in the bus stop or even better - bus conductors if his/her bus will take me where I want to go. Being a public transit aficionado, I tend to notice bus routes and such, when on the roads. Sometimes this helps when I later want to figure out transit options. If all else fails, I take a bus to the nearest bus hub - where several bus routes come together. The chances of finding a route from Mylapore or T.Nagar or Adyar depot is pretty high. Certainly better than waiting at a bus stop in Alwarpet!

But how hard is it for all of these transit companies to create an app that collates all their information in one app and helps people figure out how to switch transit modes with minimum fuss? And why can’t this be in English and the local language? People who can read neither English nor Tamil are, of course, on a sticky wicket. At bus terminuses, there are regular announcements of bus routes in Tamil. There is Hindi in some systems but not all (though I am coming across more and more bus conductors in Chennai who have learnt enough Hindi to transact their business). 

The government must work to improve these services - making them more accessible to all; ensuring safety; and providing information to make travel simpler and seamless.

I’ve taken public transit in quite a few Indian cities as well as in Europe, other Asian countries, and even in the US - which believe me can be terrible - and I will say our public transit is not bad, despite its faults. People without ready access to information, the poor are those who actually use these transit systems. They figure out the system somehow and use it with little fuss. The educated, the people with access to resources like smart phones and the internet and who are able-bodied, will trot out language, convenience, and a whole host of excuses to avoid public transit. Instead of armchair talk of climate change and sustainability, why don’t we take up the challenge of actually matching our words with action? 

Take the 30 day Public Transit Challenge. Perhaps you’ll become a public transit aficionado and switch permanently to sustainable transport.