Since the beginning of September, buses have started to ply the roads of Chennai. Many, no doubt, sighed in relief as public transport, especially buses, are a lifeline. Buses mean mobility, buses mean livelihood and therefore survival.
The few buses I noticed did not have many passengers and social distancing was being followed from what I saw. Yet there have been media reports of overcrowding, reminiscent of the old, pre-Covid days, albeit with most people wearing masks. This is not surprising. After all MTC has only 3,651 buses (including the mini buses) serving a population of over one crore. Data from the MTC’s website clearly shows that the fleet is dwindling and so is the patronage.
While there may not be conclusive data, a sharp decline in patronage was reported after the fares were hiked in January 2018. Add to this an ageing fleet (72% are more than 8 years old) and poor fleet strength and you have the recipe for a steady decline. To add to the challenge is the general attitude of the government and citizens of looking down on NMT and public transit. Apparently ‘world-class’ cities are those where everyone has a car and is zipping around on freeways.
Mode shift in Chennai (source: ITDP. Chennai Transport Vision 2013: Priority Initiatives and Budget, 2013)
We need to rethink what kind of a city we want. If we want green cities with clean air, reduced noise pollution, safe roads, where we don’t waste time stuck in traffic jams then we need to stop promoting private transport. Global and Indian experience (not to mention research) shows that widening roads, building flyovers, installing synchronised traffic lights, etc will only ease traffic congestion for a short while. After a while, the space freed up is filled up with more cars and bikes because it encourages more people to use private transport. This is a vicious cycle. To break free and build the city of our dreams, we need to move towards walking, cycling, and public transport. This is the only viable long-term solution.
Within public transit, bus systems are cheaper, require less infrastructure and are more flexible (route changes can be done without major upheavals). That does not mean we don’t need rail services. What cities need is a combination of both systems interlinked effectively, allowing commuters to easily switch between the two.
But let’s focus for now on bus services. A good bus system will take some time, effort, and political will. MTC, and other city bus services, need data and a plan. Data, not as in mobile data, but information. Information that informs the plan - about the commuters, their needs, what works and what doesn’t.
Lakh ko 50
While neglecting bus systems, governments love to keep putting out policies, targets, and vague plans to make our cities NMT and public transit friendly. We have national policies, state-level vision documents, and city-level policies but no clear targets or milestones. It’s past time that citizens ask governments to walk the talk on public transit. SUM Net India (Sustainable Transport Network India), of which CAG is a part, has raised the cry - Lakh ko 50. This national campaign asks for at least 50 buses per lakh population. The number comes from a Government of India benchmark recommending that cities aim for 60 buses per lakh population.
The campaign asks the Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs (MoHUA) to go beyond guidelines and policy notes to start working on the nitty-gritties. Where will the money come from? How can the states be supported to invest in public bus systems? The campaign also calls on citizens to take up the cry and push our governments for more and better bus services. To add your voice, sign the petition: https://bit.ly/LakhKo50
MTC and the road to recovery
During these Covid times, SUM Net has been holding webinars at the city level, and of course starting discussions on social media. In July, CAG and SUM Net held a Chennai Dialogue where urban planners, commuters, and media discussed MTC, the problems it faces, and what we would like the Tamil Nadu government to do.
One of the speakers, Sandeep Gandhi, an architect and urban planner, who has worked with transport undertakings to help them use their data and plan services effectively, shared some calculations on what it would take for MTC to recover. Based on the scanty data in the public domain, he estimates that on average, MTC buses handle 1000 passengers/bus/day. This is quite high, he notes, comparing it to Bengaluru where the number is 600. The current fleet, he says, is struggling to handle the current demand and there is surely a latent demand which can be tapped if only the service is improved.
Instead of buying a few buses every now and then, Gandhi estimates Chennai needs to bump up its fleet strength to 12,500 by 2025; 14,500 by 2030; and 15,500 by 2050. He also cautioned that land to house these buses needs to be factored in and of course, funds. In the short term, funds would need to be substantial - Rs 72,000 cr over the next 5 years since fleet strength and space need to be improved considerably but after 2025, the outlay would not be so drastic. Clearly, a solid plan is required. As a campaign, we are asking why can we not find the money for this? Instead of spending endlessly on flyovers, elevated expressways, we should be spending on buses. We should be taxing private vehicles making parking more expensive and using all that money to improve and support public transit. This is not rocket science. It is known, clearly articulated by many people, and has been implemented in other parts of the world.
In September, a national consultation was conducted where we were joined by the Chairperson of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Urban Development, among other eminent speakers. There was hard data on public bus services and their use; discussions on what needs to be done and what the Members of Parliament who joined us could do. We do hope that this will be the start of reversal of fortunes for bus systems in India.
Let us hope that as a nation we find the political will and the citizen power to change this narrative of burgeoning private vehicle fleets and move towards low carbon, equitable, people-friendly, and inclusive public transit systems in our urban areas.