Time to stop ridicule of the public transport system
D Dhanuraj
Time to stop ridicule of the public transport system Download as PDF
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The public transport system in Indian cities has been a bone of contention for sometime now. With the introduction of the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission, urban mobility has made vigorous headlines; unlike in the complacent past. The Delhi metro system has become a flagship mobility plan for several cities, although serious research on the demands and sustainability of metro operations in these cities has not been undertaken. While some consider the metro to be a prestigious and glamorous project for their city, others deem it as the Central Government’s gift to a growing agglomeration. What is neglected in this debate is the utility and efficacy of sustainable urban transport systems in cities, with planners forgetting that it is tax payers’ money that is being wasted in this tamasha.
 
Buses play a major role in urban mobility in every city. The State believes it is their responsibility to provide transport systems to its citizens by setting up state transport corporations and buying fleets of buses under its bandwagon. However, statistics show that most of the state transport corporations are bleeding. Again, debates on private participation in public transport are not hitting the nail, as seen in the case of the metro system. Delhi is notorious for blue and white line accidents. Several policy recommendations, including banning of private buses, have been initiated in Delhi, leading to utter chaos and delays for the public.
 
Kerala has been exceptional, by allowing private bus operators to function in the sector several decades ago. Today, more than 80 per cent services are offered by private players. Notwithstanding, accidents and unruly behaviour are regular, indicating that the presence of private players in the sector does not necessarily bring about desired results. What is required is the integration of private bus operations with comprehensive urban mobility planning. Only then can the sector facilitate seamless, multi-operator journeys, entailing the organisation of modes and services into a rational system of operational features in terms of routes, frequencies, timetables, fares and ticketing, as well as policy aspects, such as planning, marketing and development. It is important to offer timetables, transfers and off-street facilities to the commuting public so that the utility can be enhanced to the optimum level.
 
While private bus operators have a definite proposition in urban mobility plans, revenue cannot be earned based on the volume of passengers or the speed of the bus, but on the distance covered. Even in a state like Kerala, the present system needs a lot of tweaking to ensure that the transport system is open to public requirements and standards. In Kerala, each private bus owner has one or two vehicles. This causes predatory competition for survival and sustenance; leading to regular accidents.
 
To tackle this, city corporations should be mandated to manage and operate city bus services. Cooperatives should be formed with each private owner as a shareholder. It should be funded by the State to improve operations, including buying of new buses and training of staff. The cooperative can have a consortium of bus operators for each designated route, thus eliminating competition. The Global Positioning System (GPS) can help cooperatives and consortiums track the performance of commuter transport. Operational cost and profit can be predetermined for routes, so that no bus operator goes bankrupt. Integration of operators within the cooperatives can help minimise intermittent delays and loss. Importantly, it can offer better public transport to commuters, thus becoming a trusted service. When low-floor buses were introduced by the State road transport corporation (KSRTC), private bus operators were not taken into confidence. The government bullied the roads with these new buses, ignoring fair competition. This can be avoided if a cooperative is set up.
 
Fundamental in public transport is the enhancement of mobility time and reduction of ‘dead time’, which is caused by waiting for arrivals and departures. Commuters’ loyalty to private transport will shift to the public system, only if they can trust the latter. Conducting a Bus Day in each city will be meaningful only if follow ups are in the right direction, meeting the first and last mile challenges.
 
 
The author is Chairman, Centre for Public Policy Research. He can be reached at dhanu@cppr.in

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