The commuter is at the mercy of the conductor, although he is ready to pay for the ride and is entitled to travel

The Metropolitan Transport Corporation finds the problem “sticky”. The three million plus tickets issued to bus passengers per day, which are nothing more than tiny bits of flimsy paper, are a problem not just for passengers, but for conductors too. That is what the MTC told the Ministry of Urban Development in New Delhi when it applied for JNNURM funds to buy modern buses. “The conductor has to ensure that he issues the correct number of tickets due to sticky nature of tickets,” the Corporation said. The solution it proposed was to move to Electronic Ticket Machines.

Purchasing a ticket on-board an MTC bus can be a stressful experience. Many conductors are unhappy with their job and make that very evident. The result is hostile behaviour towards commuters, especially when dispensing a ticket. The commuter is at the mercy of the conductor, although he is ready to pay for the ride and is entitled to travel.

If it is possible to eliminate a ticket purchase every time one travels, both passenger and crew can be spared of the transaction. The solution lies in newer technologies.

India has impressive penetration of digital mobile phone technology and is moving towards phone-based money transfers and e-commerce. Railway tickets can already be purchased using a mobile phone. Leap-frogging to newer ticketing options for city travel is thus feasible, but governments and industry must be ready to adopt standardised, interoperable payment platforms.

Imagine being able to just tap a smart card on a sensor at the door of a bus and taking a seat. The same card can be used on a Metro such as the one being built in the city, on a retrofitted bus and suburban rail network, and on other future options. Such systems are being tried out in Europe to make them valid across countries, not just cities. In the UK, it is being improved for the Olympics.

Interestingly, smart cards can even become a part of more advanced mobile phones featuring NFC, or Near Field Communication technology. Plain-old tickets on the bus would, no doubt, continue to be available. But what is important is to reduce the number of people who need to buy one.

What makes the state-of-the-art even more interesting is the arrival of back-office computing. Travel cards, bank cards, smart card office IDs and suitable phones calculate your travel cost not at the point of a programmed sensor fitted at the entrance to a bus or rail station, but on a computer elsewhere. The sensor merely recognises the card as a valid ID and relays information for later billing or debit. Such “cloud” technology eliminates the need to reprogramme thousands of sensors at high cost every time the fares or system rules change.

All this must be dizzyingly complicated for MTC, which does not effectively market even its plain old paper passes - daily, weekly and monthly travel tickets. Silence is its motto. It stubbornly refuses to advertise the passes on buses (Bangalore's BMTC does), has highly restrictive timings, locations and days for sale (the Railways do better with rolling dates for monthly, quarterly passes) and does not support formal commuter interaction. By contrast, Transport for London, the operator in the British capital has over 4,000 agents to sell its Oyster Card passes. MTC has 29 part-time counters for its travel ticket sale. Obviously, MTC customer service is badly in need of a shake-up.

The bigger story is whether CUMTA, the low-key Chennai transport regulator that is yet to find its feet, has the vision to move to the next level of ticketing reform, preparing the city for smart card tickets in the era of multi-billion dollar Metro, Mono and, on-the-horizon Bus Rapid Transit system investments.

G. Ananthakrishnan is the Internet Editor of The Hindu

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