The availability of shared transport from most-visited places is vital to serve the passenger at the least cost.

The steep increase in the price of petrol, and the dry spell at petrol pumps have driven home the point that Chennai residents, like their counterparts elsewhere, are caught in an “energy trap”. Beyond the blame game of who is responsible for these problems lies the hard reality of lack of choice for the citizen. Unpredictable factors, including speculation in oil prices, are having a severe impact on both mobility and household spending, as prices gallop.

Research into our behaviour as travellers shows two things. One is that we are ready to spend about an hour each day as travel time. The other is that with an increased need for mobility, the traveller moves towards more flexible and faster modes of transport to keep the travel under one hour.

Dr. Sanjay Kumar Singh, an associate professor of economics at IIM-Lucknow, reported in a journal paper a few years ago, that if public transport does not meet the requirements of flexibility and speed, there is a measurable shift to private and para transit modes — two-wheelers, cars, jeeps and three-wheelers. And indeed, this has happened steadily in India since the mid-1970s as governments stopped making major infrastructure investments and vehicles became more affordable. Recent infusion of development funds in some cities has come too late and is still insufficient.

The strong public reaction to the petrol price hike and the dry pumps make it clear that there is a need for innovative alternatives. Moreover, until the metro rail network opens, Chennai continues to ride on its arthritic and limited network of MTC buses, augmented by options such as suburban trains and MRTS.

A more rational approach to help everyone travel with flexibility and speed is to unlock potential through policy. The effects of such a step are already visible wherever mini vans are in operation. Like Chennai, two boroughs of New York City — Brooklyn and Queens — report the success of a similar model of van operation (many of them are illegal there, too), changing the way people move. Remarkably, people wait for less than a minute for a ride, and it is cheap. So why not a new approach to autorickshaws in Chennai, which are becoming unviable due to costlier fuel and the inability of the government to operate a dynamic tariff scheme? Consider, for instance, a policy that would allow all registered autorickshaws to operate as shared vehicles.

Such a model would no doubt skew the operations in favour of high-demand corridors and traffic points like shopping malls, hospitals, train and bus termini. Yet, most people need to visit such areas more often than make a long distance trip, which today is increasingly catered to by call taxis. The availability of shared transport from most-visited places is vital to serve the passenger at the least cost. It automatically brings in flexibility and speed because of the sheer numbers of such three-wheelers already operating in the city. Such a bold new sharing option is needed to break the cartels that are making travel in Chennai prohibitively costly. If this is too disruptive, the mini-bus scheme may be considered.

Another idea to borrow from initiatives being tried out in America is the NGO option. Modified for Chennai's needs, this would mean forming a suitable van or mini-bus service that caters to senior citizens and the disabled. The US experience shows that such an option transforms the social lives of many who are otherwise virtually imprisoned at home and have to pay heavily to even visit a doctor. There are many NGOs working for the disabled and elderly that could launch such a service available on call.

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