Panel to evaluate report which identified 100 routes

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The city's residents may be keenly anticipating the launch of the metro and monorail services. But, the next big innovation in public transportation may yet turn out to be the return of the humble bus — one with a shorter wheelbase and about half the capacity of a normal Metropolitan Transport Corporation (MTC) bus.

The State government is in the process of reviewing a proposal to operate 200 mini-buses in a number of residential pockets in the city and its suburbs. Anna University's study report, which also identified 100 routes for mini-bus operation, would be evaluated by a panel of four secretaries to the government, a senior MTC official said. “The proposal would be fine-tuned and forwarded to the government, based on which a decision would be taken,” he said.

The plan to introduce mini-buses, coming just a few years ahead of the launch of metro and monorail operation, is a step in the right direction, said S.A. Vijayakumar, who has headed various State-run transport corporations. “Their success will depend on the ability of the city's bus fleet to bring in passengers from the residential hubs to the mass-transit lines.”

A member of the mini-bus study team, Mr. Vijayakumar said the missing links between major bus and train terminals and residential areas needs to be plugged. Each proposed route is less than 10 km in length. Buses would ply through neighbourhoods in Velachery, Nanaganallur, and Ambattur every 10-15 minutes, thereby increasing the catchment area of the public transport grid. “A high frequency of service will generate its own traffic. It is one of our main recommendations. But it is up to the government to take a call, based on the resources available at its disposal,” he added.

It might still be early days, but the excitement among the city's eight million residents is palpable. The proposal has the potential to transform the lives of those who reside in the fast-developing areas on the city's fringes.

Catering for interiors

Some areas do not even have an autorickshaw stand and residents have to completely rely on their own vehicles to reach the outside world. S. Mukundan, a resident of Subash Nagar, Kolathur, walks two km every day to reach the nearest autorickshaw stand and travels another two km to reach the arterial Inner Ring Road. “I live in a locality which is witnessing a residential boom. Yet, we do not even have autorickshaws plying to our area as the roads are bad. I have to shell out Rs.70 every day to travel a distance of four km,” he said.

Many residents of interior areas in Maduravoyal also have very little choice other than relying on autorickshaws. B.Varadarajan, a senior citizen, said: “I pay Rs.80 to reach the main road, which is just 3 km away. The autorickshaw drivers cite bad roads as an excuse to fleece us.”

However, somewhat surprisingly, autorickshaw drivers are not opposed to operate mini-bus services. J. Seshasayanam, general secretary of the Madras Metro Auto Drivers' Association said if the government itself operates the buses, drivers would not have a problem. “The example of omnibuses shows what private operation will descend into. Mini-buses would hit our income, but share autorickshaws and maxi-cabs already eat into our business.”

Mr.Varadarajan recalled that mini-buses were operated during the 1980s, but there were regular complaints about damaged roads and lack of manpower. “The Chennai Corporation must ensure that the roads are blacktopped and the road shoulders are paved all along mini-bus routes,” he said.

Fond memories

Though the mini-bus service in the city lasted for only a decade and was discontinued, many residents still remember it fondly. S.D. Sundar Rajan, a resident of Madipakkam, recalled how the M51 was a very useful service from Ponniamman Koil stop to Saidapet. “It used to be a one hour journey… and as we have very narrow roads, the mini-buses were good. It used to stop at 16 locations.”

One of the primary reasons behind the decision to phase out the fleet of 40 mini-buses that operated in the city till the mid-1980s was poor quality roads. Due to the very nature of a feeder service, mini-buses operated on bumpy roads and expenditure on maintenance became prohibitively expensive. To avoid a repeat of such a scenario, sources in the Highways Department said roads that fall on mini-bus routes must be paved and at least 3.5 metre wide to provide ample turning room.

In a number of districts in the State where private mini-buses already operate, a system of road quality certification is in place. The Highways Department issues these route length certificates, a model which could be emulated by the Chennai Corporation, sources said.

Even though many residents like A.Mohan of Krishna Nagar, which lies beyond Tambaram, felt mini-bus services are the “need of the hour”, experts said mini-buses could only offer temporary relief. “It is not a lasting solution. Mini-buses can only address the problem where mistakes have already happened,” said Mr.Vijayakumar.

The city must learn to plan residential localities in such a way that normal buses can go in, he said. Chennai has grown from a motley group of villages spread over 80 sq.km in the 1930s to a high-density urban conglomeration. “One in every seven resident of Tamil Nadu lives in the Chennai Metropolitan Area. The city needs and deserves high-quality urban services,” Mr.Vijayakumar said.

(With inputs from Ajai Sreevatsan, Deepa H Ramakrishnan, K. Lakshmi and K. Manikandan)

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