During his frequent visits to Chennai, Bangalore-based T.Skandha faced a peculiar problem. He was bent on using public transport to get around the city, but had no clue which bus to take or how to find the direction to the nearest train station.
So he went back home and developed a mobile App called ‘Chennai MTC Info.' It gives details of Metropolitan Transport Corporation bus routes, the source and destination of all buses and their stops, journey time and even the fare. The Android App is free and once downloaded it does not require an Internet connection.
“In almost every Indian city, there is no clarity on how to use public transport. It is especially difficult for a newcomer. In Chennai, if you don't know the language, you can easily get lost,” Mr.Skandha says.
Such mechanisms for encouraging route planning were part of the commitment that the MTC gave to the Union government in 2009 when over 1,000 new buses were procured under the JNNURM scheme. But, passenger-friendly services such as information kiosks selling booklets, a 24/7 call centre and SMS-based alerts never took off. Where government agencies have failed, private developers like Mr. Skandha have stepped in.
Android's Open Source framework has also helped as it brings down the initial cost involved. In the last few months, a number of public transit-centric mobile Apps have started showing up. For example, the ‘Chennai TrainDroid' and ‘Chennai Train TimeTable' provide the entire train operation schedule of all the six suburban railway lines that branch out from the city. On an average, over 10 lakh commuters use the train services daily.
“In sustainable cities, a majority of the population uses public transit,” Mr.Skandha says. “But, there will always be an initial settling time. Traffic conditions are forcing many Chennaiites to look at public transit favourably, but they have no idea how to start using it. Mobile applications are already the future and people should have access to live data and information,” he adds.
Guru Shankar, who co-developed ‘Chennai TrainDroid,' says: “Mumbai's suburban system has 13 different mobile Apps. There is a lot of demand in Chennai too. Nearly 1,000 users have downloaded our App within two weeks of the launch. It is high time government agencies got involved. Most successful public transport systems abroad already have official mobile Apps.”
The next big leap would be to provide real-time information on bus and train movements to commuters, Mr.Skandha says. “If you look at a number of cities in the U.S. or Singapore, such real-time data is already available.” In India, many cities installed GPS modules in public transit buses in 2008. He says that since taxpayer money funded the project, they should be able to access the data, even through their mobile phones. “Right now, MTC's official website does not even have the entire list of bus routes and the operational timetable. If they are not adopting the latest technologies, they can enable others to do it.”