Know more about the city's transportation system in the weekly column 'Roads and Rails'.
Around 8.15 a.m. on Thursday, 16-year-old Bharat Kumar took a bus to make his daily eight-km journey to school. He never returned home.
He slipped and fell off the overcrowded bus near Tambaram and succumbed to head injuries. Bharat Kumar's case is not isolated.
Over three lakh children in the city take a Metropolitan Transport Corporation (MTC) bus to school every day. Many of them travel more than eight km to school and many of them hold dearly to their school bags while trying to stand steady in an overcrowded bus.
B.Sudha, Bharat Kumar's grieving mother, says “I have always asked him to take a less crowded bus even if it means going to school late.” On Thursday, a less crowded bus never came.
According to the traffic police, eight school-going children have met with a fatal end after falling off an MTC bus in the last two years.
A.Veeraraghavan, Transportation Engineering Professor at IIT-Madras, says: “The MTC knows that most of its buses are overcrowded during rush hour. If it really cares about students, it should run exclusive services for schoolchildren, similar to ladies special.”
According to him, if fleet augmentation is a problem, buses could, at least, be hired on lease to run along congested routes. “It doesn't make sense to see people fight for leg space in a deluxe bus. The number of services is woefully inadequate. Besides, the city has outgrown many of the existing bus routes. The MTC has still not done the route rationalisation study mandated under the JNNURM (Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission). Whether the existing fleet is operated under maximum efficiency is questionable,” he adds.
London has a population which is slightly more than Chennai and a comparable bus ridership (60 lakh per day). While the MTC operates 3,000 buses on average per day, London Buses operates 8,000 buses.
MTC buses have a capacity of 73 passengers (48 seated + 25 standees). However, the average maximum loading is close to 100 passengers. The average peak-hour occupancy ratio of buses in the city is 115 per cent, according to a detailed project report submitted for procurement of buses under the JNNURM last year.
Out of the 640 routes that the MTC operates, nearly 20 are loaded more than two times their capacity during rush hour. On those routes, footboard travel is the only option for some.
MTC Joint Managing Director V. Babu said that a meeting of all district education officers in the city is to be convened on September 20 in which the issue of staggering school timings will be raised. “If there is a 15-to-20 minute difference in the school hours, much of the problem can be tackled,” he said.
J. Krishnamoorthy, Joint Director, Institute of Road Transport, says “Staggering school timings has been discussed for the last 15 years, but it is never practised.” He says that the problem extends beyond buses as “even autorickshaws ferrying children and school vans are overcrowded”.
Pointing out that most parents overlook the impact of commuting stress on the child, Saraswathi Bhaskar, a child psychologist, says “The vanishing of neighbourhood schools has serious impact on a child's development. They get less time to do homework or pursue extra-curricular activities. Travelling in a crowded vehicle with peers also creates an adventure-seeking behaviour which can lead to accidents.” She adds that sending children safely to school is a social responsibility.