Concepts such as car pooling may be alien to most of Chennai's residents. Yet, the city has been witnessing a silent revolution in shared transport over the past few years. Not many know that over 5,300 maxi-cabs operate in the city currently.

At a time when plans to introduce mini-bus services are doing the rounds, the successes and drawbacks of share autorickshaws and maxi-cabs, which are called intermediate public transport (IPT), offer important lessons.

The initial batch of maxi-cabs, which were Tata Magic vehicles, started hitting the city's roads in January 2010. By December, there were over 1,000 of them operating out of the de facto hubs in Anna Nagar, Guindy, Tiruvanmiyur, Red Hills and Koyembedu. According to the Transport Department's estimates, maxi-cabs and share autorickshaws had by 2011 started catering to about 30 lakh passengers a day, which is half the number transported by Metropolitan Transport Corporation (MTC) buses.

Dramatic growth

The growth of maxi-cabs in the city has been so dramatic that registration of new vehicles was stopped a couple of months ago. Maxi-cab operation has been successful despite being illegal as a proposal mooted by the previous government to regularise private share vehicles never came through. Experts say that the whole experience underscores the need to allow competition in urban transport and evolve high-frequency feeder routes that will support the public transport network.

S.A. Vijayakumar, former head of various State-run transport corporations, says that any future mini-bus system must try and replicate the frequency of service of maxi-cabs and share autorickshaws. “The MTC operates its 3,300 buses on 600-odd routes. Studies show that if they instead operate them along 3,300 routes, with just one bus on each route, the daily earnings would drop by half. High frequency translates to more revenue. They have not realised that providing better service on each route makes economic sense.”

As a result, the average operational frequency of MTC's AC bus fleet is just one bus every hour. MTC's own studies show that just by providing better frequency of services on all existing routes, a shift of 15 to 20 per cent from private modes to public transport is possible.

Abdul Rahim, a resident of T. Nagar who regularly uses maxi-cabs, says: “On a rainy evening last week, I paid just Rs.20 for a ride in a maxi-cab from Padi to Greenways Road, a distance of 14 km. I paid an autorickshaw Rs.170 to make the same journey in the other direction.”

K.P. Subramanian, former professor, Urban Engineering Department, Anna University, says that though share vehicles have been successful there is no control or regulation in place.

“There is a case for private operation under a strong regulatory framework. The city's transport grid has been under a government monopoly for years and there has been no initiative. The few surveys that have been done among MTC commuters show that the level of satisfaction is very poor.”

Mr. Subramanian points to Ahmedabad BRT's example which has begun collaborating with private IPT modes to bring in more passengers. The city needs to evolve sustainable partnerships with private feeder services to ease access to public transport, he says and adds that much would depend on Metro's multi-modal integration study which aims to link with IPT modes.

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