G.Eeshma and her sister Deepa are at the SIET College bus stop between 7.30 a.m. and 7.40 a.m. The first hour of class at their school on Poonamallee High Road commences at 8.45 a.m.
“A majority of the buses passing through the stop come packed. We rarely get a seat. If it is crowded, the driver does not stop,” said Eeshma, a class VIII student of Kerala Vidyalayam Higher Secondary School.
She and her sister are among the 5.5 lakh school students in the city who hit the road every day early in the morning. The road to the classrooms is not easy. Over two lakh take Metropolitan Transport Corporation buses, a little over a lakh cycle to school, while some come on foot. Many also make their way to school in congested autorickshaws and mini-vans. Safety during commute is a major issue for these students as they are among the most vulnerable classes of road users.
For students like Eeshma, the launch of exclusive buses for school students by the MTC last week is a major step forward. “I am lucky to have discovered the special student bus, which I am travelling in for the second time. I need to figure out the exact time the bus comes to my stop as it is going to save a lot of my time,” she said.
Though it is only a week since the new service was introduced, school heads seem to be happy. Many are optimistic that the number of late comers would come down and safety of students can be enhanced. MTC drivers and conductors say more students need to be made aware of the timings.
About 2,000 students use the exclusive buses every day on an average. While the buses are currently available on 12 MTC routes, a review will be undertaken after November 15 and the services might be extended to other routes.
North Chennai ignored?
However, school heads in north Chennai say that they have been ignored as only a few buses have been introduced in this stretch.
“There are at least 50 schools between Walltax Road and Broadway, but the student special buses introduced on a trial basis do not cover areas in north Chennai, including Vyasarpadi and Mint. A special service of route number 2A would help school students here,” said V.Selvaraj, Headmaster, Hindu Theosophical School, Sowcarpet.
Apart from introducing special services, staggering of school timings is another measure that MTC feels would reduce congestion. The plan is to split school, college and work commute into distinct time bands so that school children could reach school much before other commuters.
According to senior officials of the Directorate of School Education, a series of meetings were organised by MTC with heads of schools to seek change in the school timings. The schools are yet to arrive at a consensus. “Only 35 of the 974 schools have agreed to a change in their timings. A majority of the school heads have said a new timing would not be suitable,” said an official.
A.Veeraraghavan, Transportation Engineering Professor at IIT-Madras, said that as cycling and walking have become extremely unsafe, a safe bus to school is every child's basic right.
“Though MTC has introduced special buses which improve commuting safety, they are not required on long routes such as 23C that traverse the city from south to north. If the service has to be better utilised by students, trip lengths have to be much shorter and operated like feeder services within school zones. There is no point in converting an existing bus route to a school trip route. Authorities must start thinking of area wise solutions instead of citywide solutions,” he added.
According to him, schools must follow the Bangalore example and consider leasing MTC buses for short periods in the morning and evening. Schools such as MCC Higher Secondary School in Chetpet allow its students to avail its school bus even for a single day by charging Rs.10. The Transport Department has also asked all the schools to fit their buses with speed governors that will limit the speed to 50 km/h by December 9.
M. Ravi, Additional Commissioner of Police (Traffic) said that children's safety remains a priority and measures will be taken to provide safe space for cyclists within a one to two kilometre radius of school zones.
Saraswathi Bhaskar, a child psychologist, said: “If students enter the classroom with less stress, their productivity and performance will be better. Studies show that concentration levels drop if students travel in a crammed environment. It is a societal responsibility to send children safely to school.”
What they say
R. Nadheem Quraishi, Class X, Government Muslim School, Mint: There is no direct bus from my residence in Palavakkam to Mint where my school is located. I am at the bus stop by 7.30 a.m. everyday to reach school before the bell at 9.30 a.m. What upsets school-goers is when buses refuse to stop even when many students are waiting at the stand. If more buses could ply during school hours and drivers are given strict instruction to stop when they see students, it would be helpful.
A.Veeraraghavan, Transportation Engineering Professor, IIT-Madras: As neighbourhood schools have started vanishing, commuting to school has become a real concern. Since children have to leave early to catch a bus and travel for long distances, they are not having their breakfast. Travel also eats into their play time. The lack of a safe and reasonably less crowded commuting option affects the overall development of a child. Instead of encouraging autorickshaws or maxi-cabs, safe buses have to be operated by the government.
Keywords: bus travel