Back in the summer of 1982, Girija Raghavan used to religiously wait for a mini-bus every day around 8.30 a.m. to take her from Ashok Nagar to the T. Nagar bus terminus. “Even a card with all the bus timings was issued. The mini-buses were so popular that most of them ran packed,” she says.
Such ‘M' series mini-buses were operated in the then fast-expanding residential suburbs of West Mambalam, Kodambakkam, and Nanganallur between 1976 and 1985. The Pallavan Transport Corporation had nearly 40 such short wheelbase buses.
Cut back to 2011 and the Metropolitan Transport Corporation (MTC) does not even have the required number of regular buses to meet the existing demand according to its own estimates. While nearly 5,500 buses are required, MTC's operational fleet has only 3,000. Proposals for introducing mini-bus services in the city have been pending for a year.
With the present government likely to revive the proposal, following a route identification study by Anna University, residents such as Ms. Raghavan are hopeful. “The cost of living has gone up within the city. Many are tempted to move out. Extensive mini-bus services would actually help decongest the city,” she says.
The Anna University study which will be submitted to the government shortly, recommending 100 routes, says that there are a number of areas in the city which are not covered by any form of public transport. Chennai's public transport density map shows that areas such as George Town, Choolaimedu, Saligramam, Perungudi, Nanganallur, West Saidapet, Virugambakkam, Kolathur, and several localities in West Velachery are virtually unconnected to the rest of the city.
Explaining that the problem of expanding city limits and inadequate bus services is going to be cyclical, S.A. Vijayakumar, former head of various State-run transport corporations, said “The city has been overrun by private layouts. The Housing Board has been systematically destroyed and most residential layouts which have come up after 1980 are sub-stranded. Some roads are too narrow for even mini-buses to operate. No space has been allocated for public utilities such as bus depots, parks and playgrounds.”
Because of the lack of integrated development, he says studies show that transport costs per kilometre increase as one moves away from the city into the suburbs.
“Another problem is the government does not see MTC as a system that supports the city's development. It is seen as a commercial enterprise. If transport was seen as a social obligation, much like water supply, a number of mini-buses would already be running supported by an operational subsidy. Mobility would improve, accidents would drop and frequent shuttle services would be available between important locations such as Egmore and Central railway stations,” Mr.Vijayakumar adds.
Referring to the evolution of the city over a period, S. P. Sekar, professor, Department of Planning, Anna University, says that not even a single 100 feet road has come up since the 1980s.
“The city is witnessing organic growth. Except the inner and outer ring roads, no major road development has happened within the city since the 1980s. As per the development control regulations, permission to build a house is given if just a 20 feet road is available. But many houses accumulate and a locality comes up without a major road,” says Mr. Sekar.
He says Chennai needs to emulate Gujarat's Town Planning scheme, where space for both major and interior roads is reserved in the form of land banks. “Local bodies cannot approve a house in the reserved space. The expansion of the city can be controlled. We need to plan much ahead instead of pinning hopes on just mini-buses alone,” Mr. Sekar adds.