What is the economic wisdom of operating air-conditioned buses nearly empty, when hundreds will use them with a tweaking of the fare?

Anyone who has taken in a ride in one of the air-conditioned Volvo buses operating as city or regional services in Chennai, Bangalore or Kochi knows that it is the way bus travel is meant to be. Such is the friendly design that half the bus is low floor, suitable for old and young, and people with some level of disability. The buses are cool and quiet inside, shutting out the mad traffic noise.

In Chennai, there are one hundred such a/c buses, out of a total fleet of about 3,500 according to the Metropolitan Transport Corporation. At most times, these air-conditioned common man's limousines present the bizarre sight of running with a handful of passengers, hissing past the scores of commuters waiting at the bus stops. People look at the empty buses, fondly wishing they could be inside them, rather than have to wait for a rickety truck that has been modified to operate as a bus.

Only a handful of Volvos go full complement, that too during some of hours of the day. Those are from the areas hosting the Infotech sector employees on the outskirts - notably OMR.

So are these buses, that cost about Rs. 70 lakh apiece, being put the best use? In other words, are they ferrying as many passengers as they can? Also, are they not burning precious fuel without functioning to their potential as public transport vehicles?

The answer is obvious. There is little doubt that people don’t board these services for two reasons: the fares are outrageously expensive even for the middle class, and there is no pass arrangement covering airconditioned services (even with proportionate expenditure built-in).

So the thing to do would be to start with a Sunday fare experiment: Operate the Volvos at a fare that is five rupees more than what the Deluxe service charges. What this means is that if the distance from T.Nagar bus stand to Trustpuram on Arcot Road, Kodambakkam is covered at Rs. 11 by Deluxe, it should be Rs. 16 by AC. At present, that fare is Rs. 25.

It is possible that there will be many, many takers, and that could make some frown. But then that is the way it should be. It would certainly balance the traffic from other overcrowded buses, especially those operating from touristic places such as the Marina, and from near shopping malls. MTC could boost its collections, which peaked at about Rs. 3 crores on a single day during 2012.

If that sounds feasible, consider this: the AC buses could adopt the same pricing strategy during off-peak hours everyday. For example, they would charge the supplement of five rupees only, between 11 am and 3 p.m. and again after 8 p.m.

Coming up with some innovative ideas that will help commuters - such as a wider range of travel passes covering the AC services - is crucial for MTC to become contemporary (Read this piece to see why it is not at present). Bangalore has done that and is expanding its fleet regularly. And that city is all the better for it.