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The bus to better transport

Buses need support to move faster through city traffic, using policy tools such as congestion pricing for cars. File  

The great cities of the world use one guiding principle in planning services for residents and visitors: working with finite space. In big cities, new roads are not possible, and no new land is available. But they must prepare to serve more and more people who arrive each year. Successful plans build better mobility.

When cities fail at mobility, the result is congestion, lost productivity, worsening pollution and a terrible quality of life. India’s big cities have all these attributes, and 14 of them were in the list of the 15 most polluted cities worldwide last year. Congestion in the four biggest metros causes annual economic losses of over $22 billion, the NITI Aayog says in its Transforming Mobility report.

Is there a viable solution? There is, and it is the good old bus.

Sadly, buses have an image problem, which came up during a public interaction Prime Minister Narendra Modi had in the U.K. He explained aspiration with the example of someone who wants to progress from a bicycle to a scooter, then to a four-wheeler; equally a lack of ambition, he said, could lead to the loss of even the bicycle, upon which the individual resigns himself to a bus ride. Ironically, Mr. Modi made his comments in London, a city with an iconic bus system that integrates famously with its equally popular ‘tube’ system — as the Metro is known there. The British capital also discourages the use of cars through a congestion charge within a defined area.

Not enough buses in India

So important is the bus to urban transport ecology that the executive in-charge of technology and customer satisfaction at Transport for London, Shashi Verma, said during a visit to India in July that Indian cities need to add several thousand buses more, and not just spend heavily on Metro rail. There are over 1.7 million buses in India, about 10% of them operated by governments. Individual cities don’t have enough of them to provide a good service, and the gap is filled mostly by unregulated intermediates, such as vans. The buses operated by governments are not properly designed, are uncomfortable and badly maintained. Government corporations do a poor job when it comes to using technology.

Lack of information

One of the key barriers to taking a bus is not getting information about the service; bus corporations deprive themselves too, of revenue, by failing to act on this. Cities such as London and Singapore have systems to tell passengers where the next bus is on a route and predict its arrival at a stop in real time. Such a system is not available for even the biggest metro cities in India, something the Smart City mission could have addressed.

Buses need an image makeover and cities need several thousand more buses, of good design and build quality. They need to use contact-less fare payments using suitable cards, since buying tickets is also a barrier.

Buses also need support to move faster through city traffic, using policy tools such as congestion pricing for cars. This is an old idea, dating back to 1975 in Singapore, where it was done manually first and automated much later. The London congestion charge immediately cut traffic in the demarcated area by 20%, helped speed up buses and improved revenues.

The biggest reform that the U.K. experience teaches is integration. Bringing traffic authorities, road engineers and transport operators under the same umbrella worked wonders in London to eliminate planning and operational problems. Indian cities have unified Metropolitan Transport Authorities to do that. They must be brought to life and given mandatory targets. The goal should be a stipulated higher share of travel by public transport, walking and cycling, and this should be evaluated through periodic surveys of customer satisfaction.

ananthakrishnan.g@thehindu.co.in

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Printable version | Jan 20, 2021 8:49:13 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/the-bus-to-better-transport/article28838803.ece

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