Too much for too little

g. ananthakrishnan

g. ananthakrishnan  

Rather than seize new opportunities flowing from technology, bus corporations are lobbying for price control and heavy-handed regulation to obstruct new entrants

The steep hike in bus fares in Tamil Nadu, nearly seven years after the last one, is a good moment to consider whether public transport policies are consistent with good economics and the emerging concept of green mobility.

As one of the most urbanised States, Tamil Nadu provides reliable access to its remotest towns by government-run buses, although it does not have an equally impressive record of safe and comfortable travel. The network of 22,533 government buses — part of the national total of about 150,000 state-run buses — plays a significant role in the State’s economy. That became evident when transport unions struck work over wage issues on January 4, and the impact of their protest was felt widely.

The reach of the government-run bus system is so effective that it made additional revenue of Rs. 180 crore last year with special services that were run for just two festivals, Pongal and Deepavali. It is also a major employer, with a staff strength of 1,43,195 in 2017.

Losing the way

Yet, as with much of India’s creaking bus system, the State Transport Undertaking (STU) model has lost its way. It has, over the years, neglected reforms for expansion, modernisation of services and acquisition of new technologies. By contrast, personal mobility choices led by cars and two-wheelers have kept pace with global trends, adding features of comfort and convenience. This has drawn several commuters away from ramshackle buses and unreliable services.

Governments are also more ready to aid car use, while fixing losses of State transport corporations on low fares paid by bus users. A study by Institute for Transportation and Development Policy in 2015 in Tamil Nadu estimates that infrastructure investment was Rs. 31.6 per car trip while that for a bus user was Rs. 0.90 per trip. That data should be read along with the National Sample Survey Organisation’s finding in 2015 that the expenditure of urban households on bus/tram as a percentage of the total household travel expenditure was as high as 58%. The emphasis on additional cost recovery from such users is clearly not justified.

In many urban centres, bus transport is ceding ground to nimble new operators such as app-based aggregator taxi companies which have leveraged technology to provide on-demand, shared, air-conditioned door-to-door services. Rather than respond quickly to new opportunities flowing from technology such as mobile phone applications and geographical location features, bus corporations are lobbying for price control and heavy-handed regulation to obstruct new entrants. On the other hand, cities such as Chennai have for long tacitly encouraged unregulated growth of transport, by allowing eight-seater vehicles (share autos) to operate along with buses on several routes, although these are “illegal” and take revenue away from the corporations.

Since share autos are off-the-record un-ticketed services, the government does not even have an estimate of the revenue it is losing. Ironically, several operators of the share autos claim allegiance to the same trade unions which represent workers of government bus corporations, whose revenues they continuously crop. Such is the policy paralysis that the Tamil Nadu government has no organised feeder service for the Chennai Metro, affecting both bus and Metro revenues.

Multiple crises

Buses are the original idea of shared travel but suffer from a poor image. Globally, the bus system is looking to change that. In design terms, most of India’s buses operating in cities are obsolete — just crudely designed cabins fitted on lorries with hard suspensions. This is in contrast to initiatives such as the European Bus System of the Future, where the quest is to address the image problem and provide “social connectedness” to the vehicle through GPS and Wi-Fi. India finally implemented a national bus code for quality and design on January 1 this year, overcoming prolonged resistance from transport lobbies. Commuters now look to its strict implementation for better quality travel, although social connectedness remains distant.

There is also the problem of supply: there are far too few buses. A KPMG study published last year forecasts that an additional 4.6 lakh buses are needed to achieve 50% of all urban transport trips by public modes by 2031, at the present level of ridership per bus. Such a target would be consistent with national commitments on climate change, and control of fine particulate matter in the air.

The difficulty in creating modern bus networks is often attributed to weak revenue streams from low fares. To address this, the National Urban Transport Policy, 2006, which the NDA government has not amended, talks of creating higher-priced public transport options for the relatively affluent, in addition to a cheaper universal offering. This should have led to a rapid expansion of urban bus systems, offering deluxe guaranteed seating, Wi-Fi, and air-conditioning, through demand aggregation just as app-based taxis do. The traditional STU system, however, has found this too challenging.

But if financing is the key issue, the carbon emissions mitigation route could have been used to raise funds, especially after the Paris Agreement on Climate Change. Congestion charging in cities presents another ready option.

What might make a difference is a new law that mandates annual expansion of STU bus fleets in all million plus cities using tax funds and a congestion charge on cars. If these are politically challenging, the entire system of bus regulation should be revisited. A new scheme will make it possible to purchase benchmarked services from cooperatives or private providers, paying for actual kilometres operated. Share auto-style small entrepreneurs can enter such a scheme. Arguably, the most neglected aspect of India’s bus operations is the failure to use digital data. Government-owned corporations either do not possess real-time GPS data for buses in operation, or even if they do, are unwilling to share it with the open data community which is ready to build apps and make it accessible to the commuter. GPS data can do wonders for the utilisation of bus networks and make more trips possible.

Data sharing

The Central government should make data-sharing a focus of its digital India and smart cities priorities. It is incongruous that Uber and Ola have a better understanding of a city’s travel patterns, and serve passengers using algorithms, but not the State operator. Ironically, the Indian taxpayer has already paid for such validated real-time passenger information (RTPI) technology developed at the mobility laboratory of the Indian Institute of Technology-Madras, and it has been tried in parts of Chennai.

Fast-moving technology trends highlight the need for an apex mobility corporation for each city, which places the bus at its core. The emerging paradigm is one of Mobility-as-a-Service (MaaS): the commuter only wants a seamless travel experience. It is up to the operator to provide access to buses, trains and Metro rail, and use innovations in technology and ticketing to unify them. That seems a far cry for Indian commuters. Today, they have to purchase bus and train tickets with cash, use a UTS app for Indian Railways and carry a separate Metro travel card. They deserve a better deal.


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