When it comes to bus services in the city, there seems to be a wide and clear gap between what residents want and what they get.
A recent newspaper report highlighted the intensifying public call for resumption of small buses on route S3 along the Chrompet-Madambakkam route, that were stopped three years ago. When members of a residents’ association in Chitlapakkam filed a petition with the CM Cell, they received a reply saying services had been stopped due to poor patronage. Yet, there are many commuters who say that they were benefitted by these buses that used to run at 20-minute intervals.
Another example comes from Ambattur, one of the zones to be brought under Chennai Corporation as recently as in 2011 and a prominent industrial area within city limits today. Ask citizens here, and you find a lot of discontent brewing over the lack of public transport options and the rescheduling of bus services in particular.
“There were a lot of bus routes starting from and terminating at Ambattur bus terminus. Over the past seven years, the number of such buses has gone down steadily, both because of space constraints within the terminus facility and shifting political focus,” says R Ramalingam, a civic activist from Ambattur. Some of the bus routes that originated from the Ambattur bus terminal are 20B, 71B, 47D, 40 and 27. These buses, with slightly altered route numbers, now pass through the Ambattur bus terminus but that has brought its own difficulties. “The frequency of some of the routes has been reduced and the buses are always crowded by the time they reach our terminus,” says R Senthil, who is a regular commuter on Route 47D.
Another bus regular, R Sankaran from Nanganallur, has a similar complaint as he relates his difficulties in reaching Alandur Metro from his residence in Moovarasampet. “Since early last year, even before the lockdown was imposed, the number of S12 buses starting from Alandur Metro to Moovarasampet via Pazhavanthagal Railway station has been reduced. Now we are back to normalcy, and yet one has to wait for long intervals to spot the bus,” he adds.
Clearly, this is a problem faced by citizens residing in several pockets of the city. But why? According to an official from MTC, the dip in frequency is due to the lack of adequate numbers of buses. “Therefore, the number of buses will be reduced along routes that do not generate adequate revenue. Those buses will be reassigned in the routes that have high demand, while rationalising the route,” the official adds.
The latter approach, however, has a fundamental loophole according to experts. “When we look at public transport facilities like buses, it has to benefit people, for which the transport agency cannot expect revenue. The number of buses should be increased to ensure the rationalisation exercise benefits people across different localities of the city,” says Sumana Narayanan, senior researcher, Citizen consumer and civic Action Group (CAG).
What is route rationalization?
Route rationalization is an exercise that involves reorganizing the city bus routes to serve the maximum number of people possible. “Cities expand very quickly over time; with that the densities, land use and travel patterns change. Route rationalization helps transit authorities plan their routes so that they are able to meet the changing demands of the people,” says Sivasubramaniam Jayaraman, Manager, Institute for Transportation and Development Policy (ITDP) India.
Even in a city like Chennai, that is well-connected through several modes of public transportation, bus route rationalisation has a critical role to play. “Public transportation modes like suburban trains, MRTS and metro serve the needs of the people well, at least on paper. However, , among all available public transport modes, buses continue to carry the largest number of people, but often get stuck in traffic leading to low efficiency. Having bus prioritization, along with route rationalization, can help the city serve the maximum number of commuters,” adds Sivasubramaniam.
How is route rationalisation done in Chennai?
On paper, MTC has been regularly rationalising routes every month and reviewing the performance after every six months. The second phase of Chennai Outer Ring road that connects Nemilicheri and Minjur was inaugurated recently. In view of the needs of people who travel from that part of the city, the MTC introduced two new buses via Vandalur – Minjur Outer Ring Road: 206 cut (Poonamallee-Tambaram) and 203 (Poonamallee-Walajabad). “Before launching any new route, we identify the stops and launch buses on a trial and error method. If there is demand, we formally launch the route. There was a trial exercise done along the ORR stretch,” an MTC employee added.
A press release from the transport agency stated that route number 206 cut starts from Poonamalle, and reaches Tambaram after passing through the Outer Ring Road, Mannivakkam joint road and Perungalathur. Four buses have been introduced and services will be available every 35 minutes. Similarly, route bus 203 which starts at Poonamallee will reach Walajabad via Outer Ring Road, Padappadi and Oragadam joint road. Four buses have been put into service and the buses will be operated for every 50 minutes.
MTC conducts the route rationalisation exercise based on the earnings per kilometre (EPK), the earnings per day, occupancy ratio and demand for the bus route. The transport corporation has fixed expectations which are taken into account while carrying out the route rationalisation exercise.
|Type of services||Expected turnover per day||Average trip length|
|Ordinary||Rs 8,000||25 km|
|Express||Rs 10,000 and above||47 km|
|Deluxe||Rs 12,000 and above||Above 47 km|
Recently, the transport agency rationalised Route no 70 which plied from Avadi to Tambaram. The long route was converted into two short routes: 70 (Avadi to Koyambedu) and 70V (Anna Nagar West to Vandalur Zoo that passes via Koyambedu). “Since the trip length has been halved, the number of trips have been increased to 420 totally and the occupancy ratio has gone up by 45%,” said an official from the transport agency.
Challenges faced by MTC
While the rationalisation activity happens every month, the MTC shares its own challenges around the exercise. “The entire system is done manually which is time-consuming and may not have accurate data as the procedure is not computerised,” a senior officer from the MTC says.
The second biggest hurdle is ensuring that the needs are met, given the existing physical number of buses they have. MTC serves the Chennai Metropolitan Area (CMA) that spans an area of 1189 sq km, but has only 3651 buses in total. While rationalizing routes, the MTC official says, it is difficult to manage the operations without withdrawing buses from other routes. As the transport agency has incurred heavy losses, adding more buses to the fleet every now and then is not possible, they say.
Many are critical. “The fleet strength, in fact, has dipped marginally in the past five years. But commuters complain about crowded buses, especially during peak hours, and the low frequency of buses during the grievance redressal meetings. A transport agency should not be operated to generate only revenue,” adds Sumana.
The ideal way to go about the rationalisation exercise is by developing digital infrastructure. According to a transportation expert, the MTC does not have a system that gives data like the travel destination of commuters, how many switch multiple buses to reach their destinations and how the optimisation exercise will impact commuters. “An electronic ticketing system is needed to get the precise data as manual analysis of data is difficult. The MTC should also analyse how it can mobilise maximum commuters during peak hours for which real-time data is crucial,” says a mobility expert.
The good news is that this could soon become a reality, as there is a proposal to develop the IT infrastructure, as part of which GPS devices will be installed to find the real-time location of buses as well as the software to manage and operate the entire system.
The view of MTC workers
While rationalisation exercises must benefit commuters, one also needs to take into account the impact on the conductors and drivers who implement such strategy. “We agree to the revisions in routes the management makes, but it often takes away our breaks and lunchtime. The working conditions become toxic and hectic,” said an MTC driver on condition of anonymity.
“When a route is extended, the time taken to complete a trip also increases and a time chart should be prepared accordingly. Often, the new time chart does not include the break that these workers are entitled to. The authorities do not consider external factors like traffic that causes buses to run behind the schedule on paper. Ideally, the management should consider these realities as well as workers’ welfare while implementing such changes,” says M Chandran, vice-president of the Government Transport Workers Association.