The midday sun reflects sharply off the shiny red surface of the brand new bus that is on its way from Koyambedu to Kelambakkam. The new-look bus is part of the 300-strong addition to the MTC’s fleet in a phased manner. Half of the new buses commissioned that are operational now traverse the routes in the Old Mahabalipuram Road stretch that is not yet connected by the suburban train network or the metro rail and relies heavily on buses for connectivity.
“The new buses were very necessary. The upgrade has made the rides more comfortable. This was long overdue as the old buses were rickety and unreliable. The MTC must consider running more services in these parts, as there is a growing working population,” says Hari H, an IT employee.
While the new buses have largely been a hit with commuters, does the MTC, which remains the preferred mode of transport for lakhs in the city, have adequate capacity to cater to the needs of the people of Chennai?
Bus fleet size stagnant
The population of Chennai metropolitan area serviced by the MTC as per the Census of 2011 is 86 lakhs. In a report by the Ministry of Road Transport and Highways (MORTH) on the status of State Transport Undertakings (STUs) across the country for 2015-2016, the MTC ranked first in the country on average daily commuters, carrying 1270 persons per bus per day. Buses remains a key link of connectivity for the city despite an existing suburban rail network and the completion of Phase 1 of the Chennai Metro.
The number of buses on the streets of Chennai has however increased only nominally over the years. The addition to the MTC fleet year on year has been offset by the retirement of unfit buses.The MORTH report states that in 2015-2016, 72.71% of the fleet was over-age. Over the course of eight years, the fleet strength has only increased by 233 buses, with phased retirement of over-aged buses.
According to data from MTC, in 2018-2019, the buses of Chennai undertake around 13 trips per day, at an average of 21.3 kms per trip. Each bus covers a distance of 287 kms per day, an increase from the 252 kms covered in 2015-2016 as per the MORTH report.
The Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs has set a benchmark for the number of buses needed per lakh population at 60. Chennai falls woefully short on the numbers based on current status. According to this benchmark, the city is in need of a fleet strength of 5160 buses to service the needs of the people. The MTC is in need of a minimum of 1500 additional buses or a 40% increase in its current fleet strength.
The transport body had made the move after registering net losses for consecutive years. The MTC’s net losses have steadily increased from Rs 392 crores in 2014-2015 to Rs 519 crores in 2016-2017. The financial crunch faced by the entity has also played a factor in the stagnation of fleet size and lack of new buses on the road.
Migration away from MTC
A hike in MTC fares by 67% in January 2018 to bring in much needed revenue to the transport body resulted in a steep fall in passenger footfall. As per a policy note shared by the Government of Tamil Nadu, the patronage fell from 42 lakhs to between 33-35 lakhs on increase of the fare.
Passengers are thought to have migrated to other means of transport such as the MRTS, which showed a marginal increase in ridership after the MTC fare hike. Share autos have sprung across the city, ferrying passengers in routes taken by MTC and acting as a competition to the service, though the exact routes and daily ridership for this mode of transport has yet to be calculated due to the unregulated nature of operations.
The first phase of the Chennai Metro began operations in June 2015 with daily patronage between 20000- 25000. With the inauguration of the final stretch of Phase 1 since February 2019, the patronage of the Metro has crossed 1 lakh per day.
The number of private vehicles in the city has been rising steadily over the past decade. There has been an explosion of growth the number of cars and two-wheelers year on year.
Chennai has added an average of 2.32 lakh two-wheelers to its roads each year over the past seven years. There are currently a whopping 42. 5 lakh two-wheelers on the roads according to data from the state transport authority. Cars too have been growing in number, with an average addition of around 53,000 cars to the city’s streets each year since 2011. The number of cars on Chennai roads currently stands at 88.6 lakhs.
Impact of fewer buses
The increase in number of private vehicles has brought with it a different kind of issue on the streets. A recent study by the Center for Science and Environment placed Chennai second only behind Delhi in pollution from vehicular emissions, as a result of urban commute. Increased emissions of heat-trapping carbon dioxide, toxic pollutants, particulate matter and nitrogen dioxide have been attributed to low public transport ridership and increased private vehicle growth.
Commuters in areas that are unconnected by the MRTS, Metro or other services remain fully reliant on the bus system, however sporadic the service. For low income residents, the MTC remains the only viable mode of transport in terms of cost and coverage. Residents who have been resettled from the banks of the Cooum to resettlement colonies in the outskirts are reliant on buses for their needs.
“No other mode of transport reaches us. We do not have enough jobs here, so many of us still go to the city for work. Our children too study in schools in the city. Bus is the only way to reach the city for us. The frequency of the service can be increased. We have to wait for half an hour for a bus and it is always over-crowded”, says R Valli, a resident of Perumbakkam.
While newer modes of transport such as the Metro are quickly expanding coverage and private vehicles see a boom, for the vast majority of Chennai, the connectivity offered by the buses at a relatively cheaper rate is unparalleled. An increase in the number of buses commensurate with the needs of the population is the need of the hour to augment the robustness of public transport that will benefit the city.