Recently, Citizen consumer and civic Action Group (CAG) conducted an online dialogue on Chennai’s Metropolitan Transport Corporation (MTC) bus service. The dialogue was part of a national campaign (Lakh ko 50) by the Sustainable Urban Mobility Network (SUM Net India), which asks the government to ensure that there are at least 50 buses per lakh population in our cities. The idea was to hear from commuters to understand what is needed to improve the bus service.
Transportation experts also spoke on how the MTC’s fleet strength is inadequate for the number of passengers it serves, and pointed out that there is probably latent demand which it could meet with some focussed planning and investment.
The question of how MTC can find its feet in the post-COVID situation was also discussed.
MTC – Then and now
So what needs to be done if Chennai is to have a bus service that covers the entire city, and which is affordable, accessible, convenient and safe?
MTC was for many years an excellent service, particularly when compared to other Indian cities. The network was good, frequency reasonable, staff generally helpful, and information on the bus clearly given in Tamil and English. In recent times, while the last two points still remain, the service has diminished.
MTC serves the Chennai Metropolitan Area (CMA), an area of 1189 sq km but has only 3651 buses in total. The fleet strength, in fact, has dipped marginally in the past five years. Commuters complain about ridiculously crowded buses, especially during peak hours, low frequency of buses, issues of cleanliness and poor maintenance of buses (windows are jammed, nails poke the commuter and tear their clothes). This is hardly surprising with the average age of MTC buses being 8 years.
Clearly all is not well. MTC itself agrees that they are struggling; revenue is on a downward spiral, its passengers are deserting it for more convenient modes of travel, and certainly MTC has not been profitable for quite some time.
Looking at the future
As we come out of this pandemic-induced lockdown, mobility will be a huge concern. With concerns over physical distancing as well as hygiene in public transit, MTC will need to come up with a plan and quickly.
It is fairly obvious that buses cannot run at full capacity now, for some months at least. Countries and cities globally are putting in place guidelines that require buses to run at 50% seating capacity and with no standing passengers. Hygiene protocols for the entire fleet will also be needed.
The question is, how will MTC be able to provide a reasonable bus service with 50% seating capacity, given the already woefully inadequate fleet? This will no doubt impact their revenues further (in addition to the zero revenue during the lockdown months).
Under the circumstances what is required is:
- A plan for MTC, in the short and long term, to ensure adequate finance, fleet strength, other resources (land, staff, training) and execute this plan efficiently. The goal should be to improve bus services in terms of coverage, accessibility, and efficiency
- A clear financial plan: Fare revenue is not going to bring MTC into the black. Investment in the bus service is essential and the government must prioritise this. Funds from Smart Cities, MoHUA, etc can be explored.
- Reconsideration of funding allocation: Prioritising fund allocation for roads, flyovers that largely benefit private transport, and Metro Rail construction at the expense of a bus service needs to be rethought as bus systems are cost effective and sustainable.
- Making the Chennai Unified Metropolitan Transport Authority (CUMTA) functional: The endless discussion on seamless integration of public transit modes has been stuck in a groove. It is time to walk the talk on this.
Obviously these are not going to happen in a day or even in a few months. In the short term, keeping in mind the pandemic, the MTC needs to:
- Proactively come out with protocols, communicate it to citizens and build trust among citizens that MTC can and will competently implement these protocols, ensuring the safety of passengers and bus crew. This needs to be done now, before MTC buses are back on the roads
- Address the many questions that commuters will have, including those over the validity of passes taken in March that were not used due to the lockdown. This again would be a trust-building exercise
- Look to see how fleet strength can be bolstered: Are there avenues to temporarily obtain buses from other State Transport Undertakings, which are not functioning fully or via private buses?
- Work with the state government and the Greater Chennai Corporation to encourage educational institutions, offices to stagger work hours, allow flexibility, with work from home protocols, where possible. This will help ease the load on the MTC buses.
- Put in place information systems so that people are aware of wait times for their bus. If commuters know that another bus is a few minutes away, the urge to crowd into the first bus is reduced
- Build capacity among MTC staff – especially the bus drivers and conductors. These are the people on the frontline who will need to enforce physical distancing and other protocols
In addition to the above, keeping in mind the economic impact of the lockdown on vulnerable groups (who are dependent on public transit), it would be good if MTC runs all buses as Ordinary Service instead of deluxe service for the immediate future.
Bus service is an essential public service and we cannot afford to let Chennai’s public bus service diminish further. The COVID-19 pandemic must be seen as an opportunity to turn things around.