For decades, buses have been the public transportation of choice in Chennai. But recent numbers indicate that this might be changing. With increase in fares, growth in number of private vehicles and alternative modes of transport, it’s now a case of buses missing the people of Chennai.
A report by the Ministry of Road Transport highlighted that in 2015-2016, MTC carried the highest number of passengers per bus per day at 1270. However, a variety of reasons has led to a steep drop in ridership in the city buses over time.
Bus ridership over time
The MTC has been one of the better performing transport corporations in the country with strong ridership metrics over the years. However, reports also reveal issues that hamper the service, such as the age of the fleet and stagnation of fleet size. The proportion of aged buses in the MTC fleet has been on the higher side, with 72.71% of the fleet being over-aged (above 12 years), according to the annual performance review by MORTH 2015-2016. The number of buses per lakh population also falls short, with the city needing at least 1500 buses to meet the benchmark of 60 buses per lakh population as defined by the Ministry of Road Transport and Highways.
Data compiled by the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy (ITDP) has revealed that the decline in bus ridership has been a phenomenon across Indian cities and even the world over.
“In 2010, the daily ridership of buses (total number of rides by bus, for all trips in a day) in Chennai was 55 lakhs. Today, that number has fallen to somewhere around 40 lakhs. This drop in ridership is a concern that other cities like London and New York are also are facing. But these cities have prioritised bus systems and taken steps to address this drop with solutions like innovative fare programmes and infrastructure and technology upgrades,” says Sivasubramanian J, Manager, Transport Systems, ITDP.
The steep fall in bus ridership in Chennai coincided with the fare hike across all categories in January 2018. The hike saw the minimum fare for ordinary buses go up from Rs 3 to Rs 5 and maximum fare from Rs 12 to Rs 22. The hike was applicable to other categories of services – the Express, Deluxe and AC services. The hike came after a six year gap and was done with the view to help boost revenues of the MTC. However, the decline in ridership began around the same time as the hike with commuters looking for alternatives in share autos and suburban rail.
Data from the annual performance review of the MTC shows a drop in the occupancy ratio of buses after the hike in fares. In actual terms, the drop in ridership in the year since the hike stands at 20 crore passengers.
|Yearly ridership in lakhs
|2014 – 2015
|2015 – 2016
|2016 – 2017
|2017 – 2018
Source: Annual performance review of SRTUs, GoTN
From the high of 1270 passengers per bus per day, the revision in fare hike is said to have brought about a decrease in ridership to around 950 passengers. Following this, the MTC had ramped up efforts to bring back riders through efforts such as the display of fares on buses to counter any misinformation, route rationalisation and increase in number of ordinary bus services.
Since October 2018, MTC has introduced new buses to its ageing fleet with a view to phase out the older buses. In January, 56 buses were added to the fleet. However, most of the buses were operated under the Deluxe services category which has a high minimum fare of Rs 13. In August, the MTC added an additional 235 buses to its fleet. Of the new buses, 80 have been deemed Express services with a view to increase ridership and reducing the financial strain on the commuters. All the newly introduced buses will ply on 51 routes across the city.
While the fare hike was made with the expectation that it would boosting MTC finances, the resultant hit to the ridership has in fact adversely affected the Corporation. Hence, the books of the transport corporation has not seen much improvement since the hike in fares; in fact, losses registered by the MTC rose from Rs 392 crore in 2015-2016 to Rs 730 crore in 2017-2018.
Experts are however of the view that the improvement in service delivery should top the agenda. “The focus should not be on revenue but on the number of passengers carried. The government should allocate enough funds to ensure that the system is run efficiently,” says Sai Ratnam Chaitanya, Research Associate, ITDP.
The commuters too are in agreement. “We need more ordinary buses in the city. The fare hike has pushed many people towards share autos in the routes where the bus fares are comparable or more than that of share autos. If more ordinary white board buses are operated that will greatly benefit the commuters,” says Anita S, who travels from T Nagar to Velachery for work.
“The wait time for buses is also unpredictable in my area. The services are highly irregular and sometimes we have had to wait for over twenty minutes for a bus, even if we want to get to Central station or beyond. There has been a great increase in the number of share autos in the area because of this. Many people who wait at a stop for too long take the share auto for short distances,” says Thiagarajan R of Kodungaiyur.
With the rise of rideshare cabs in the city, adoption of technology could also help woo young commuters. While unofficial sources provide real time information on bus routes, the official website of the MTC has been under maintenance for over six months with little information for commuters to plan their travel on.
Despite the increase in number of private vehicles over the last decade and the introduction of metro rail services, buses remain a popular and accessible means of transport for Chennaiites. But due to the high fares and issues faced by commuters such as wait time and quality of buses, the city’s buses are beginning to face stiff competition.
The MTC’s scaling back of the small bus service due is another pain point for riders. Complaints of lack of frequency and unreliability of the small buses led to poor patronage. The buses could have been an ideal last mile link to metro stations, but instead Chennai Metro Rail Limited has roped in share autos and maxi cabs to provide feeder services.
With new buses to boost the fleet and improved route rationalisation, the MTC might be able to win back a share of the commuters lost. With evidence based on fare hikes, transferring the burden of costs on to the commuters in the future will only lead to further fall in ridership. The MTC must look to avenues other than non-ticketing revenue to boost its financial health.