Restarting public transport in the age of COVID-19: The challenge before Chennai


Life goes on: A bus stop on Sardar Patel Road.

According to a 2018 Ease of Mobility Index report from the Ola Institute, Chennai emerged on top when it came to public transport usage, with 75% of the population opting for public transport; buses being the most widely used. 

The MTC bus system in Chennai has proven to be most popular due to high daily frequency, capacity, affordability and accessibility. The main patrons have been those who are in lower income groups such as daily wage labourers who often have to travel long distances to their place of work.

In the foreseeable future however, the daily commute of Chennai residents is likely to be a completely new experience as the city strives to resume normal activities under the ever-looming threat of the coronavirus. 

In late March, the state government drastically reduced the frequency of buses in the state, including in Chennai, as it geared up for the first phase of the lockdown. As the city, except for essential services, came to a halt, the roads were eerily quiet in the absence of buses, vans, autos and share-autos.

In the weeks that followed, the number of cases in the state and in Chennai increased rapidly, to the extent that the state capital is now among the top five Indian cities with the highest number of coronavirus cases. But as relaxations are introduced over the next few months, it becomes important to see how public transport systems may be reintroduced, the kind of cautionary measures it will entail and the implications.

Adapting to a different future

If the mantra for the foreseeable future is for society to get used to living with the virus, which in itself is a worrying proposition given the rate of infection and mortality rate in the state, then everyday transport activities will also need to be modified.

As restrictions across the country have been eased, a survey from RedBus showed that 57% of people were planning to use inner city buses in the coming weeks.Given the volume of patronage in a city like Chennai, a balance needs to be struck between safety and commerce as thousands would need to avail transport facilities.

Arjun Srinivas, in a column for Livemint, lays out how cities can reopen to a certain degree with limited public transportation citing Census data on transport usage patterns:

In the 53 cities with a million-plus population each, commuting patterns, particularly of those using public transport, vary widely. The 20 cities where 20% or more of workers use public transport include all major cities. In the absence of public transport and lack of access to private vehicles, a larger proportion of the urban poor may be compelled to walk or cycle to work.

Social distancing isn’t what comes to mind when one thinks of public transportation of any kind. Public transportation systems by definition are meant for a large number of people commuting together. Crowding of buses and local trains is commonplace in large metropolitan cities in India. Chennai is no different; MTC buses are often overcrowded and the Metro, while still short of ridership in other cities, has seen a slow but steady rise in the number of patrons, who also made use of last mile connectivity services.

Speaking of the Metro, there has been some debate on whether a metro system can actually accelerate the spread of a virus. A controversial study by an economist from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) showed how the New York subway system contributed towards the city becoming a hotspot for Covid-19. Experts from various fields, however, have criticised the study, stating that the evidence provided isn’t enough. 

The Chennai Metro, though still not functioning, has already outlined the steps that it plans to take once they are given the go-ahead for operations. In early May, they announced a no-token policy, reduced frequency, temperature checks and a limited number of passengers for each trip.

The two points to take note of, when it comes to public transportation in the current context, are the actual physical space of the bus stop, train station etc and the space inside the specific bus or train. Take for example the Chennai Mofussil Bus Terminus (CMBT), the largest in the country. It is a bustling transport hub that caters to thousands on a daily basis. How will such a place be able to handle the high volume of passengers while enforcing safety guidelines?

ITDP has issued certain basic guidelines such as operating buses with 50% capacity, regular checks and sanitisation for employees, contactless ticketing and making the wearing of masks compulsory. The UITP, in March outlined similar policies focusing on protecting frontline staff and passengers.

The concept of a multi modal transport network means thousands of people using more than one form of public transportation, which are integrated to facilitate a smooth transition from one mode of transport to another. While in normal circumstances this is a boon for a city; now, in the midst of a pandemic, crowded enclosed spaces are the last thing we need. We can only wait and watch, and exhort every citizen and commuter to take utmost safety precautions.

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About Varun Sukumar 11 Articles
Varun Sukumar is a freelance writer in Chennai.


  1. As per the Post Lockdown scene outside India many have shifted to Electric scooters to save cost and maintain distance at the same time

  2. I wonder what Tamil Nadu will be doing to facilitate it’s citizens especially its people slightly above poverty line ,on the poverty line and below poverty line as such I don’t think that providing them Rs.1000 will not support their needs for 12dys of lockdown which is unrealistic. The irony here is that the government (politicians) cap the price for private hospitals and most of the private hospitals are either directly or indirectly owned by them. So basically we live, we fall sick and we die but still we benefit them. Why can’t the state government cannot support us financially as such we pay separate tax SGST which I believe reaches the state vault and if it’s empty which is likely due to fact it never reached the vault in the first place. If Tamil Nadu had to overcome this pandemic the only way is not the lockdown but screen every individual including the beggers who dwell in the streets and lock down in Chennai should be done area wise eg. Lockdown royapuram and screen every individual and make sure no one enters nor leaves the lockdown area and move to the next . I find this to be the only solution.

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