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Vol. XXXII No. 4, June 1-15, 2022
According to April 2022 reports, the Metropolitan Transport Corporation (MTC) is clocking a healthy improvement in daily ridership numbers. The average number of passengers carried per day has almost touched 29 lakhs – a number encouragingly close to the 33.5 lakh daily ridership the MTC enjoyed before the 2020 lockdowns. The improvement has been attributed to the free bus travel scheme for women in ordinary buses, announced by Chief Minister M.K. Stalin in May 2021. The perk reportedly helped win back passengers, with nearly 30 per cent of passengers (students and women) accounting for ‘zero value tickets.’
It turned out to be only the first in a slew of perks and services. Transport Minister Sivasankar launched the Chennai Bus app, a mobile phone application that will provide commuters with all the information they will need, at their fingertips. It provides details of bus routes for the destination of choice and also gives updates on the location of a bus and its expected time of arrival at the bus stop. The MTC has fitted its entire fleet of 3,454 buses with GPS equipment, enabling passengers to get information on any of the 602 routes they ply across the 6,026 bus stops in the city. The app also has an SOS button to help commuters in need.
The MTC has also equipped its buses with additional safety measures. Panic buttons have been installed within the vehicles, that commuters can press in the event of an accident, medical emergencies, harassment, theft or other crises. Work is underway to integrate it with the control room at the MTC headquarters, which will be monitored by law and order police, traffic police, transport and 108 ambulance call centres. It is expected to take 4-6 months to complete the project.
It is heartening to see the MTC taking worthy efforts to recoup passengers by improving the calibre of services it offers. It is hoped that the current drive to improve remains unflagging, for the city’s bus network has scope to improve its services further.
For one, Chennai simply needs more buses. The present fleet numbers at just under 3,500 buses while the city’s population touches close to 10 million. According to an ITDP piece, national service benchmarks necessitate around 600 buses per million inhabitants in cities. That translates to almost double the current fleet serving the city. Many of the problems passengers face are direct consequences of the lack of buses – for one, wait times at stops are naturally higher with lesser resources on the road; for another, it leads to overcrowding, with buses running at uncomfortably high capacities, especially during peak hours. According to Prof. K.P. Subramanian, visiting faculty, Division of Transportation Engineering, Anna University, users may not find the mobile app very useful if the frequency of buses was not improved with proper planning. He also pointed out that the curious problem of ‘bus bunching’ was complicating long wait times. In a quote to DT Next, the professor said, “In a particular route, 2-3 buses will arrive at a stop together but there won’t be another bus for another 30 minutes or so. That’s bus bunching… The three or four 23C buses will come at a time. Then we will have to wait for 30-45 minutes for the next bus.” Adding new buses to the fleet is, of course, a significant investment. According to an official quoted in the DT Next piece, it is a hard task given the losses the MTC has been bearing on account of rising fuel prices, which it has not passed onto commuters as fare hikes. However, adding more buses to the fleet is reportedly in the offing.
Connectivity to the bus stops themselves can arguably improve the experience of passengers. The city’s roads do not offer easy access to pedestrians and cyclists, who are likely to use the services of the MTC for plying long distances. As a corollary to the issue, the city perhaps needs a study into the number of bus stops and the distance between them. New York city guidelines, for instance, require bus stops to be spaced no more than 750m apart. More bus stops will, of course, have an impact on the bus speed – but for a city as hot as Chennai, perhaps it is a worthy compromise to make.
A good, dependable bus transport system is crucial for cities hoping to reduce the number of private vehicles on their roads. In MTC’s case, it doesn’t appear as if it needs to work very hard to woo patrons – the almost overflowing buses on the roads are testimony to this fact. With a wider network and better connectivity facilities, it has a good chance to shore up ridership numbers. The gamut of new schemes is an encouraging start; we hope the MTC continues its drive on improvement.