(More on public transport here)
(Cross posted on Centre Right India)
A streetside glimpse of India from Bangalore - no paid news, no lobbying, no plants, no stringing along - just pure viewpoints. My own political education. Satire Alert (At times)! Because, nothing is permanent, only interim!
About 10 years back, we were somewhere near MG Road wanting to come back home at the unearthly hour of 730 pm. And in what would seem a familiar story, there was no other way to come back than take a rickshaw - whose ideas of fares would make airlines want to commit suicide. Rickshaws never offer a discount, while airlines often do. Take that, KFA.
The same story was repeated near ISKCON, Jayanagar and quite a few other places after which all us either depended on our own bikes or stayed put at home.
As a one time Mumbaikar, the comparison was hard to miss. Mumbai trains ran packed till 1 am. The buses were equally reliable. Autos charged you the exact fare and offered you the exact change back regardless of the hour of the day. Bangalore public transport sucked big time. There were no trains. Autos were a rip off.
Earlier this year, I travelled by BEST in Mumbai. The buses were shaking and rattling. The frequency was good, but hardly an improvement in 10 years. I got into an airconditioned service from Bandra to Navi Mumbai - the fares were cheap, but the service was quite a slow one. And not too frequent either. Most of my friends had given up using the bus over the past few years. BEST seemed to be fighting a losing battle in keeping up with the wishes of its customers.
Contrast with Bangalore. The Volvos - a familiar sight across Bangalore are as comfortable as a car, even if crowded. The number of people who use them (especially on the high density IT corridors) is a sight to watch. If all these people used their own transport, Bangalores chaotic roads would be so much worse. They have done another thing - perhaps unnoticed unless one is a user. Bangalore had a large number of private rattletraps registered as buses. These transported people in high decibels inside and outside with significant danger to both those inside and outside. Many of these are banished to the periphery (and theres no reason they even need to run, but some lobby ensures that dangers things still run).
Today, BMTC gives BEST a run for its money - across multiple parameters. Much has been written about it. But here is a user perspective.
So how did Bangalore BMTC win this?
Some years back, BMTC introduced the Volvo - now a familiar sight on Bangalore roads. In the initial days, there were a few Volvos running here and there and somehow, BMTC took a plunge by buying a whole lot of them. In my view, this is the crucial difference, between Mumbai and Bangalore. In Mumbai you will have to wait for an AC bus. Not a great thing when you have to reach office on time. Bangalore cracked this by flooding the road with buses - especially in the high density corridors. A bus nearly every few minutes - which is as good as perhaps Western Railway of Mumbai at peak time. So, at peak hours, you reach the stop and theres a bus before you can catch your breath.
The result? People dumped their cars and bikes and preferred to leave the driving to BMTC. It is pretty cool even if you are stuck in a traffic jam. The car drivers are busy crawling at 1st gear while you are hearing your own music in a cool bus. If you are on a bike, there is no comparison. And then, given Bangalores mad parking situation, imagine that you dont have to think of parking at all.
It also helps that auto fares are 20 rupees minimum and auto drivers haggle enough to increase the blood pressure of a monk. This has helped BMTC price its premium bus services in a way that they can make money off it as well - yet affordable and keeps enough buses on the road without having to transport people like cabbages. BMTC prices are more expensive than Mumbais and that is reflective of its target audience who dont mind paying for comfort. Monthly and daily passes (again, not dirt cheap, but competitively priced) make it more usable.
BMTC also has opened routes to many of the IT complexes and from many of the bigger housing societies - unthinkable anywhere in India. They have initiatives like Bus Day which are smart ideas. And then of course, their airport service perhaps has no parallel in India.
It is not all utopia, there are still enough people who think buses are a traffic obstacle and drive to work and back each day, but it is a great place to be from about say, 10 years back. BMTC has managed to attract an entirely new population to public transport and that is commendable. A large part of this credit to the transport minister, R. Ashok.
And if you think this is a one off story, make no mistake.
10 years ago, you would be hard pressed to find a KSRTC booking counter in most parts of Bangalore. APSRTC (AP, of course, was ruled by Chandrababu Naidu), on the other hand, had a counter in almost every block. Today, KSRTC is making more money and running better services than any of its neighbours. Some of them have woken up now, but KSRTC and its Airavats have left them far behind. Indeed, the KSRTC Airavat races to Mumbai from Bangalore in about 18 hours (with scope to cut it further) while the Indian railways train continues to take 24 hours - the same as perhaps when the train service started 50 odd years ago.
That is, in a nutshell a success story of both KSRTC and BMTC.
Petrol prices go up once again - its now 70 bucks. This is great news - thought in the short run it is a fair amount of pain. But look at the brighter side, diesel prices are still there - where they were a few months back - because the government does not want to hurt the common man - by causing a hike in transportation (public, goods) and precipitating yet another hike in inflation. But then, unfortunately the aam aadmi will get hurt either way. Hike petrol prices and those two wheelers which are used by the common man and many small businesses will be hit. And the non hike of diesel prices goes on to cross subside the khaas aadmi - actually the smart guys who bought a diesel vehicle instead of buying a petrol vehicle.
Anyway, all this a side story, really. The real story is that oil prices are going up and hopefully going up in flames. The sooner the oil prices go up, the better it is for alternative technology to become more affordable. In the meantime, I think (actually hope) that all those shiny, swanky oil and petrol burners are lemons. And this really (again, more hope than anything else) is the last hurrah of those oil burning shiny cars.
When is Mahindra Reva launching a better electric car...I am waiting!
I have mentioned the insidious quota system that the Indian Railways seems to operate. Internet booking passengers have the first look at the toilet ends of the train. There is nothing wrong with that - perhaps, as I mentioned earlier, internet booking travellers are more likely to suffer from incontinence - considering they don't have the ability to stand in one of the longish lines of the Indian Railways for booking. That's a rant, I admit.
But think of it. Those who book their tickets on the internet are doing Indian railways a great service - by not crowding at their counters, by reducing the load on their infrastructure and by contributing extra revenue (25 to 50 odd rupees extra on every ticket booked). They are, by and large people who can pay. So, why not make them pay? Let them chose their seats and pay a premium for that as well - instead of this insidious quota system. (Earlier, when internet bookings were made the seats always used to be in the middle of the bogie - but of late, it has always been towards the ends - something that cannot happen randomly - not when there are 700 odd seats available. For the record, a regular bogie seats about 72 passengers. So, for sure there is some sort of a "quota".)
Why would an organization have an army worth of people to help people book tickets? When there are others who can do it - or self service as well. Why would an organization keep on accumulating people to do work like this, when by eliminating all the ticket booking clerks (or
outsourcing it) you can save tons of money.
But that would be missing the point would it not. Indian railways is not an organization that exists to transport people and goods from one part of the country to another. It exists to satisfy the whims and fancies of the constituencies of whichever railways minister rules. So, it will keep adding more employees, never make them work hard. With The passengers and the goods are incidental. Which is why it operates out of gross inefficiencies with little or no regard to what the passengers want.
With the number of people Indian Railways has, it can get all the railways of the world to outsource all its work to Indian Railways. But no, thats not a priority, atleast not until the current railway minister realizes her ambition of becoming Chief Minister.
If you measured the growth difference between China and India in terms of improvements in railways, it would pretty much reflect the way the countries have grown too. We are still stuck at the steam loco stage while China has entered the future.
When I came to Bangalore about a decade back, public transport in this city was a mess and continued to be so until about a year or so back.
It is partly an attitude issue - people here don't use much of public transport - and prefer the convenience of their bikes and cars - and partly an issue of poor service as well. So, it was a vicious circle. Bad public transport, low usage and hence there was no reason to increase or improve the public transport services. Roads were in a sad state too but that's a different story. About 4 years back or so, BMTC introduced Volvos as an experiment on some routes. And for a while, they weren't making money. Buses ran empty - those who got into them were happy to have an entire bus to themselves, but for the corporation, I am sure, it was not a pretty sight.
And in the last couple of years, BMTC has taken a some more initiatives to ensure that Volvos are appreciated and accepted. This, in a city, that loves its bikes and cars is no mean feat.
First, they flooded the roads with Volvos so one did not have to wait forever for a bus to come by their way. Second, they targetted the high density routes - the routes that service the IT sector areas in Bangalore. These are the people who don't mind paying for good quality transport. And these are also the people who don't mind using public transport - most IT companies have their own transport routes too. They came up initiatives like Bus-day working with IT companies to publicise the usage of buses. They introduced new routes - there are routes that originate from large apartment complexes. There are private public partnerships where organizations work with the BMTC to introduce new routes and many of them are successful too.
There are a few lessons from this. First, you remove waiting time and hence improve predictability of reaching work and back. Second, you promise a comfortable ride each way. Third, it is way better than a bike and sunburns and traffic. Fourth, there are no arguments with rickshaw drivers to endure. And then again, it is a green way to work too. Once these issues are tackled there are no excuses left for not using public transport.
Most transport corporations fail because they don't give enough bus services for people to use them. If somebody has to wait 20 minutes for a bus to come their way, that is a long time in a commute time of possibly of an hour. And this is where it is a great story for Bangalore. On some peak routes, there is a bus every few minutes - timings even a metro railway service would be proud of.
And all their efforts have been rewarded with those great buses turning in a profit!
Bangalores volvos are turning in a profit, ridership is increasing and this gives rise to a positive vicious circle. More ridership means more money which in turns means better bus services. But the trick is to get to the tipping point and ride over it.
All this augurs very well for the upcoming Metro service. Now can somebody increase parking fees and road taxes for private vehicles, create bike lanes and walking paths too?
A new public transport campaign launched in Bangalore, exhorts Bangaloreans to take the bus. See this link for picture (The Hindu). Effectively, it says, 1 bus is equal to 40 cars.
Overall this is a nice campaign and it will perhaps even get some converts from cars to buses. But, unless you have some streak of eco-friendliness in you, it wont register.
So, for those of you who have that eco-friendliness in you, do try the bus once in a while - perhaps on weekends, or while visiting crowded areas or if you have a service near your workplace. And hopefully the government will build those cycling tracks as it says in that article - (see link above) - because without cycle tracks, it is a little tough to take the cycle out on Bangalore roads. And, hopefully, pedestrian walkways as well so that one can enjoy Bangalores glorious weather!
Imagine you could get into a bus, have a desk and chair to sit on connect your laptop to a wi-fi network and work as you commute between different cities. What was a joke in Bangalore thanks to the dire traffic situation not so long ago, is a reality in US.
Megabus and Boltbus are changing the way one looks at commuting. I would argue commuting itself is not necessary, but if you have to commute why not make the most of it? There is a business opportunity here, especially for the railways here, if they have time to be updated on these ideas rather than create cultural centres.
And then again, mobile phones might make us take more public transport as opposed to drive around, eh!. (Link via Aadisht)
This old article in BW link via 37 Signals, reminded me of Mumbais local train commutes. They too have train friends with whom they celebrate life, the commute and everything else.
Having lived that life for a few years and having spent time in various cities stuck in traffic jams, I think commuting is a pain and a waste of time. Perhaps 50 years down the line, commuting will be something we will look back on as a thing of the past. And perhaps you will go around only for leisure - (on you bicycle?).
A cursory glance at this blog will tell you that I am a big fan of public transport and its current upgradation in most cities in the country.
One of the simple pleasures of urban life in India is to have an efficient and hassle free and professional rickshaw or taxi service. In cities where this does not exist, you can expect high cases of BP and other stress related diseases. Mumbai (and a pox on most other cities) is perhaps the onlyh city in India that satisfies this criteria. You can get out of your house, get into a rick and hop off certain that the route, fare, destination and safety are guaranteed.
This picture is in front of a mall in Navi Mumbai - where rickshaws come in a neat line (and atleast I did not see too many passengers being declines - neither was I) pick up their passengers and go along.
If your fare is, say, 17 or 27, the driver by and large is ready with the 3 rupees before you are ready with 20 or 30. In most other cities, this is not the case. In some cities, you can say goodbye to the change. In some others, for 30 rupees the rickshaw will take for exactly one revolution of the wheel. In some cities you have to be ready for a war with the rickshaw at the end of your journey. In some cities depending on the cloud cover and lighting condidions (cricket umpires would be proud), the fare will be "oneandhaf" or "doublemeter".
After living in other cities, I often feel like tipping the Mumbai rickshaw drivers just for their professionalism. Hats off...
Heres some fodder to the argument going on over whether cities need the Metro - given that trees are being cut etc. Heres some perspective.
Turns, out, you'd need the equivalent of a 228-lane Brooklyn Bridge to move all those people into Manhattan during Monday morning rush hour.
At best, it would take 167 inbound lanes, or 42 copies of the Queens Midtown Tunnel, to carry what the NYC Subway carries over 22 inbound tracks through 12 tunnels and 2 (partial) bridges. At worst, 200 new copies of 5th Avenue. Somewhere in the middle would be 67 West Side Highways or 76 Brooklyn Bridges. And this neglects the Long Island Railroad, Metro North, NJ Transit, and PATH systems entirely.
What would it take in Mumbai if all those trains did not exist? Don't even ask...
And the trees we are trying to save in Bangalore is a future insurance to the many other trees that would need to be cut for future road widening if there were no Metro...
As I waited for my bus at Vashi, it was fascinating to see the "informal economy" for pickups to Pune. Theres a three way market there. First there are the ticketed passengers for buses - both private and MSRTCs own service. Then there are the "travel agents" who sell "spot" tickets for the buses to Pune. Then there are the touts who cater to the guys who "walk in", needing to reach Pune "fast" by cab and not bus.
Mumbai-Pune is a high density route and all the MSRTC plus private buses and taxis of all sorts can not satiate the demand. It is like the perfect free market (or thereabouts). In this economy is the unorganized cab; the driver who wants to make a quick buck while going to Pune anyway and indeed there are youngsters who seem to make some money while on their way to Pune. Now, if you decide to stop at the bus stop and try to pick up passengers, sure you will get them, but if you want your vehicle to go full, you have to use the services of "agents" there.
Disclaimer: I was a pure onlooker, so what follows is mostly surmise.
The rates appear fixed. There are some rules. Airconditioned vehicle 250 bucks ( must be negotiable, I think), non aircon vehicles 150 (ditto). Two seats in the front in the Sumo and I actually heard them tell someone to pay for 2 if he wanted a solo seat up front. There are schedules. The next vehicle is slotted in a place and until it is full nobody breaks the queue - all the other vehicles are neatly parked behind. All in all, the touts sort of serve to organize a market which otherwise would perhaps be a nice riotous scene with each cab waiting for the last seat to get full or missing out on a couple of seats. It looks like each cab has to pay about 100 bucks for their "services" and it does look like most chaps find it worth paying these guys for their services. They do all the running around, catching potential passengers and getting them into the vehicle. In fact, I did not see anyone attempt to pick up passengers without their services (they would probably do it at other smaller stops on the way - and that has its own "cost").
But that's the rules. The way they go about it is a perfect lesson for anyone operating in an imperfect market. Here, clearly, though the supplier and buyer are in equal hurry, the advantage is with the touts. They announce the latest cabs, even 'fill' cabs with their own folk - who gracefully make way when the 'real' customer arrives. They coax, cajole and even occasionally make a "last vehicle" (at 5 pm) announcement even as other cabs come in. Passengers obviously don't want to get into a cab and wait till all the seats are full (this, IMO, the most painful part for a passenger) - thus everybody plays a waiting game. But then, the first guys get the best (middle) seats and the rest are bundled into the back. The touts handle all of this. They can size potential passengers at a wink - including their urgency levels. Comes with experience I guess.
All in all, it was interesting to watch them go about their business...
Is an idea whose time has come. Low budget houses for 4 lakhs or thereabouts. Now, of course, they are not in Sadashiv Nagar or Malabar Hill - they are some distance away from the city. It is an idea whose time has come - once again, not because of any government, but because of private initiative.
In an age where real estate prices have kept going higher and higher, the only way to bring it down is by "urban sprawl" and that means big cities, good public transport. Otherwise demand will keep going up, supply will never increase leading to a Bombay style pricing for houses and rents. It is good to see Tata realize this. I am pretty sure their Boisar project will be lapped up. This needs to happen in other cities too.
Yes, yes, I can see people complaining, but read this old post by Ravikiran before you draw your conclusions.
Now, for the Tatas, this is smart. They have their finger in public transport, real estate as well as Nano transport. (Therefore, they are betting on urban sprawl?)
One big reason people prefer trains over buses is that bus travel in India has generally been (and continues to be) a very disorganized industry. You could book a ticket, but that was no guarantee of you getting into the bus. Seat numbers were liable to be swapped, buses were liable to be swapped, entire routes were liable to be changed, even luxury buses would magically become ordinary rattletrap buses at the time of travel (always due to extenuating circumstances), pick up points would disappear and what not. Also, people would pack the aisles sitting on small stools (Omar - and others on the Mum Hyd route immediately pop to mind), sleep on the aisles. Buses also transport a fair amount of luggage - see the tops of any of the private operators - apparently it is a ruse to avoid octroi - the passengers are incidental.
Overall, a thoroughly off putting experience, apart from the bad roads, sub standard restaurants, dirty toilets and other associated discomforts of bus travel in India.
Yet, in this messy space, one name has managed to create a name for itself. The Volvo.
No, it has not changed many of the other things listed above, indeed, it has created a few. (Though in general, overbooking has come down in Volvos since chances of operators denting their image is high and people pay a premium price). Now, you book a ticket for a "airconditioned" bus or a Volvo bus. There are chances that your Volvo is not a Volvo at all, just a look alike (and this is big business by the way, more on this some other time). Or, the Volvo got "replaced" at the last minute.
But these shenanigans apart, mostly created by dubious "travel agents", it doesn't happen with the reputed operators (or KSTRC or APSRTC), but remember that all buses are not Volvos. And stick to the reputed travel chaps - my favourite, at all times are the government transport corporations.
Jottings, after yet another trip to Mumbai by KSRTC Airavath Volvo, a 24 hour journey by train, 18 hours by Volvo. Thoroughly professional, rest stops are far more decent than any I have seen on any bus trip in India and the bus takes care of the bad roads neglected by our current government. Once those roads are made, the trip can be cut down easily by a few more hours. Oh yes and you can give Laloo the accolades for rail travel, but unless train travel becomes faster, the race is lost.
As for city travel, nothing beats the Volvos of Bangalore - they are probably the best public transport in India in terms of coverage, usage and comfort. See the crowds to ITPL each day in the Volvos and it is heartening to see people use public transport enthusiastically. And as it happens on these routes it is a positive cycle. People use buses, corporation increases frequency, increases coverage and still more people use them...Way to go.
Bangalores local bus transport system has a bus pass that lets you travel all over Bangalore for about 30 odd rupees. (Theres a golden pass too that lets you go gallivanting on the magnificent air conditioned Volvos for about Rs. 75.) Whatever the type, these passes created an aftermarket.
Because it was a day pass, there is no photographic identify, so in theory someone in a family could buy a pass, use it for the first half of the day and then pass it on to someone else. Why family, anybody could do it. Indeed, an aftermarket was created where people sold used passes for a discount. So, the BMTC required conductors to note the gender on the pass. That makes it that much more difficult. But it was not enough. So, now it requires age to specified as well. Which is a smart move, it limits it further - but it can be done with friends of the same age group. But how really can the BMTC prevent money leaking out through bus passes. Given the tough time conductors have in issuing tickets, how can it be done?
Cut to the Mumbai suburban system. To get a train pass, one has to procure an i-card. But given the suburban train system, ticket checkers find it impossibly difficult to check anything more than the expiry date of the pass. Unless both the pass and the i-card are checked it is quite easy to misuse the pass.
Sure, smart cards etc etc., but that robs people of the convenience and also puts in an entry barrier. Technology also can be used, but is there a way that companies issuing passes can reduce misuse? Any out of the box solution possible?
Interesting problem to resolve, right?