Buying a thousand more buses per city will be of little help if the administrative capacity to put them to profitable use is absent. State governments need to understand the mess that government control raj in the sector has caused.
Voters, as well as planners tend to have a very narrow definition of public transport-city bus networks and metro or suburban rail networks. Both of them would agree that throwing more taxpayer money into such networks would do a lot to solve the mobility and traffic problems of our cities.
They forget two things: the entry of taxi aggregators with the option of ride sharing has expanded the very definition of public transport. Operations and the existence of competition in the sector have time and again proved to be more important than throwing money at the problem.
Public transport in India faces some problems, the most important of which is the bad regulation that exists in this sector. Regulation and an active regulator are absent in precisely the areas where it is needed the most - bringing about ease of transaction through cards or other electronic payments, solving coordination problems between different forms of public transport, etc.
Considering the above, here is what we can be sure that our urban transport networks need to make them smart.
1. There is an urgent need for the respective state governments to establish City Public Transportation Regulators instead of unified transport bodies. Take for example the city of Bengaluru. There have been repeated calls to bring Bangalore Metro Rail Corporation Limited (BMRCL) and Bangalore Metropolitan Transport Corporation (BMTC) under a single body to enable coordination between the two organisations. This approach ignores that unlike the metro network, the BMTC (like most city bus operators in India) is a legal monopoly established by the state government.
Moreover, it is doubtful if an additional layer of administrative bureaucracy can help our cities. A public transport system where the different arms ‘talk’ to each other would certainly make the system smarter. Establishing a City Public Transport Regulator which can set and update standards vis-a-vis payment methods like smart cards, administer language and technical proficiency tests for drivers, carry out regular safety inspections and more, is certainly a smarter option.
2. The report of the committee constituted to propose Taxi Policy guidelines to promote urban mobility recommends a liberal taxi-policy framework, accepts dynamic pricing by taxi aggregators (to an extent) and recommends relaxing the restrictions on the entry of new taxis into the market. We need to remember that there are very few mechanisms which ensure communication within the market/network than the price system. Taxi aggregators do a good job at communicating demand and supply signals between drivers and commuters via the pricing. States should make the public transport network in their cities smarter by accepting these recommendations.
3. Governments should finally realise that government transportation monopolies do a bad job when compared to competitive bus markets. There is a significant body of academic literature to support his claim. The recent experience of France and that of Britain in the 1980s proves this beyond doubt. At home, government studies from Rajasthan have diagnosed significant problems with the manner our transportation networks are run and regulated. This ‘stepping back’ would lead to significant growth of the bus aggregation industry while reducing congestion and commute costs in our cities even further. (The Niti Aayog member of the committee mentioned in #2 had pushed for this to be included in the report too )
4. One of the major schemes of the current Modi government is the Smart City Scheme. A major component in most smart city DPRs (Detailed Project Reports) happens to be a rather vague idea of building Intelligent Transport Systems (ITS) in these cities. What constitutes these ITS is a primitive version of the map and navigation technology used by taxi aggregators. Such technologies are better utilised by allowing private operators into different arms of the transportation network.
City government need to focus more on developing or sourcing and adapting traffic administration technology to enable better mobility within cities. This requires changing the nature and components of the ITS and stopping the current obsession with fixing the minutiae of the ITS via AIS standards.
5. Use tax department data to map economic activity within a city/metropolis to understand shifts and trends of such shifts (if any) in the centres of economic activity to make the requisite investments in transport and public infrastructure before it is too late. For example, the centre of economic activity in Hyderabad has shifted from the old city to Cyberabad a while back. Bengaluru has seen the development of three new concentrations of economic activity - Silk Board-Electronic City, Whitefield, Manyata Tech Park-Airport-Hebbal area while the original Central Business District (CBD) loses its shine.
Transportation infrastructure development has not kept pace in both the cities. Administrators need to understand that while technology does play a significant role, lack of development of such physical infrastructure forces many commuters to opt for private vehicles.
Buying a thousand more buses per city will be of little help if the administrative capacity to put them to profitable use is absent. State governments need to understand the mess that government control raj in the sector has caused. A general move towards a light-regulation environment is what's desperately needed.
This article is a part of our special series on urban mobility.