Building A Smarter Transport System That Eases The Daily Commute

Building A Smarter Transport System That Eases The Daily Commute

by Srikanth Ramakrishnan - Thursday, August 3, 2017 08:31 PM IST
Building A Smarter Transport System That Eases The Daily CommuteA Faster Commute
  • In public transport, one size does not fit all; yet, this formula is largely in use today.

    Also, government bodies alone cannot take care of the public’s transport needs. Private players are key to building a more effective transport system.

    Hence the need for a smart transport grid. Here the writer discusses why it’s necessary and what such a network entails.

Transport – getting from one place to another – is essential for all of us, be it for work, education, buying provisions and more. Transport is that silent part of our daily life that we are so used to that we rarely notice it unless something disrupts the daily routine.

Society is a heterogeneous entity, with people from different backgrounds and classes. Different people have different lifestyles, choices and preferences, and necessities. But if we were to superimpose our society and transport systems over each other, we realise that our transport systems are very homogeneous in nature.

A Smart Transport Grid

Society is a heterogeneous entity, but out transport systems are very homogeneous in nature.
Society is a heterogeneous entity, but out transport systems are very homogeneous in nature.

What is a smart transport system and does it have any connection with the smart cities concept? Perhaps it does, for a smart city is only as smart as its components.

Let us look at an average commuter in a city like Mumbai. They would probably take an autorickshaw or a bus to the nearest railway station, take a train to the station nearest to their workplace and then take a bus or a taxi to get there. Some fortunate people may be able to avoid multiple changeovers because there is a direct bus from somewhere in the vicinity. And those willing to pay a little more go in for ride-sharing or carpooling.

But what we have in most cities in India is a setup, parts of which don’t integrate well with one another. Getting together a truly smart-grid setup would require changes to our existing structure, something our administrations haven’t quite understood yet. The basic problem lies in the belief that “one size fits all” – one single mode of transport will serve every resident of a city.

Enrique Peñalosa, former mayor of Bogotá, Colombia, famously said, “A developed country is not a place where the poor have cars. It’s where the rich use public transport.” But “public transport” is a vast area that encompasses more than just buses and trains. It includes a wide variety of modes – autorickshaws, taxis, shuttle services, cars and so on.

In the last decade, several transport bodies such as the Brihanmumbai Electricity Supply and Transport (BEST), the Bangalore Metropolitan Transport Corporation (BMTC) and the Mysore City Transport Department (MCTD) have focussed on a concept called “park and ride”. The idea is to get private car users to drive to a nearby bus station, park and then take a bus. Sounds good, but the plan didn’t work out well for several reasons: lack of parking space, inconvenient timings and, most importantly, lack of proper bus services. Would the average car-owning middle-class citizen drive to a bus station, park their vehicle and board a crowded bus that everybody else boards? Most likely not.

The bus does take away from the commuter the comfort that the car affords her. But most urban transport bodies do operate air-conditioned (AC) services for those who are willing to pay, right? Barring Mumbai, which decided to cancel its AC routes, most big cities in India do operate them.

However, the problem is that these buses fall under the one-size-fits-all scenario and operate like AC versions of regular buses. Let us look at a bus aggregator like ZipGo or CityFlo. What do they offer to a commuter that a BEST or BMTC are not able to offer? Convenient timings, guaranteed seating, live tracking of buses, maybe free WiFi and paying without cash.

When the BMTC offered free WiFi, it worked like a typical sarkari setup. The WiFi would often not work and ultimately the system was scrapped. Similarly, BEST’s vehicle tracking system was a complete failure – although the MCTD is doing a fine job of it.

The Lessons

Our government transport bodies are not able to cater to a large group of citizens for various reasons. If everyone has to use public transport, it needs to be flexible. The average commuter needs to travel, and if they have to take multiple buses, they may be disincentivised. In a city like Bengaluru, lack of bus services to newer and upcoming areas resulted in the rise of ride-sharing services such as Uber and Ola. The reason for the lack of proper buses was simple – some of these areas were villages absorbed into the city and the narrow roads weren’t able to take the load of large buses. For various reasons, although smaller buses were considered, they primarily targeted the former villagers and not the upmarket citizenry. If today one were to go to these areas on the outskirts of Bengaluru, many roads would be dotted with fancy apartments as well as smaller houses. The primary modes of transport in these areas are Uber Pool and Ola Share for the apartment folks and autorickshaws for others.

The Smart Grid Theorem

The basic understanding is that different people have different preferences and requirements. Those people who want better service are willing to pay for it, so what stops government bodies from either catering to these passengers or allowing private players to step in?

Let us assume there exists a bus station with a metro station and a railway station adjacent to it. The government decides that it needs to upgrade the bus station to increase its capacity as well as to generate revenue. It finds a private partner who will build a multi-storey structure at its own cost and operate the bus station for a few years while giving a part of the revenue to the government. The new bus station is equipped with a vast parking lot, space for shops, a streamlined bus terminal that allows rapid entry and exit for buses as well as a connection over the busy road to the metro and railway stations. Now, the government goes the extra step to earmark some space in the vicinity – with direct access to the bus, metro and railway station – for cabs and autos, and also for app-based bus services to prevent congestion. This is the beginning of a smarter transport system. Further, if this incentivises taxis and autorickshaws to adopt cashless payment so that the new-age commuter would choose them, it takes things to the next stage.

The sooner we realise that the government cannot cater to all categories of passengers, and allows private players to compete and offer services, the faster we get to a better commute.

When such a system is in place, it incentivises the use of public transport to a greater extent than just procuring more buses or slashing fares. Of course, this system will not serve everyone, for there will be a select few who will prefer taking their car for myriad reasons such as distance, timings, disabilities or other reasons best known to them, but it will create a better network of transport that will provide better last-mile connectivity to the commuter, better revenues to various operators and a cleaner, hassle-free and streamlined commute to the aam janta.

This article is a part of our special series on urban mobility.

Srikanth’s interests include public transit, urban management and transportation infrastructure.

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