I am going to start this article with a superfluous statement- India, and Indian cities, have changed almost unrecognizably in the last few decades.
We all know this. We also know that the growth rates of many cities have been unprecedented. In such a situation, how has the infrastructure coped? Urban infrastructure is slow to change. As someone with an interest in all things urban, one of the concerns is of course, public transport. How has transport infrastructure changed over the years? Has the economic growth translated into better quality of public transport or are cities still playing catch-up?
Considering the huge differences which exist between cities, it is impossible to generalize and talk about the overall quality of transport. I therefore chose to focus on Chennai, which is the city where I grew up.
Public Transport in Chennai- Changes over the past few decades
Public transport in Chennai is currently a mix of buses, autos, local trains and the overground MRTS rail system. The Metro rail system will soon be added to this list. However, buses remain the most widespread mode of public transport in Chennai.
I am going to talk about buses in Chennai, and how much the bus transport system has changed in the past few decades. When talking about change, especially qualitative change, it has been very difficult to get clear and meaningful data. Therefore, I have relied on a mix of data and anecdotes.
Chennai is a decentralized city. There is no clear-cut CBD as there is in Mumbai. People commute from any point in the city to any other point for work. For public transport to be effective, therefore, each area needs to be connected to multiple others. Buses are probably the easiest way of doing it, short of an extensive metro system like London (which took over a century to develop by the way)
Bus transport in Chennai is run exclusively by the Government of Tamil Nadu through the Metropolitan Transport Corporation (MTC).
The Quality of the Bus Network
When asked about the overall quality of bus services, most of the respondents felt that the quality of the bus network in Chennai has improved in the past few decades. From the rickety green buses of the Pallavan Transport Corporation, there are now multiple options including air-conditioned Volvo buses.
Some things are great about Chennai bus transport. If you happen to travel into Chennai by train and reach Central Station by train at say, 4am, there are buses from within the railway station to various points in the city even at that early hour- it feels like a much safer experience than taking an auto. These buses are surprisingly well-patronized all along the route even at this early hour- it is usually standing room only.
Frequency and Availability of Services over the years
The perception of Chennai bus services seems to depend entirely on where you live. People such as Aishwarya Soni, a college student who lives in the fast-growing western suburb of Ambattur, says she has seen an improvement both in number and quality of services. Others living in slower-growing suburbs and certain parts of the city observe a decline in services. What does seem to have happened (based on the limited evidence) is that the city has grown so fast that bus services were simply not able to keep pace. When an area grew so rapidly that bus services were stretched to the limit, new bus services were not really added, but diverted from other nearby areas with a lower growth rate.
Bharath Gandhi, a civil engineer from Adambakkam, talks about how several services such as the 52L and 18D seem to have been diverted from Adambakkam to Nanganallur or Madippakam, which are growing much faster. Adambakkam is left without sufficient connections to key areas such as Mount Road. I can also say from personal experience that something similar seems to have happened even within the city. As the city grew too rapidly for bus infrastructure to keep up, services seem to have been diverted from areas with less patronage to areas with greater demand and more connectivity, located on the longer-distance routes. For example, the bus stops in Abhiramapuram have seen a massive detoriation in services and the rerouting of many services to Mandaveli. I remember services to locations as diverse as Adyar (5) and Egmore (23, 23B), now reduced to one infrequent service to Anna Nagar.
Kotturpuram used to have a bus terminus once upon a time (many people are probably not even aware of this fact). Buses would be parked outside MA Chidambaram’s house on Gandhi Mandapam Road, and there was a little ticket shed. Today only the 21G and 5C services pass through Kotturpuram- the terminus does not exist anymore. Many buses which used to connect Anna Salai now bypass Kotturpuram all together and go through Saidapet directly. The area doesn’t even have a direct connection to Saidapet, which is where many of the Government agencies which serve Kotturpuram are located (including issuers of ration cards etc).
The areas with less bus services obviously have a greater number of people using private transport. I am speculating here that the bus service quality within the city may have created a bit of a chicken-and-egg situation. Did the lack of bus services force people into private vehicles, or were vehicles withdrawn due to lack of patronage?
Suburban and urban bus journeys
People in suburbs still seem to prefer taking a bus as compared to people who live and commute within the city. This is true even of those suburban areas with poor bus connectivity. Bharat Gandhi says that although the buses seem to take a very circuitous route, he prefers to travel by bus because in many cases the time saved by travelling on his bike are very minimal. In general, people living in suburban areas say that the time to travel by bus is not very different from the time by private vehicle, without the additional stress of having to drive through the city traffic. This makes sense when you think about it. If you have a journey of an hour to traverse from the suburbs into the city, taking a bus may add only 5-10 minutes more, and lessen travel costs significantly. But if you have a 20 minute journey within the city, an infrequent bus service can double the journey time with no significant cost benefit, so most people will ask if there really is a point to it.
Passenger Comfort and Safety
Almost everything to do with Chennai buses seems to elicit mixed reactions. With regards to passenger comfort, many people felt that the buses themselves had improved over the years, and there are also more choices available now. However, issues such as overcrowding at peak hours leads to an uncomfortable commute for many people.
Another key issue in passenger comfort is the location of bus stops. Ideally, bus stops should be within a walking distance of 500m from the start and end points. Sivagami Periannan, an architect who started working recently, lives on Old Mahabalipuram Road and works in Adyar. Although the 21H service provides good connectivity, she stopped using the bus because of the distance she had to walk at either end. This can be quite a large factor in the way people use buses in a city as hot as Chennai. In the sauna-like climate, no one wants to walk into office looking and feeling like they need a shower.
Talking about safety, people perceive the bus drivers as being the biggest issue. Almost anyone who uses the roads of Chennai- bus commuter or otherwise- seem to have complaints about the driving abilities of Chennai bus drivers. They are perceived to drive dangerously, with no consequences for causing accidents.
And of course, Chennai buses have long been a target for rowdy elements in the city- political issues and student fights. They break windows, hurl stones, and sometimes even pull out knives. Perpetrators need to be dealt with more severely to discourage future incidents.
Women safety is yet another issue which seems to depend largely on the bus routes. Women travelling on certain routes say that they feel safe, although they are aware that women get routinely sexually harassed (verbally and physically) on Chennai buses. There are other routes which seem quite bad. I know I personally stopped taking buses because of the harassment I faced getting on and off them. And again, from personal experience, the problem seems worse in Chennai than say, Bangalore or Trichy (other places I have taken buses). In fact, surprisingly, Trichy buses felt much safer, even when more crowded or late at night. Vidhya Mohankumar, an architect and urban designer, still remembers being terrified of routes that would stop near men’s colleges during her high school days in the late 90s because of all the taunts and paper rockets that would come flying in to the bus. She vividly also recalls one instance when a college chap sat down on the seat behind her and wiped his face with her friend’s dupatta. Needless to say it left her and her friend shell-shocked and helpless as the rest of the bus was oblivious to what had just happened. Over the years though she feels that women being harassed on the bus has reduced comparably and that this may be attributed to improved laws against eve teasing or perhaps an awakening among the public against this sort of behavior.
MTC are supposed to ply women-only buses as a means to deal with safety. However, these services seem to have decreased over the years, and also seem to run at times with less demand.
Sometimes, it can be hard to understand the intent behind certain bus routes or services. For example, I would assume that they intend the AC buses to be patronised by better-off students and white collar workers, especially those travelling longer distances. The natural target should be buses traversing the city, especially the longer routes, and at peak hours. I looked up the schedules of a few long-distance AC buses.
Let us consider the 21G AC bus service. This is a very long route, covering the area from Broadway to Tambaram, and passing through Mylapore, RA Puram, Kotturpuram and Raj Bhavan on the way- a large swathe of middle-class areas in the city. The frequency does not increase at peak times!! There is a bus every 20 minutes. In fact, it gets worse. The first AC bus from Broadway STARTS at 9.20 am- well after most people are at work! And in the evening, there is no bus at all between 16:45 and 18:20!! Isn’t this when most office goers (who are presumed to patronise these premium services) go to and leave work? If the same bus ran at 5 minute intervals at these times, would we see a better take-up of these services?
It is a similar story with the AC services for the A1 From Tiruvanmiyur to Central- that bus service is only once an hour, even at peak hours! It is more of the same with other services- 12B (Foreshore estate- Vadapalani), M70 (CMBT- Tiruvanmiyur), 7M (Broadway-JJ Nagar West) and other services connecting disparate parts of the city. .
Perhaps an origin-destination survey needs to be done, mapping journeys within the city. From where do people travel, where are they going and at what times? How much would these people be willing to pay? Most people would not mind paying for the comfort of air-conditioned and comfortable buses at peak times if it saves them from driving. If we look at the stretch of Old Mahabalipuram Road (the IT corridor) in the south of the city, the MRTS services do not run along the entire road. People get off at the Tiruvanmiyur station and mostly get into overcrowded share autos. I would imagine there is a huge potential here to run AC buses along this stretch, especially at peak hour, say until the Sholinganallur junction. The crowd would be mostly white-collar workers in the IT industries. What if this were coupled with an AC coach in the MRTS trains?
How friendly are the bus services to someone who is new to the city? I live in Bangalore, and BMTC has a route planner, which tells you which buses can take you to your destination. Unfortunately, MTC has no such feature available on their website, which is surprising considering the good spread of e-governance in Tamil Nadu otherwise.
Quick facts and figures:
Chennai has grown from an area of 128.83 sq. Km in 1971 to an area of 176 sq. Km in 2001(Prof. S.P. and S. 2011). This is an increase of 36.61%. The population in Chennai Urban agglomeration the same time has doubled, from 31,69,930 to 64,24,624, an increase of 103%
To put it in perspective, 48.07 lakh people travelled in 3365 scheduled services over 9.70 lakh km. Every day. (Metropolitan Transport Corporation Chennai n.d.)
Metropolitan Transport Corporation Chennai. http://www.mtcbus.org/ (accessed March 05, 2014).
Prof. S.P., Sekar, and Kanchanamala S. “An Analysis of Growth Dynamics in Chennai.” Institute of Town Planners India Journal, October – December 2011.
Ajeetha Ranganathan is an architect, writer and designer who is interested in the larger impacts of design. Her interests tend towards exploring socio-economic issues and emerging technologies, and how they impact the city. She is a researcher at CnT Architects, Bangalore.