Here's why buses are the way forward

A vibrant and technologically advanced public bus service is not only economical and efficient but is also environmentally friendly

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PS Ananda Rao | September 23, 2014



The foundation for any form of urbanisation is a good and efficient system of public transportation. The proposed development of 100 smart cities in India has renewed the focus of the states on urban transport solutions. In fact, the urban road transport system was given a high priority much before the thought process of metro rail systems emerged in the policy circles of India, so much so that the road transport corporations were created by an Act of parliament in 1950, under the Road Transport Act, to provide transport services to the commuters.

To that end logistical infrastructure, bus stations, depots, workshops and rolling stock – buses – were created under the aegis of each state transport corporation. Road transport for a long time was considered by the common man as the most affordable, efficient and convenient mode of connectivity for both urban and rural areas.

Such has been the success of the public road transport system in India that the association of state road transport undertakings (ASRTU) was set up in 1965 by 55 state road transport undertakings (SRTU). Today the association also has five associate members, including state tourism corporations. The state transport corporations operate nearly 1,50,000 buses that run over 41 million km every day and transport nearly 70 million people, which by the way is three times more than the people moved by Indian Railways on a daily basis. Additionally the state transport corporations, together, provide jobs to over one million people and connect over 1,73,000 villages.

In this context the importance of an efficient, affordable and quality public transport system for any future plan to establish multiple urban centres cannot be overemphasised. The superior economics of a bus-based public transportation network was established by ASRTU study tour that analysed various urban transport models of Europe and Australia and Asian systems like Singapore and Malaysia. The study tour analysed the cost of investment made towards public road transport vis-à-vis metro and recommended a specific urban transportation mix consisting of electronic and hybrid trolley buses, metro and monorails, high-capacity articulated and bi-articulated buses and trams.

A Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) report authored by Sunita Narain has highlighted how the exponential growth rate of private vehicles in India will lead to a situation of massive traffic grid lock and parking problems. Therefore, it is time that the policy makers realise the gravity of the situation and promote public road transport solutions. It must be kept in mind here that one bus occupies twice the space of a car, but crucially carries 40 times the number of passengers.

Interestingly, while there has been phenomenal capital investment in setting up trams and metro facilities ($33 million per km of infrastructure) in the last decade or so, the cost of investment for deploying high-capacity eco-friendly buses in all major cities would be a fraction of the amount spent on monorails and metros.

This economic logic has been recognised by the ministry of urban development and the planning commission, both of which felt the need for financing the urban bus transport under public road transport, partly funding low-floor buses and creation of bus stands and their associated infrastructure for commuters. Thus, the JnNURM was launched in 2005 and its second phase in 2012-13. However, rural transport still did not get the importance it deserved. There was no definite ground-level implementation scheme for operation of buses to the remotest villages in states, though there was a policy of nationalisation of routes by the state governments.

The challenging aspect in providing connectivity to the towns and villages still remains the economics of operating buses in a primarily non-remunerative sector. The rural areas, for their travelling needs, have no options except to switch over to the available private modes like maxicab and other transport facilities provided by the local operators, which are unsafe and economically unviable.

Even today, many towns and villages are connected to the rural villages by these modes of transport. However, some of the areas in the northeastern region and Maoist violence-prone areas still have the greater challenge in providing transport to remote towns and villages as private modes operate only on profitable routes.

In order to provide the basic connectivity to people residing in the remotest villages, a study was made by a group constituted by the ministry of road transport and highways in 2011. The group made three sets of recommendations. The first set included fleet augmentation to connect more number of villages by SRTUs by one-time funding from the central government towards purchase of buses and provide rural connectivity through a scheme similar to JnNURM. The group also estimated that over 50,000 buses were required to connect 70,000 villages. The cost of the scheme was slightly over Rs 9,000 crore.

The second set of recommendations related to the possibility of rolling out a gross cost model. Under this framework, the buses were to be procured and operated by private operators under specified service levels and controlled completely by STUs. The third set revolved around what was called the net cost model. Under this scheme the buses were to be procured and operated by the private operators under service levels controlled by a special purpose vehicle (SPV).

Taking the IT route
Today the road transport sector is suffering from severe financial constraints and this has made the adoption and implementation of latest technology innovations for efficient transport operations, vehicle and manpower productivity an immediate imperative. The intervention of IT in all areas of transport system and management can give a fresh boost for crew and vehicle productivity, inventory management and depot management in a centralised way that can cover all areas affecting the efficiency of SRTUs.

In this direction, ASRTU, being the apex body, has openly offered its member SRTUs to utilise various IT-enabled systems and applications – from vehicle tracking monitoring system, and electronic ticketing machine, to implementation of smart mobility cards, mobile application for ticket booking, inter-connectivity of Railways and bus transport for urban and rural connectivity.

The way forward for an integrated public transportation network that seamlessly brings together urban and rural India lies in looking at innovative solutions and going beyond the current paradigm of mobility and connectivity. Specifically, Indian policy makers and urban experts must look at funding buses on the VGF or gross cost model to connect the remotest of villages and towns. It is also time to look at international experience and give the public transport model support from both central and local governments through tax and excise duty incentives.  

PS Ananda Rao is executive director of the association of state road transport undertakings (ASRTU)

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