In the policy note on transport for 2022-23, TN transport minister S S Sivasankar announced a departure from the DMK’s traditional stand favouring nationalised bus transport, opting for a new gross cost model of contracting out bus operations. In this arrangement, administrative and revenue collection control is retained by the government undertaking, while the contractor will procure, run and maintain the buses. The policy aligns with SDG 11, and would benefit from financing linkages such as interest-free loan from the German Development bank to acquire 12,000 BS VI buses and 2,000 electric buses.
For TN, this is a time to review mobility parameters set by SDG 11.2.1. The SDG system measures progress based on the proportion of the population with convenient access to public transport, by sex, age and people with disabilities.
Cities such as Singapore and London, with transport systems integrating rail and bus networks, have tried contracting models that rely on a mix of private capital, government control and technology. In Singapore’s case, the government changed its policy from 2016 on private ownership, in favour of government ownership of a 6,000-strong bus fleet. Intelligent Transport Systems were built on a formal service framework for punctuality and reliability, and to eliminate problems of non-operation of services, bunching of buses and poor reliability of first and last buses of the day.
In India, government-owned transport systems are frequently criticised as loss-ridden behemoths, and their weak finances provoke calls for privatisation. In 2003, the AIADMK government initiated a process to give several bus routes to private operators, ostensibly to cut losses, but also to weaken the DMK’s influence over state transport undertaking staff. A few years earlier, the DMK had launched a successful minibus scheme across almost all districts. The STUs, which have a universal service obligation, stayed the course.
The initiative of the M K Stalin government to expand welfare by providing free travel in ordinary buses for women, transgender, and disabled passengers, besides subsidising students and senior citizens, underscores the importance of getting the economics right. If farebox revenue is the concern, broadening civic and property taxation rather than fare hikes is the answer. Area-based parking fees are an untapped opportunity, especially in Chennai. Safer paid parking spaces will have ready takers among owners of expensive cars and two-wheelers. The medium-term goal would be a congestion fee for cars and other private vehicles.
Over the decades, bus ridership has fallen as STUs failed to sufficiently fund and modernise operations and passenger facilities. Buses are rickety when private vehicles have become cool and comfortable. Chennai buses now connect three neighbouring districts with a growing population, but the fleet has not expanded. As of January 2016, MTC operated 3,585 scheduled services, information obtained under the RTI Act shows, but only 3,233 in March 2022.
TN’s commitment to SDG 11 and the sub-goals on mobility present an opportunity to reimagine public space and end indirect subsidies for private vehicle owners in the form of free or cheap onstreet parking, costly flyovers including cars-only overpasses, and widened roads eating into pedestrian space. These problems were recorded at several locations in Chennai in a study by the Citizen Consumer and Civic Action Group in the Journal of Road Safety in 2020.
One of the parameters by which the SDG assesses progress is the availability of walking facilities to bus stops. This is a particularly weak link in Chennai. Many roads lack usable footpaths, and even those that have pavements are heavily encroached by commercial entities or vehicles, rendering them unfit for the purpose. This is in spite of Greater Chennai Corporation adopting a non-motorised transport policy in 2014. Rather than posing the problem as a conflict between pedestrians and hawkers — with the former unable to assert their rights — the government should demarcate viable and attractive hawking zones and ensure pedestrian-friendly roads.
In the past decade, though the Chennai metro rail was launched, there has been little government support on lastmile connectivity. It failed to provide sufficient mini-bus connections, ticket integration, and real time train and bus schedules. Sivasankar only recently launched the Chennai Buses app with live service information. The state bus corporations have also been evading acquisition of disabled-friendly buses, in spite of court orders.
The suburban railway system too lacks integration with MTC buses, ideally small buses. The Centre amended the Motor Vehicles Act to introduce lastmile connectivity, but that too failed due to weak planning and later Covid-19 lockdowns.
The TN transport minister also has the task of regulating seven-seater ‘share auto’ vans, two-wheeler taxis operated by app-based aggregators and regular autorickshaws. Such an audit is part of the official SDG toolkit.
Today, the Chennai Unified Metropolitan Transport Authority can provide leadership. But policies on urban development, infrastructure design, welfare priorities and information technology must cohere to get to the 2030 goals.
(With inputs from G Ananthakrishnan)