Finally, it looks like the Chennai Metro is ready to roll out services across its full length of 45.1 km in Phase I, nine years after it was approved by the Centre.
As one of the biggest urban infrastructure projects of Chennai, costing upwards of $2.5 billion, it upgrades the city’s profile globally, although it is nowhere near the emerging international paradigm of Mobility as a Service (MaaS). In fact, it is a pretty scattered set of options in Tamil Nadu’s capital, with a mix of regulated systems for low quality government-run buses, suburban trains operated by the Central government, the Metro added now, regulated but essentially lawless feeders like autorickshaws, along with a growing share of unregulated “Share Auto” vans. There are, of course, Uber and Ola.
From Airport to Washermenpet, and Central to St. Thomas Mount, the Chennai Metro is set to offer a faster, modern commuting alternative. Yet, it is doing many things gravely wrong, and can never achieve its full potential until these terrible mistakes are corrected.
Chennai Metro is not in sync with the Metropolitan Transport Corporation bus service:
The MTC bus service in Chennai is already in decline, since it has shifted its focus away from urban operations to suburbs like Sholinganallur on the IT corridor, Poonamallee, with just a few old services still operating in the core city. I pointed that out in this tweet recently, responding to similar concerns in Mumbai.
MTC’s mini-buses, meant to be affordable feeder services, are disappearing over alleged revenue declines although they were never operated with scientific routing. They failed to link railway stations, bus termini and early Metro stations. Recently, the AIADMK government diverted four of these feeder buses to Salem, depriving Chennai. Many others are being used merely as staff buses now, and not on routes.
Such trends run counter to the claim made by MTC that mini buses are actually connecting suburban railway stations, bus termini and Metro stations. JICA (the Japan International Cooperation Agency) which has part-funded Phase I of the Chennai Metro should at least now get both MTC and the Metro systems to sit down and arrive at a plan to align all available routes with the new train system. What we mean is that all buses that pass a Metro station currently should compulsorily have a stop at that station. This does not require any fresh investment, and actually helps both buses and train systems, not to speak of passengers.
Buses stopping at Metro stations should carry a prominent sticker on their windscreen that says the route is a “Metro Link”.
The State government should sanction permits to share autos from Metro stations:
The present “official” scheme of running a few autorickshaws and taxis as share vehicles from select Metro stations is poorly thought out, because a train carries a 1,000 passengers when it is full, and this is not a viable feeder service option at all. So there has to be an expansion that is legally enabled. Allowing designated feeders will help passengers go from their doorstep to the Metro stations, which the present auto-taxi shares permitted by CMRL does not enable.
Since the AIADMK government is not averse to CMRL providing some limited cab services even now from the stations, without any legal changes to the taxi permit scheme, there is no reason why this should not be formalised. The Motor Vehicles Act amendments that the NDA government failed to introduce contained a provision for such liberalisation.
Moreover, share autorickshaws by the thousands have been allowed by both DMK and AIADMK governments to run in various parts of Chennai, and there is no reason why this system should not be permitted through a change to the rules and streamlined to connect Metro stations, suburban stations and MTC bus termini. A proper scheme will bring more entrants into the system and expand availability. It will also reduce the need to operate personal vehicles, thereby reducing congestion and pollution, which is a growing concern (see below).
Extend pedestrian infrastructure along all roads to help walkers comfortably take the Metro:
Both DMK and AIADMK governments have allowed rampant encroachment of walking spaces in Chennai over the years, and the meagre efforts to restore them near the Metro stations is simply not adequate to bring back walking as a mobility option.
Footpaths conforming to the Indian Roads Congress standards should be built, and hawking regulated to ensure that it does not impede the movement of pedestrians. That means, size and location of hawking establishments should be defined, and maintained with accountability fixed on local body officials and Highways Department engineers.
Raise the game for MTC buses:
It is all too evident that the AIADMK government, as well as the NDA government in New Delhi have stifled the growth of urban bus transport. While modern trains are being bought at great expense, buses remain outdated in terms of design and comfort. There is nothing to capture the imagination of a new generation of passengers. Everything else is modern, except the bus service. There is not even information on services on smartphones! Moreover, a great deal of internal corruption has affected operators such as MTC.
How did the Narendra Modi government let down bus users? By allowing corporations such as MTC to water down the national bus code (AIS052), which was supposed to improve the comfort and safety of passengers.
The priority for 2019 should be to tighten the bus code, and allow only low floor, air-conditioned buses in city operations. This should be taken up by the next government at the Centre.
The top priority for today should be the bare-bones, old-style linking of buses and trains in Chennai. The completion of the Chennai Metro and the recent operationalisation of the Chennai Unified Metropolitan Transport Authority (CUMTA) must provide the impetus to achieve that.