Uber Everything finds a ready urban transport vacuum to fill

Today’s point to note in the world of transport is Uber Everything, story here.

At the International Transport Forum (https://twitter.com/ITF_Forum) conference in Leipzig earlier this year, I heard from Alain Flausch, secretary general of the UITP, that buses, urban rail and trams have been the original pioneers of the sharing economy.

That is undoubtedly true, and they continue to innovate by incorporating new technologies into operations, and for passenger information. What is more, the traditional operators providing universal service also see the new entrants as partners, who can extend their reach through regular services or exclusive PT partnerships.

Not so in India, though. Here, a massive surge in demand for public transport and a struggling public sector with outmoded technology combined with lack of investment have created an enormous unserved market, ripe for picking by entities such as Uber.

Thus, Uber Everything is all set to crop the surplus that could have been easily mopped up by public operators, but who are now left with passengers who will readily migrate to affordable, comfortable and modern alternatives.

I can imagine an 15 to 18 seater air-conditioned bus (Picture below shows Force Motors small bus for route operations) operated by Uber Everything with Real Time Passenger Information along defined arteries finding commuters flocking to it in droves. That is the traffic that the local monopoly bus operator could have got, if it had planned ahead.

Most Indian cities have under-performing bus systems. They have uncomfortable buses built on lorry chassis without damped suspensions, with a floor height of 1,100 mm on average. Their seats are not designed with normal ergonomic considerations, but for maximised revenue. They have no GPS in most cities, perhaps with the exception of Bengaluru’s BMTC. Thus, they have no linkages with smartphone applications, and cannot provide much-needed real time information to passengers either on phones or at bus stops or termini.

Chennai offers rich potential

In such a milieu, it is inevitable that an Uber Everything, which is reportedly to be trialed in Bengaluru, finds excellent support, just as its recently launched UberPool has. Chennai, with its Old Mahabalipuram Road (Rajiv Gandhi Expressway or IT corridor), St. Thomas Mount-Sriperumbudur artery of manufacturing units, and the Chennai – Chengalpattu GST Road with residential, commercial and IT presence, is also a ready – and rich – prospect for such an arrangement.

At the Leipzig 2015 ITF forum, David Ploufe, the senior vice-president for policy and strategy at Uber said "Uber and other services like Zipcar and Bla bla car are part of a new mobility ecosystem." Since then, the phenomenon has only grown stronger, and expanded to several new cities around the world, including India.

It will be interesting to watch how this experiment fares, although there is little doubt that if it is allowed to operate with minimal regulation (as Chennai is allowing unregulated share autos to run services by the thousands already), travel demand management will enter a whole new era.

If traditional bus systems are intelligent, they will run high capacity systems between termini, along well-recognised routes, leaving the small bus system of the sharing economy to connect these termini with neighbourhoods.

Leave a comment

Filed under Transport

Chennai’s MTC starves S30 with solo weekend service

When they were introduced after a long delay, the ‘small buses‘ of Chennai’s Metropolitan Transport Corporation were intended to cater to congested areas that had little or no public transport connectivity – these places were at the mercy of autorickshaws that do not ply by meter. In some areas, they were meant to mop up the revenue being lost to 7-seater taxis that operate illegally, often overloaded to about 12 or even 14 passengers.

S30, operating from Mahalingapuram Ayyappan Temple to Ashok Nagar [Metro Station] via Kodambakkam, Rangarajapuram, West Mambalam and Ashok Nagar is one such small bus route.


On a Saturday evening, there are too few people in this S30 service to Mahalingapuram, in West Mambalam. Photo: G. Ananthakrishnan (CC)

It may sound incredible, but MTC has reduced the number of buses on S30 on Saturdays and Sundays to just one. Yes, one bus.

On other days, there are 2 buses on the route, which means a frequency of approximately 30 minutes. Even on weekdays, if a bus breaks down, the waiting time may be doubled.

On July 2, I waited for this bus at the Ashok Nagar Metro Station for 20 minutes at 7.30 p.m. The conductor later said the route fetched poor returns, sometimes just Rs.350 per shift.

Not a smart move by Chennai MTC

The S30 waiting at Liberty Bus stop on a trip towards Ashok Pillar. Note the wooden board that obscures the LED route display. Photo: G. Ananthakrishnan



MTC management problem

But the problem with the poor collection and low patronage is of MTC’s own making.

The Chennai Metro Rail does not really go anywhere right now, so there are few passengers to take the small buses from Ashok Pillar or Alandur.  But there is another well-patronised train station that S30 and other buses could touch, yet do not: the Kodambakkam Suburban Railway station.

If S30 is re-routed via the Kodambakkam Railway Station rather than cover only Viswanathapuram Main Road, it will attract people who want to reach Rangarajapuram, West Mambalam and Ashok Nagar.

In the future, when Chennai Metro has a fuller service, those who want to go to Kodambakkam station or residential localities nearby can board it at Ashok Nagar. [Story on present ridership is here]

No data insight on passengers

MTC has also shown lack of data insight into the transport demand in Rangarajapuram, where bus connectivity had dwindled over the past 15 years. With better planning, S30 could have been deployed partly on Rangarajapuram Main Road, to create better access (as route S35 does in Jones Road, West Saidapet).

Historically, route 11 D to Parrys/Broadway that used to pass through Rangarajapuram, specifically Rangarajapuram Main Road, has been withdrawn, and refashioned as 11G which does not touch the area – it uses Brindavan Street instead, from Arya Gowda Road.

S30 could have provided some connectivity to the residents of Rangarajapuram area, helping them reach the Kodambakkam Suburban Railway Station in one direction, and the Ashok Pillar bus stop and Metro Station in the other.

These tweaks to the S30 route, together with an increase in the number of services operating on it, are vital to improve its viability. It would be a shame if the route was completely done away with because MTC has not made a proper demand study, and the choice has been imposed without consulting the public.

The pity is that Chennai MTC does not provide real time information on its services to passengers. If a passenger knew the time of arrival of a small bus, or its location, it would be easier to plan the journey.

MTC is the perfect example of India’s transport service providers not keeping pace with technological developments, and the capabilities of smartphones to deliver travel information, even in a major city like Chennai.


Leave a comment

Filed under Ashok Nagar Chennai, Chennai, Metro Rail, MTC, Public Transport, Tamil Nadu Transport, Transport

Sight & Sound: Travel scenes from India



Mats for Yogis? India’s city buses are an interesting place to study the country’s transition. This mat seller found no difficulty in hauling his stuff up four steps into the rickety #Chennai MTC bus on its way to Broadway from Mangadu. Most times, such traders pay a small ‘luggage’ fare to transport their wares to distant markets. Because of lack of modernisation, bus networks in India, even in Metros, do not attract the middle class commuter.Photo: G. Ananthakrishnan (CC – attribution)


1 Comment

June 21, 2016 · 9:43 am

An ‘App-less’ Chennai Metro, MTC

The world’s cities develop a culture of commuting, in which the trains, buses, stations, rickshaws and even pavements acquire a personality for the commuter.


I live in Chennai, where the transport landscape has been evolving without much help from the government. The Chennai Metro, a modern train system but one without a distinct identity – not even a bright logo – is experiencing a long gestation. In the case of the MTC bus system, the only help it received was during the JNNURM scheme of the UPA, when deluxe and air-conditioned buses were added to an ageing fleet. But the A/C option quickly vanished from core city routes and was either diverted to suburban routes or deployed in the upmarket IT corridor.


The other big cultural shift was towards shared transport, in the form of “Share Autos”, the description for 7-seater mini vans owned by entrepreneurs, most of whom have some political patronage. On paper, these share autos with commercial taxi permits are illegal, since they transport passengers just like the buses do, along a route, exhibiting major stops. After dark, some of them take even 12 passengers in space meant for 7. The culture of Chennai takes care of all that: the authorities levy a token fine almost everyday, which the Share Auto cabbie is happy to pay, and the passengers are grateful for the service in a global city where real bus numbers have remained stagnant for the better part of a decade.


These are familiar features of Chennai’s transport scene. More recently, Ola and Uber swooped down on the city, taking the hardened autorickshaw mafia by surprise. Ola even launched an autorickshaw service. The smartphone universe has loved all this.


Nice Alstom trains, but too cold and remote. Chennai Metro at Ashok Nagar. Photo: G. Ananthakrishnan


But the promised icon of the Chennai transport universe, the Chennai Metro, remains a disappointment. It is not yet complete, and the first leg now in operation shows that it may be cold and aloof even in the future. Here’s what I think is making it obscure already: There is none of the excitement or pride of a major Metro rail system even among the people running it. In contrast to, say, Kochi Metro, Chennai has little visibility. No emphasis on identifying colour, no symbol. The only things visible are its barely-literate security personnel, who seem to have a sense of crude ownership of the system, especially since they are asked to do 100 per cent frisking. Like the MTC, they also feel they are doing passengers a favour.


Chennai is also unique in having a Metro with a First Class, in which you have to pay double fare – perhaps a global first, and an amusing decision, because Metro trains are intended to transport people quickly in a span of 10 to 20 minutes, rather than replicate long distance trains in which you sit for an hour or more.

What I would do

If I were running the Chennai Metro, I would have created a bright map by now, explaining to the public how it could be used in conjunction with the Beach-Tambaram and MRTS suburban rail lines. Nicely made maps are icons for the culture of the Metro systems, and I have had the pleasure of experiencing this in London, Paris, Berlin, Munich and New York.


Schematic Chennai rail map by IRFCA, a voluntary effort 

System maps, and smartphone apps, of course, flow from a visual identity. There has to be an emblem for a system, but Chennai Metro has none. It has a funny logo that looks unfinished, is not adequately popularised and is simply not found anywhere in the city, even along the truncated route it operates currently [Koyambedu – Alandur]. That is a pity because Chennai Metro has comfortable climate-controlled coaches from Alstom.


The London Underground is probably the best mapped system in the world. 

I would also have had a few meetings with the user public, which would have effectively brought out the fact that the AIADMK government has not thought it necessary to properly integrate MTC bus operations with the Metro stations, particularly in Alandur.


The half-hearted operation of mini-buses from some of the stations like Ashok Nagar and Alandur should have been replaced by a well-supplied system of small buses going to the surrounding neighbourhood, specifically called Metro Link to brand them. Since no one of consequence uses public transport in Chennai, such integration plans spoken about in the early days of the Chennai Metro lie by the wayside. Things are, of course, worse with MRTS and suburban railways.

Not a smart move by Chennai MTC

The S30 waiting at Liberty Bus stop on a trip towards Ashok Pillar. Photo: G. Ananthakrishnan

I use the description of half-hearted for the Small Buses of MTC because there is only one every 20 or so minutes, with no real time information on when the next one is expected. In some cases, such as S30 [Mahalingapuram to Ashok Pillar], there are only two buses in operation, so you might get one only in 30 minutes if you are lucky.


So currently, you have neither sufficient connectivity nor information about buses that connect the Metro stations, and the Chennai Metro itself is ‘App-less!’ Such neglect calls into question the commitment of our politicians to global goals such as reduction of carbon emissions and mitigation of climate change, through a “modal shift” from personal vehicles to public modes.


The culture of the Chennai commute is evolving under the influence of deprivation – of information, of service, of integration.




Leave a comment

Filed under Ashok Nagar Chennai, Buses, Chennai, CMRL, Commuters, Metro Rail, MRTS, MTC, Transport

Junk MTC bus operated as Express route 26 to Chennai Broadway

Please record my complaint that MTC bus Fleet No. VPI 1023 on route number 26 Cut Express at 11,45 a.m. today [May 11] was unserviceable. It had no working clutch, and stalled at each braking point, engine switching off each time. Driver had to restart the bus a dozen times between Liberty and Anna Salai The Hindu.

My ticket number on the bus was 23191, serial HA 35

Please inform what remedial action you have taken to repair or replace the bus.

[ This complaint was sent to MTC at its only known feedback mechanism, which is an email ID: feedback ]

Leave a comment

Filed under Transport

Why do you think Chennai Metro is low on riders?

A report in The Hindu says the Metro operator, CMRL doesn’t know the reasons for low ridership. Obviously it doesn’t believe in commuter surveys even using their own website + social media.


First world comfort, but poor connectivity. Photo: G. Ananthakrishnan (Usage: CC)

In my view, the Metro in Chennai, with only a small 10 km section in operation currently, and the full 45 km project terribly behind schedule, is more of a novelty because of high fare, lack of integration with the city’s major bus operator MTC (who should be running feeders from stations into the surrounding neighbourhood and to the suburban rail system stations). It was the same story with the MRTS in the early days when it ran upto to Mylapore. MTC did not care about such a facility being available.

I said some of these things on Twitter, as a discussion was sparked off by the news report on low Metro ridership:

One of the arguments was that if the alignment had been along the OMR, commuters in the upper echelons living there would have patronised the Metro more, as they could pay higher fares.

That is certainly true from a purchasing power standpoint, but OMR also needs mass transport connectivity because it is a growth corridor. It needs orderly development.

Since there is no one with responsibility to take a complete view of the city’s networks, all individual parts are neglected. Take my own case. I would like to use trains and buses more and feeders in between, but the costing is such that a shared taxi provided by an App-based company like Ola often does the job better, offering door-to-door ride in an A/C cab, at comparable rates during leaner hours of the day. At other times, they resort to surge pricing, which shifts the advantage back to trains and buses.

It is also interesting that in spite of losing customers to App-based taxis and unauthorised shared vehicles (“Share Autos” in local terminology), the state government networks fail to respond. There is no expansion, no demand assessment. That makes me think something is going on behind the scenes that I cannot see!


Meanwhile The Metro Rail Guy raised the unresolved issue of the Metro station in Alandur being hostile to the very people that it hopes to serve, with no facility to easily cross the wide GST Road outside the station. That’s something I have personal experience of!

Leave a comment

Filed under Buses, Chennai, CMRL, Metro Rail, MTC, Public Transport, Straphangers, Tamil Nadu Transport, Transport, Walking

Exclusive: Why Chennai MTC fleet is falling apart – 2 of 3 buses over 7 years old

At the end of the 5 year term of the AIADMK government in Tamil Nadu, we look at the state of the bus transport network operated in Chennai by Metropolitan Transport Corporation (MTC)

What we found causes a lot of dismay: Nearly two-thirds of the fleet is made up of buses which are more than 7 years old – 2125, to be exact. The addition of new buses has apparently been minimal, and old buses have been running as deluxe and express services without necessary repairs or full maintenance.

It is by now familiar to travellers in Chennai that MTC buses are in a dilapidated condition, and continue to charge deluxe fares even when seats are broken, doors do not work, sharp metal and crude bolts protrude from seats. The LED route boards of the buses have either dimmed beyond usability, or are being obscured by crude painted route boards for some strange reason. Such neglect has happened in a year when the price of diesel was mostly going down.

Many of these deluxe buses were acquired under the Union government’s Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission of the UPA government, when the DMK was in power. A few were introduced by the DMK government even prior to that scheme, the first deluxe services in the city. No major initiative was proposed to augment the Chennai bus fleet during the AIADMK government.

The introduction of small buses was a highlight of the last five years, but even that was delayed. It was originally proposed for Chennai by the DMK, based on the small bus scheme that was introduced in the districts.

The following are other data highlights for MTC, obtained by this blog under the Right to Information Act.

As of January 2016, MTC operated 3,585 scheduled services and during the year January 2015-January 2016, the Corporation added a mere 54 buses to its schedule of services.

No service was removed during this period. Buses were apparently added to the Chennai operations from other state transport corporations, although details were not furnished by MTC. This indicates the low priority accorded to city commuters by the AIADMK government, since these are mofussil buses not designed for city use (wide aisles and entry-exit).

At the Paris Climate Change Conference of the United Framework Convention on Climate Change, India told the world that it intends to cut carbon emissions by modernising its transport system.

On the ground, though, the reality is one of low quality bus systems being operated in even the Metropolitan cities. Now that the NDA government of Narendra Modi has an updated Urban Bus Specification-II, will MTC be compelled to make future acquisitions only in conformity with that? Chennai’s bus system is part of the International Association of Public Transport or UITP.

Here is a graphic on the MTC fleet strength (note the last bar on the number of buses over 7 years old):

Leave a comment

Filed under Bus Rapid Transit, Buses, Chennai, MTC, Public Transport, Transport