Is free transport an idea whose time has come?

It is a welcome surprise that mainstream newspapers are taking cognizance of the idea of free public transit, a theme so far pursued mostly in the blogosphere in India. This report in The Hindu today should at least lead to public debate on the feasibility of highly subsidized, if not entirely free transit which might appear revolutionary and disruptive at present.

The irony is that such a theme comes at a time when the entire transport market in India is in urgent need of reform. For one thing, MTC, which has welcomed the idea of free transport according to the report, has not expanded its fleet in real terms over many years. There has been no boom for bus or rail travel in Chennai, no passenger-friendly initiatives. In fact, MTC is yet to replace the bus shelters it got removed in many sites in the city.

We must conclude, therefore, that the monopoly transport operator finds the idea of free transport so obscure that it has readily accepted it — in the full knowledge that politically there is everything in its favour while in practical terms, it will never be implemented. After all, the Tamil Nadu Government is unable to address even the issue of a viable feeder transport system such as autorickshaws, whose supply is restricted by law, but those permitted to operate do so without any regulations at present.

Obviously, anyone serious about free public transport must address the supply-side issues first. When paid bus services are overflowing it needs little imagination to see that entirely free services are not practical. The first order priority has to be to saturate the subsidised bus and rail travel market with capacity. The MTC can also make it easier for people to use its services through genuine measures. That would include a range of travel passes that are valid on all its services (as BMTC has done in Bangalore) and importantly, make these passes available as widely as mobile phone SIM cards are.

Sadly, MTC support for free public transit is plain doublespeak. Remember that it does not implement even those measures that are available today to facilitate travel.

(You can comment on the piece that appeared in The Hindu on the newspaper website, at the link above)

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