A spate of newspaper reports and analyses in recent weeks on the tattered state of Chennai public transport should ordinarily evoke a strong governmental response to set things right. The Hindu has highlighted the poor planning that could bedevil the upcoming Metro and Monorail infrastructure in this piece. There is some attention devoted to the crucial issue of pedestrian mobility that is so vital for the new rail infrastructure to attain critical mass. It would have served the purpose to also point out that even for existing suburban rail and MRTS, this aspect has been ignored completely, with very visible consequences.
That point is made in a superbly laid out spread of stories in The New Indian Express today. The story on the scary nature of MRTS stations is here, and the collapse of walkability in Chennai is here.
What is disturbing is that both The Hindu and The New Indian Express reinforce, subtly, the point that public transport options ought to turn a profit in some way. This is what The Hindu’s piece says: “Some Metropolitan Transport Corporation buses, especially the deluxe and AC services are also likely to be rerouted to avoid two premium category public transport services along the same road corridor” (emphasis added).
This kind of statement stems from the belief, even among some so-called experts, that the general public is entitled only to sub-standard transport options, which is quite the reverse from public transport advocacy in more mature countries. It is also of a piece with the view of the two leading “Kazhagams” in Tamil Nadu, that public facilities must be bare, badly maintained, poor in information systems and generally not provide comfort. This sort of attitude is straight out of the “Car Industry Bible”, which requires bad public infrastructure to exist, in order to keep attracting new users.
In the case of The New Indian Express, the writer falls for the well-worn argument that public transport should produce a profit. That the MRTS does not generate enough funds due to lack of station infrastructure, connectivity options and lack of service orientation is not sufficiently stressed.
Our transport operators and the media covering urban mobility issues would find it illuminating to read the recent interview given by Dr. Hans Rat, the Secretary-General of the UITP, which is the 92-country, 3,400 member union of international transport operators.
The key point that Dr. Rat makes in the context of service provision is this: “Transport Operators must have a customer-oriented service culture. ” The place that is doing that, he says, is Dubai in the Asian region. Crucially, it is able to get the best returns for the system because of integration. Bangkok, Hong Kong and some other cities are also moving ahead. This is all so different from the Indian experience.
What the Indian media now must do is to ask why cities that were provided massive funding by the UPA government under JNNURM with the caveat that they must have Unified Transport Authorities have put the issue on the back-burner.