By G. Ananthakrishnan
How people perceive safety on public transport is a key factor that determines its popularity and use. This is an attribute that acquires particular significance in India, and other developing countries, due to poor connect between users and operators.
Safety is accorded low priority by State governments, since they look at public transport as an offering for the socially and economically backward, and not as a full-fledged mobility option.
I say this because an experience on an MTC bus on route 25G to Poonamallee from Anna Square on the night of November 24, at 11.20 p.m. makes personal vehicles seem a safer option than green mobility on buses.
A passenger waiting at Safire stop became belligerent, because the car in which I had come to the bus stop, he alleged, blocked his view. I alighted from the car to board the same bus. His charge was false, because a bus is taller than a car and it was right behind.
What followed was a series of abuses and threats from the offended man to me, which I had no choice but to respond equally vociferously – word for word, abuse for abuse.
The incident ended with one more verbal confrontation at Liberty stop, where I asked the thuggish passenger to come to the police patrol car to sort the matter out. He carefully avoided it. A policeman who came up looking at the scene merely ensured that nothing worse happened. The bus went on its way with the thug on it.
Although this is not a terribly threatening incident other than for the prospect of violence by the thug, who was in his forties, it pointed to several difficulties in the use of late night public transport in Chennai.
For one, MTC buses are patronised by many people of a dissolute background late in the evening. They are often nothing more than wastrels and thugs, giving bus crews also a hard time. Many of them are drunk.
In such a situation, it becomes important for the crew to act in the interests of passengers in general, and rope in the Police where necessary. Such enforcement holds the key to a strong perception that public transport is safe in Chennai at any time. In many British cities, buses are now equipped with CCTV cameras, just like newer Metro trains.
During the altercation on board the 25G bus, the crew kept away, not wanting to maintain order on the bus. No enquiries were made by the conductor, who is responsible for the smooth operation of the bus.
It should be the standard protocol to stop the bus at the nearest Police patrol car, and bring the incident to the notice of the personnel. Such an approach would prompt thugs and drunks to think a second time before turning belligerent. Genuine passengers would feel empowered.
Graham Currie and others write in this article in the Journal of Public Transportation that, “Overall, the research suggests that feelings of anxiety and discomfort associated with travelling with people you do not know is the most influential factor driving negative feelings of personal safety on public transport.” Moreover, they say, actual experiences influence perception even if the statistical evidence shows low rates of crime incidents.
Oxford Circus incident
Transport safety was, ironically, implicated in another incident the same night at the same time in distant London’s Oxford Circus tube station. An altercation on the platform between two individuals triggered an alert that was reported instantly around the world. Panic caused injuries and material losses to many passengers and even unconnected people in nearby areas, as they fell down or dropped their belongings to flee.
After what has happened in train stations in Brussels and a couple of German towns, and even in China, the apprehension of physical harm sets in among many users of public transport. The personal automobile then comes to represent a safer place, which causes severe harm to the environment and adds to congestion in urban spaces.
The very reasoning of public transport as a safe, comfortable and affordable alternative is lost.
Record the evidence
It is of course, interesting to consider what options are available to a passenger when faced with a situation threatening her personal safety, and at the very least, expectation of harassment-free travel.
In the Chennai incident, I think it would have been more productive for me to record the altercation on video, which would yield invaluable evidence not just of the immediate occurrence, but about whether the thug or criminal involved is wanted for other such incidents.
That opportunity was unfortunately not seized in the commotion.
If internet connectivity is not an issue, it would even be optimal to livecast the incident on Facebook or YouTube since it provides a new perspective and would alert everyone to an ongoing threat to safety in a public vehicle.
Of course, many bus stops in Chennai lack decent street lighting, making it difficult to even evaluate threats before a journey can commence after dusk.