Connectivity or Complexity?

– Jarrett Walker in Human Transit

Let’s face it, for those of us living in places that are a kilometre or more away from a Chennai Metro Station, there’s very little help to get a ride to the station – by bus, mini bus or share auto. We have to make our own costly arrangements.

This is not helping the thousands of people who want to use the CMRL system more often and regularly, and it is not useful to CMRL which is built at a great investment to serve the city. People want to get on board those metro trains without much effort, and those trains could serve them well too, besides improving CMRL’s ability to strengthen its facilities or expand using its own funds.

So what stands in the way of bridging that gap?

I asked CMRL through a Right to Information application, the following questions, broadly:

Chennai Metro station at Teynampet
The Teynampet Metro station, where the SIET bus stop has been moved closer to the entrance. (seen under tree, background).
  • Has CMRL held discussions with Chennai’s bus operator, MTC, about integrating bus services with train stations?
  • How many times did you meet and talk so you could help the public?
  • What steps have been taken to provide last mile – or feeder – connectivity to help people get from residential areas to Metro stations, and from the stations to wherever they want to go?

CMRL gave me the following answers as of March 19, 2019, not all of it complete, though.

  • CMRL conducted joint studies along with MTC and Greater Chennai Corporation during 2016, 2017 and 2018 to “review and finalise the existing bus stops locations” and on operating feeder services.
  • In addition to MTC feeder bus services, CMRL operates its own feeders like share autos, cab, cycles, tempo traveller, electric autos etc at selected Metro Rail stations, as follows:
    • Share Auto facility at Tirumangalam, Koyambedu, Ekkattuthangal, Alandur, St. Thomas Mount, Guindy, Little Mount stations
    • Pickup and drop-off cab facility at Koyambedu, Vadapalani, Alandur, AG DMS, Anna Nagar East, Egmore.
    • Hired bicycle facility at all Metro stations
    • E-bikes at Guindy, Alandur, Vadapalani, Anna Nagar Tower
    • E-autorickshaw at Alandur Metro
    • Tempo Traveller at Alandur Metro

To a question on feeder services at Thousand Lights, LIC and Government Estate Metro stations, CMRL said:

  • The fleet size of the vehicles will be decided based on actual passenger demand on each route

But then, CMRL apparently does not have a strong demand assessment system in place, if their answer to a question on what it has done so far in this area is any indication. It said:

CMRL has undertaken studies like Multi Modal Integration along Metro Rail services to ease and enhance the metro services. Feeder systems and other infrastructure improvements have also been taken under consideration as part of the study. CMRL jointly with Greater Chennai Corporation (GCC), MTC and other key stakeholders is taking necessary steps in implementing the same.

– RTI reply

Finally, I asked about steps to be taken during 2019 to estimate the demand for Metro feeder connectivity.

CMRL says it has floated a tender for last mile services:

As part of provision of first and last mile connectivity service, CMRL is currently operating feeder services such as Share Auto, Cab, Bicycle etc for selected operational Metro stations. Recently CMRL has invited the tender for provision of first and last mile connectivity for all Phase One Metro stations and the same is under finalisation stage.

As someone who does an #activecommute almost everyday, like tens of thousands of Chennai residents, I would urge CMRL do the following:

Why does CMRL not demand that Share Auto services be formalised in Chennai, with licenses to operate from its stations? In the present scheme of things, these share autos seen in West Mambalam are illegal, yet highly popular.
  • Get MTC to stop its buses closest to all Metro stations, all of which have new pavements, multiple entrances with well laid-out space for bus stops in between. Some, like Nandanam, have bus bays.
  • At least two compulsory bus routes, possibly mini buses, at a flat fare of Rs.10 between Metro stations and the nearest suburban train station or bus terminus, passing through residential areas in a 500 metre radius. These must be good, comfortable and low floor buses that match the quality of Metro trains.
  • A feeder frequency of at least one in ten minutes, preferably one in five minutes.
  • Match the availability of feeder services with the train timings, which have been extended from 4.30 a.m. to 11 p.m. effective March 30.
  • Ensure walkability of the foopaths, with no encroachments or hindrance, for a kilometre area around all Metro stations with help from the Greater Chennai Corporation.
Most of Chennai’s interior pavements are occupied and unavailable to walkers. This is the Kodambakkam suburban railway station road.

And importantly:

Open up the real time train operation time data via an API to help build mobile phone apps.

This will have the added benefit of enhancing the profile of the Chennai Metro network globally

I tried to get some insight into the call centre system at CMRL, which is supposed to help you locate a feeder service.

On their suggestion, I called up a cab operator on 9500200841, and was told that it would only come to two locations that are 300 metres from the nearest entrance of AG-DMS station. There are two cabs operating on the service. Obviously, this is not a viable feeder service. Neither is taking an Uber or Ola auto, since they add to the cost of the total commute, in fact more than even the (costly) Metro ride.

Quite simply, CMRL has to sit down with MTC and get this feeder issue sorted out in a manner that helps the commuter.

At the start of the article, I have a quote from Jarrett Walker’s absorbing book, Human Transit. It is the title of a chapter on how intersecting, short routes actually enhance transport service and reduce wait times, compared to transport providers trying to offer long direct connections to individual centres of activity – such as a college, business centre or mall. It’s a very valid point in Chennai’s context, where MTC has given up on inner city areas, and connects high density suburban termini, such as Poonamallee, Tambaram with CMBT and Broadway, with some suburbs linked to T. Nagar. We need more buses flowing through our core areas like T. Nagar, K.K. Nagar, Nungambakkam, Egmore, Kodambakkam, Ashok Nagar, Mylapore, RA Puram and Besant Nagar. These must intersect frequently, to help people change and move faster, using the Metro wherever it is close by.

This is the approach that can reduce financial stress on all transport operators in Chennai, and increase choice and frequency for commuters. It will save them money, and boost the city’s economy.