The MTC bus workers strike in Chennai since yesterday evening is pretty effective, and the impact is severe on some classes of commuters more than others, and some areas like the suburbs, over others.
Here are some possibilities of moving across parts of the city, while the issue gets sorted out:
1. Check the distance to the nearest route where share autos – mini vans – operate. You can get one somewhere close in T.Nagar, Valluvar Kottam, Loyola College, Nungambakkam on College Road, Luz-Mylapore, Inner Ring Road near Ashok Nagar, Tirumangalam, Vadapalani junction, Mogappair, and Velachery-St. Thomas Mount.
2. Use the Chennai Metro if you are going from a point close-by from the limited service, to Kilpauk, Anna Nagar, Tirumangalam, Koyambedu CMBT bus stand, Vadapalani, Ashok Nagar, St. Thomas Mount, Nanganallur and airport.
3. Ola and Uber had regular operations since morning, and it should be possible to get a cab, including share rides. Try Ola Auto and you just may be lucky.
4. Suburban/MRTS trains are an option touching Central, Velachery, Tambaram, and other regular points ranging from Chengalpattu to Gummidipoondi. Download the UTS app and Rs.100 to it, to go paperless (e-ticket) on the Beach-Tambaram route.
5. For inter-city movements, check out an app like Bla Bla Car, taking care to check out the record of people offering rides. Caveat emptor: Do not use this option if you are doubtful, or if you think you carry a higher risk, like a woman travelling alone.
6. Autorickshaws continue to operate, but you need good negotiating skills and knowledge of distances to avoid being fleeced.
Share autos, or 7-seater mini vans operating in the hundreds in Chennai are illegal, and cannot pick up and drop passengers at random, the Tamil Nadu Transport Department said in reply to an RTI query that I filed in March, 2017. The RTI application was filed to the Secretary, Transport, Tamil Nadu, who forwarded it to the Transport Commissioner, who in turn sent it to RTOs.
The response of the department exposes the lack of a regulated scheme for shared transport in Tamil Nadu, although such services have been operational for a few years now and are highly popular with commuters, especially women. Even the Chennai Metro Rail acknowledges the popularity of these services as feeders from some of its stations. The share autos also provide night transport till almost 2 a.m., which the State government has failed to.
The monopoly bus operator in Chennai, the MTC, has responded grudgingly to the need for small-format transport and introduced a couple of hundred 24 seater mini-buses (besides at least 12 standing passengers) which are also well-patronised. However, for apparently political reasons [not wanting to upset autorickshaw interests], the MTC has not expanded the scheme of mini-buses in a targeted fashion, connecting railway and Metro stations, residential areas and bus termini.
On the RTI query, when asked whether 7-seater or 6-seater vehicles could operate under any law in the city of Chennai and the neighbouring districts of Thiruvallur and Kancheepuram as ‘share autos’, taking passengers from the roadside for drop at random, the Regional Transport Office, Chennai (North West), Chennai 600102 said “No” in its response dated April 3.
So what action is being taken by the Transport Department to regulate the operation of such ‘share autos’ – currently seen operating from areas like Mylapore, Thiruvanmiyur, Nesappakkam, Porur, Chennai Central, T.Nagar, Anna Nagar and Mogappair?
“The Motor Vehicles Inspectors are conducting regular checks on these vehicles and booking for offences committed,” the RTI reply said.
The RTO (North West) also provided figures of how many 7-seater and 6-seater vehicles were given taxi permit for operation in the city of Chennai, Thiruvallur and Kancheepuram, within its jurisdiction.
The details of the taxi permits are as follows:
Data from Regional Transport Officer (North West), Chennai, 600102
The RTO did not respond to questions on whether the Transport Department had any rules in existence or proposed any to enable the operation of shared passenger vehicles, using commercial transport apps for smartphones and on the internet, such as Ola Share and Uberpool. “This office is only a Regional office. Hence the question not related to this office,” the reply stated.
A similar response was given to a question on whether the Transport Department was taking steps to incorporate the Union Ministry of Road Transport and Highways report on Guidelines for Taxi Cab Operations in Cities for urban mobility, which MoRTH had published in December 2016 and which was sent by the Union Joint Secretary for Transport, Abhay Damle to the Secretaries of Transport in the States.
Need for answers
Both Chennai Metro and MTC are members of the UITP, the international association of public transport which will hold its summit in Montreal, Canada between May 15 and 17, 2017.
Forming a proper scheme to introduce regulated shared modes of transport in Chennai, besides expanding the static bus network of the MTC are major issues before the city. Delegates from Chennai will be called upon to explain their plan to meet these objectives during and after the UITP conference.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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!
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):
The time is approaching when we must choose a new government for Tamil Nadu. For commuters, the past five years under the AIADMK have been literally expensive in the following ways:
MTC BUS SERVICE IN LOW GEAR: In spite of rapid economic growth, the AIADMK government did not improve Chennai MTC bus service. The bus fleet in real terms remained stagnant, since there was no modernisation programme to run good quality buses that meet at least national standards, if not international ones. By contrast, bus commuters had to merely watch personal car use grow by leaps and bounds with the latest products hitting the roads, some of them made in the city itself – air-conditioned, plush, equipped with great audio, video and given the benefit of government-sponsored road space. It helped that oil price fell, and in spite of increase in pollution, the State government did nothing to encourage the use of public transport. Buses: 3,500 approximately, static. Cars and other private vehicles: a few hundred registered everyday. According to this policy brief put out by TERI in 2014 Chennai has the second highest ratio of cars to population at 100 per 1,000 people after Delhi, against the national average of 13/1,000. Both the DMK and the AIADMK have focused on the growth of car production, while not making significant improvements to bus mobility – despite the fact that Ashok Leyland, located in Chennai, has been announcing several new bus products over the years, including the Janbus. The only “modernisation” of MTC took place with funds from the Union Government through the JNNURM scheme in 2009, although even there, the standards for buses were diluted citing the recession.
HALF-HEARTED MINI BUS SCHEME: The small buses introduced by the AIADMK after much delay were actually the idea of the DMK, which announced the scheme in 2010. However, after the change of government in 2011, it took another two years before the concept became reality in a limited number of routes served initially by 50 buses, as this report notes. This figure went up to a total of 165 buses early in February 2016 (see this report) with the addition of 30 routes that connect some interior areas and in some cases, bus termini and train stations. It remains far from scientific, since there is no policy to connect mass transit stations through such a feeder service.
DELAY IN METRO OPENING: The AIADMK took its time to open even the small segment of the Chennai Metro between Koyambedu and Alandur, and overpriced it to the detriment of commuters – it does not attract any significant patronage as a result, does not apparently cut congestion on Inner Ring Road (Jawaharlal Nehru Road) on this stretch, and does not contribute to reduced carbon emissions, in spite of the heavy investment. The delay in the opening of the Metro robbed Chennai of clean air, says this report. It is even more frustrating for the Chennai commuter and the visitor, that the Metro work has repeatedly stalled during the five years of the AIADMK regime. Even if the factors were external, such as the Russian contractor walking out, the State did not really protest. By contrast, the government has been pushing for other works with great enthusiasm – the indifference to the Metro system (Ms. Jayalalithaa has a declared preference for mono rail), has clearly resulted in the delay and a representative of the Japanese funding agencies, Muneo Kurauchi, chairman, Japan-India Business Co-operation Committee openly criticised the Jayalalithaa government on this at the high-profile Global Investors Meet.
The failure of the AIADMK government during the past five years has hit the consumer in terms of inflation in transport costs, unpredictability of travel, inefficiency, risk of accidents, pollution and loss of quality of life. There is no law that compels State governments to provide a measurable level of public transport, both in terms of quantity and assessed satisfaction of users. The gaps in the system are filled by companies like Uber, Ola (with cabs, discounted shared cab rides and autorickshaws), and unregulated share autorickshaws that do a lot of service, but illegally, by operating cramped 7-seater carriages that carry up to 15 people sometimes.
We need a revamp of Chennai public transport. I intend to write more on this in coming weeks before the elections. Five years ago, I wrote this post on who would give us better wheels, Karunanidhi or Jayalalithaa? What do you think?
Here is a video of a low-floor Irizar battery-powered electric bus with wheelchair ramp facility operating in London. We wish India also provides comfortable travel for its millions of commuters who help cut congestion, pollution and the environment.
Campaigners on climate change are hoping that more people will switch from personal vehicles to public transport. Emissions from transport are a significant percentage of atmospheric carbon gases, which contribute to climate change. One piece of Indian Environment Ministry data puts share of transport in total energy-related emissions at 14 per cent (see this presentation on UNEP).
Yet, it is clear that the AIADMK government shares none of this concern. It recently added some buses to the Chennai MTC fleet which are two generations behind even the standards set by the Narendra Modi government for the AMRUT scheme, not to mention smart city goals.
As the picture taken today on Anna Road at TVS shows, there are four steps to climb to get to the floor of the bus, which should translate into some 1100 mm of floor height. This is simply unacceptable, as it is impossible for elderly passengers and those with disabilities, and even children to use. In the JNNURM scheme, Chennai was sanctioned 800 buses with a floor height of 900/850 mm floor height (which is still high).
Why is the AIADMK government building bus bodies with such a hostile design, when bus technology has advanced so much that people expect it to replicate the “metro” experience – with low floor, damped suspension, air-conditioning and good route boards, besides GPS data? Why did not this government buy a single low-floor Janbus from Ashok Leyland, which is a TN-based company? Is it because the government thinks, cynically, that the traveller should have no comfort in his commute?
Quite an unintelligent move by the Jayalalithaa government, and requiring censure as much from the Indian Central government, as from climate campaigners. The International Association of Public Transport (UITP) should take note of how its member, MTC is a laggard when it comes to bus design, and also its objective to achieve a “modal shift” – people moving from personal vehicles to buses, trains and other public transport options.
Such outmoded buses lock-in a monopoly bus operator such as MTC into an unfriendly model for years, and the idea that more people would ride the bus out of choice becomes even more remote.