Chennai’s popular ‘share autos’ operating illegally: Transport Dept to RTI query

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.

Shared transport in Chennai
A 7-seater share auto in Chennai. Usually, these vehicles carry a minimum of 9 people, and at night, up to 13, charging between Rs.7 and Rs.30 per head for a 1 km -10 km ride.

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:

Year 7 SEATER 6 SEATER
2011 12 3
2012 05 01
2013 01
2014 05
2015 03 21
2016 02

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.

 

 

 

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Chennai Metro fares may be subsidising station car parking

Who pays for the construction of the parking lot at Chennai Central station that the Times of India says will have seven levels to keep 4,000 cars (story here) ? The other development of the Chennai Central tunnelling work reaching a milestone with the last of the TBM points forging through on Friday is reported here by ToI and here by New Indian Express.

chennai_metro_rail_at_koyambedu
A Chennai Metro train at Koyambedu station. Photo: KARTY JazZ, Creative Commons

In the absence of any differentiation in the costing of the Metro construction between core facilities and such add-ons that have no universal value, we must assume that the cost is distributed across the entire system – which means, it is loaded into the fare that everyone pays.

If this is not the case, Chennai Metro Rail Limited is duty-bound to explain how it is arriving at parking fees, in order to segregate the expenditure and cost recovery.
Since Japan, whose investors have funded the Metro, is also deeply interested in India’s car sector, having a thriving business in the country with its Toyotas, Suzukis, Hondas and so on, it is likely that there is a convergence of interest between the local car lobby and the decision.

Why criticise commuters?

Many people criticise bus, rail commuters for demanding better services at affordable fares, which are not anyway available. There is no effort at bringing link buses to the Metro stations. Even pedestrian access to the Metro stations in Vadapalani, Koyambedu, Alandur are crudely designed, and hence dysfunctional.

Secondly, while we welcome mass mobility systems, Chennai Metro Rail maintains an aloofness with users characteristic of all public services in India. It does not think public transport is a partnership, rather a top down offering to helpless users. Thus, its proposed Chennai Metro app (for Android) may not have real time information on trains, just static maps, an outdated model. The report on the app in The Hindu is here.

An ‘App-less’ Chennai Metro, MTC

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.

metro-out
Nice Alstom trains, but too cold and remote. Chennai Metro at Ashok Nagar. Photo: G. Ananthakrishnan

 

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.

chennaimap
Schematic Chennai rail map by IRFCA, a voluntary effort 

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.

standard-tube-map-new
The London Underground is probably the best mapped system in the world. 

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.

Not a smart move by Chennai MTC
The S30 waiting at Liberty Bus stop on a trip towards Ashok Pillar. Photo: G. Ananthakrishnan

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.

 

 

 

Why do you think Chennai Metro is low on riders?

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.

metro
First world comfort, but poor connectivity. Photo: G. Ananthakrishnan (Usage: CC)
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:

One of the arguments was that if the alignment had been along the OMR, commuters in the upper echelons living there would have patronised the Metro more, as they could pay higher fares.

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!

https://twitter.com/TheMetroRailGuy/status/720838728252395520

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!

3 ways the AIADMK govt lightened your wallet

busview

 

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
Not a smart move by Chennai MTC
The S30 small bus waiting at Liberty bus stop on a trip towards Ashok Pillar. 

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?

 

Waiting for the Chennai Metro – Ashok Nagar station

Here is a view of the Ashok Nagar Metro station near the Ashok Pillar today. Chennai waits for the first leg – Koyambedu to Alandur – of the CMRL to be opened.

The Hindu carried a review of the stations this morning. Read that here. Some existing MTC mini buses operate from outside this station. Ironically, similar mini-bus connectivity is not available from most suburban train stations in Chennai.

There is no clarity yet about the nature of feeder transport that the CMRL will arrange from its stations. Chennai does not have a functioning transport regulator, and the AIADMK government has not moved ahead with demand-based services in the form of shared vans, mini buses and regular buses, both to extended destinations, local catchment and to connect bus and rail stations. That lacuna includes lack of advance planning for the upcoming Metro.

Ashok Nagar Chennai Metro station.
The Ashok Nagar Metro station. Note the pillar placement on the footpath that leaves a narrow space at left. Photo: G. Ananthakrishnan

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