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.
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:
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?
The Hindu’s Facebook page today asked Chennai residents for their views on the MRTS, after a robbery in the Velachery station yesterday. A woman clerk was robbed by two men after the last train had left. Here’s what the users said on the MRTS system.
On Saturday, The Hindu reported the reaction to the lack of safety on the MRTS with two pieces: Here is one as seen on Facebook.
The discussion on social media was itself summarised in this report:
I made this video today about a deluxe MTC bus on route 11H towards Broadway showing how the city’s main transport system is coming apart at the seams.
The Aeroexpress bus service to Hyderabad city from Rajiv Gandhi International Airport is marginally better than Chennai for two reasons: fare and configuration. The bright red buses are distinct, and advertised on the airport website. Chennai has two sorry-looking mini-buses that charge a lot for the distance covered. What is more, you cannot load a decent sized suitcase in the Chennai buses, while Hyderabad has properly configured luggage racks (picture). Hyderabad lacks good communication, though and it is a.bit of an effort to know which Aeroexpress goes on which route. The driver has no communication facility with passenger cabin, and we saw passengers crouch near a small partition window and shout communicate to the driver about stops. Why not electronic display of stops?