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.
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!
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!
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:
This board at the junction of Anna Salai and the Chintadripet MRTS station shows everything that is wrong with the transport information culture in Tamil Nadu’s capital. A couple of years ago, this used to indicate that the MRTS station is just opposite. Today, it stands rusting and blank, no one to write the simple message that trains run from the station just50 metres away to Velachery, Beach and with connections to Tambaram, Arakkonam, Gummidipoondi and so on. This shows that no one in the Tamil Nadu government is serious about helping the commuter. The media is equally disinterested in transport information issues.
A spate of newspaper reports and analyses in recent weeks on the tattered state of Chennai public transport should ordinarily evoke a strong governmental response to set things right. The Hindu has highlighted the poor planning that could bedevil the upcoming Metro and Monorail infrastructure in this piece. There is some attention devoted to the crucial issue of pedestrian mobility that is so vital for the new rail infrastructure to attain critical mass. It would have served the purpose to also point out that even for existing suburban rail and MRTS, this aspect has been ignored completely, with very visible consequences.
That point is made in a superbly laid out spread of stories in The New Indian Express today. The story on the scary nature of MRTS stations is here, and the collapse of walkability in Chennai is here.
What is disturbing is that both The Hindu and The New Indian Express reinforce, subtly, the point that public transport options ought to turn a profit in some way. This is what The Hindu’s piece says: “Some Metropolitan Transport Corporation buses, especially the deluxe and AC services are also likely to be rerouted to avoid two premium category public transport services along the same road corridor” (emphasis added).
This kind of statement stems from the belief, even among some so-called experts, that the general public is entitled only to sub-standard transport options, which is quite the reverse from public transport advocacy in more mature countries. It is also of a piece with the view of the two leading “Kazhagams” in Tamil Nadu, that public facilities must be bare, badly maintained, poor in information systems and generally not provide comfort. This sort of attitude is straight out of the “Car Industry Bible”, which requires bad public infrastructure to exist, in order to keep attracting new users.
In the case of The New Indian Express, the writer falls for the well-worn argument that public transport should produce a profit. That the MRTS does not generate enough funds due to lack of station infrastructure, connectivity options and lack of service orientation is not sufficiently stressed.
Our transport operators and the media covering urban mobility issues would find it illuminating to read the recent interview given by Dr. Hans Rat, the Secretary-General of the UITP, which is the 92-country, 3,400 member union of international transport operators.
The key point that Dr. Rat makes in the context of service provision is this: “Transport Operators must have a customer-oriented service culture. ” The place that is doing that, he says, is Dubai in the Asian region. Crucially, it is able to get the best returns for the system because of integration. Bangkok, Hong Kong and some other cities are also moving ahead. This is all so different from the Indian experience.
What the Indian media now must do is to ask why cities that were provided massive funding by the UPA government under JNNURM with the caveat that they must have Unified Transport Authorities have put the issue on the back-burner.