As lockdown 4.0 starts with partial relaxation, and workplaces and work opportunities open up, public transport is an essential service that needs to be planned and operated with adequate precautions in place to prevent spread of COVID-19. Simultaneously, it should be a convenient and affordable option for access to livelihood and other essential needs.
BMTC services are the lifeline of the city’s mobility needs, and the primary or even the only means of transport for a large section of the city’s population. The announcement to restart buses is welcome as it will enable them to get back to work again.
In this context, the advocacy group Bengaluru Bus Prayanikara Vedike (BBPV) would like to make the following some suggestions on operating BMTC buses and addressing the twin crises of public health and economic distress.
Make payment mechanisms safe and inclusive
BMTC has expressed its intention to avoid accepting cash for tickets whenever possible and to switch to UPI payments and issuance of weekly passes. The goal is to minimise physical contact between bus personnel and passengers.
Weekly passes may be more affordable than monthly passes. But for many who have lost their livelihoods or are working at reduced or uncertain wages, buying a week’s pass in advance would still be a challenge. According to the BMTC’s own survey, 52% of riders pay in cash for each trip, while 12% buy daily passes. Hence, cash payment for daily tickets is likely to remain the mainstay for most commuters.
It is, therefore, important to provide alternative contactless payment options where possible. However, equal attention and priority should be accorded to making cash payments safe for commuters and conductors.
Some suggestions in this regard:
- No commuter should be refused service on the grounds of being unable to use the new payment methods and requirements.
- Restricting entry through a single door and installing physical cash boxes at the entry door may be a good contactless way of collecting fares. This can meet the physical distancing requirements. This method has been adopted in other cities around the world.
- The driver and conductor may still need to exchange cash when returning change. Introducing a hand sanitising routine for commuters before and after cash transactions can help minimise the risk in such transactions for conductor and commuter.
- Hand sanitisers must be installed at the entry door for mandatory use by all commuters. Along with the mandatory use of masks, this would protect commuters, conductors and drivers.
- The BMTC can also introduce SMS-based payments, where fare money can be deducted from the talk-time balance. Commuters without a smartphone or without a functional data pack can also buy cashless tickets. While this approach may be more inclusive than QR-code based mechanisms, this can still exclude those who are not digitally literate.
Make BMTC affordable (And reduce the need for cash transactions)
This has been a long-standing demand from commuters. Even in this year’s budget, BBPV and other civil society groups actively petitioned political representatives and ministers for a significant reduction in fares. The current crisis has only accentuated the need further.
We recommend that some or all of the following measures be adopted to reduce the financial burden on commuters:
- Reduce bus fares significantly. A price slab of Rs 5 for 10 km, Rs 10 for 11-20 km, and Rs 15 for > 20 km can be considered. Rationalising the ticket slabs in increments of Rs 5 will also reduce the need for change.
- Issue free monthly passes to workers earning below minimum wages. Similar to the arrangement for garment workers, an arrangement for the larger worker community can be explored in collaboration with the labour and other relevant ministries (for the funds).
- Make BMTC a free service, if possible. The benefit of making public transport free is an idea that has been gaining currency in many cities the world over. The social and individual benefits (in terms of reduced traffic, reduced pollution, reduced fuel usage, improved health, better environment etc) far outweigh the gains from ticket sales even under normal circumstances. In a crisis like this, where the financial condition of the poor has deteriorated badly, this will be a great, timely relief.
- Considering that physical distancing norms will reduce passenger count on all buses, it is imperative for the BMTC to operate its fleet at full capacity.
Strengthen mechanisms for commuter interaction and feedback
Since BMTC policies will have to evolve continuously in the current scenario, it is essential to improve the commuter interface to ensure that bus services cater to changing commuter needs. Following are some avenues through which this can be done:
- Install suggestion boxes at all TTMCs, bus stands, and buses.
- Reconstitute the commuter task force at the city level, and/or constitute further commuter/civil society committees at the depot level with wider representation from commuters, civil society representatives, workers’ unions etc.
- Disaster Management Cells set up by BBMP could also be used as a mechanism to gather information on emerging commuter needs.
Re-plan bus routes
As lockdown restrictions are getting relaxed, industries, offices etc. have started functioning but with a reduced workforce. However, schools and colleges remain closed. Hence, the mobility needs of city residents are today very different from what they were before, and are likely to remain so for many more months. Even if more institutions open up, mobility patterns will be different from earlier.
BMTC will have to re-plan its routes according to emerging needs. For instance, routes catering to areas with educational institutions may not be as much a priority at present as routes catering to industrial belts. Access to workplaces, garment factories, and industries for all category of workers should be prioritised.
In this context, on-the-ground interaction with commuters and civil society is necessary, as mentioned earlier.
Protection for workers
BMTC must provide all drivers, conductors, mechanics and other workers with necessary safety equipment (masks, gloves, sanitisers, PPE if required) and health coverage worth Rs 1 crore. BMTC must also discuss with workers what they need and ensure that their health needs are not compromised.[This article is based on a press release from Bengaluru Bus Prayaanikara Vedike (BBPV), and has been published with minimal edits]