Opinion: How BMTC bus services can be cheap, clean and safe during COVID

bus services during covid

Support Citizen Matters - independent, Reader-funded media that covers your city like no other.
Pic: BMTC/Twitter

[This article is part of the Bengaluru Moving series, in which citizens share their vision for BMTC post COVID. The series is published in collaboration with Radio Active’s #BengaluruMoving campaign.]

The COVID crisis has forced behavioural changes in Indian society that would never have happened in the normal course. It has also taught us three important lessons.

The first: Put a pause on our pre-Covid modern lives, and suddenly distant mountains become visible, rivers flow cleaner and hard-to-spot wild animals are seen walking through human habitation. 

The second: The scale of inequity and lack of a support net for a large fraction of our population. Without public transport and jobs, they were left stranded.

And third: Just how vital the so-called unskilled and semi-skilled workers were to our daily lives and the economy.

And the common theme that binds these lessons: the need for a safe, reliable, affordable and clean public transport for all sections of society. Unfortunately, COVID and protection from transmission requires us to pay attention to personal hygiene and social distancing in ways that public transport increasingly seems unable to provide. 

How do we move forward while trying to achieve these seemingly disparate goals? I do not claim to have all the answers. But each crisis is an opportunity and here are a few of my suggestions to a discussion on the way forward. The objective remains, to create a cheap, safe and clean public transport system which will attract a high mode share for public transport.

And like for everything else, we need a short, medium and long-term plan. Let us build one together.

Designs need to be practical, allow for COVID response

Firstly, the traveling public as well as the staff (driver, conductor and others) have to feel safe in public transport vehicles. Secondly, travel has to be convenient. Without these, few will opt for public transport, even though individual thresholds would differ. When I ask these questions of myself, a person who always prefers to leave the car at home and take mass transit, the threshold to get into shared transport is rather high.

So, what can BMTC do? The first action I can think of is that BMTC should work closely with the government and formulate a plan that considers the whole system of moving people. Ideally, Bengaluru should have a Unified Metropolitan Transport Authority that regulates and facilitates all public transport. Maybe this is a good time to set one up. The new organisation will get a chance to imagine a different future.

The second larger point is that risk is always present. People will take varying levels of risk as part of their personal trade-off analysis. Given the diversity in our society, it is impossible to prescribe a system that will work for everybody. For example, if one thinks of using smartphones and digital means to design safe transport, there will be a large segment of people who cannot afford it and yet, for that very reason, desperately need reliable public transport. Therefore, designs have to be practical, and also provide for response if the worst happens, i.e., a COVID case is detected, and contact tracing is required.

The short-term plan

The short-term plan is for when cases are still rising and yet the city is “unlocked” to keep economic activity going. The needs are: reasonable social distancing, minimising human transactions, and formulating a way to help in the worst case scenario.

What needs to be done:

  • The driver should be isolated with a plexiglass partition from the rest of the vehicle to avoid coming into contact with passengers.
  • Conductor transaction should be minimised:
    • E-tickets such as through an app, validating to devices or QR codes in the vehicle or other non-contact payment methods. For instance, can someone load money in a card that can interact with a machine in the bus or with the conductor?
    • Keep the fare structure simple – one or two slabs only, or transferable tickets with an expiry time. For example, a ticket expires three hours from purchase and can be used in any bus within that period.
    • Possibly, a seat with a shield for the conductor as well.
  • Trip and route identifier: The ticket should have a way of identifying who was on which bus. This way, if there is a positive case, the public can be informed to get themselves checked.
  • Separate ingress and egress in each bus, used only for that purpose.
  • All passengers should wear a mask. Maybe a facility should be set up for passengers to purchase a new mask on the bus or at a bus stop. All passengers should sanitise hands upon entry.
  • Seating-only buses. No standee passengers.
  • Find a way to integrate with the Metro. Maybe the Metro can handle only transfer passengers?
  • BMTC should have a contact tracing team that helps if a passenger tests positive
  • The government should drive means of spreading out the load. Can all organisations have sliding shifts? Instead of a standard 6-2, 2-10, 10-6 shift structure, maybe break it up into more windows. Six windows instead of three – such as (5-7) to (1-3) and a (1-3) to (9-11) type of shift structure – spreading out the window where staff come and leave.
  • BMTC has to think outside the box and see if it can adapt to new transportation patterns
    • Can they lease small buses and vans to limit passengers in a vehicle and to service the short distance – a local transport pattern that probably exists now?
    • Alternatively, can they license private operators to run safe, local operations that also connect to the large trunk-route operations?
  • The government must put money into BMTC to sustain these operations. We need public transport.

The medium-term plan

I will not even venture into a long-term plan. All these are experimental measures that have to be evaluated and evolved in time. The medium-term plan has to be on a more integrated public transport system. How can people plan travel from one part of the city to another easily and reliably?

Can we have licensed services that provide last mile connectivity? Services that use smaller vehicles to serve niche sectors or to provide pooled transport? Like we have Uber share, can BMTC also have a scheduled service?

Imagine that I login to the BMTC app and ‘schedule a trip’.  BMTC charts out a trip and tells me which bus to get on and when it will get to my nearest bus stop. Currently we have a blind system, where the vehicles just run and services people waiting at bus stops on fixed routes. This is a design from another era. Can we change that system and reimagine public transport and mass transit? Can they change vehicles or modes of transport smoothly without running the gauntlet of crossing busy roads and waiting in bus stops in disarray?

These and so many other questions need a dedicated organisation thinking of this bigger problem (UMTA!) and designing our transport of the future. 

Safety in bus stops and interchanges

This article will be incomplete without a discussion about safety in bus stops and interchanges. We need better-designed shelters where people can come and stand with reasonable spacing. People should not have to spend a lot of time waiting. It should accommodate people of all capabilities.

We need well-designed interchange points. Not just the TTMCs and bus stations, but also interchanges such as Silk Board, Marathahalli, Hebbal and so on, where people change routes. This part is a whole other project something that a UMTA can do while the bus system runs buses and the train system runs trains.

In closing, my point is that we are in the midst of a significant crisis. Yet, we cannot lose sight of the fact that public transport is vital to so many people. Further, cities with more people using public transport and mass transit are essential for our dense, heavily-populated cities to be clean and green. We cannot have this crisis make us march in the reverse direction. Good luck to us.

Also read
Remember Bengaluru’s minimal traffic during lockdown? Here are nine pointers to sustain it
How should BMTC buses be run now, given social distancing challenges?
Reducing BMTC fares = Reducing congestion, emissions, losses

About Sanjay Vijayaraghavan 8 Articles
Sanjay is a mechanical engineer working for one of the city's MNC firms. He lives in BBMP ward 85 (Doddanekkundi).

2 Comments

  1. Fairly well thought of article with a lot of common sense excepting that as usual with all plans and designs, it omits a big chunk of population- the old and the infirm, the kids and the pregnant ladies and above all the physically challenged like those on the wheelchair, the visually impaired and the hearing impaired and scores like them who depend upon some one else’s help by touch and contact. How will they use this well designed public transport ? This design will not be complete unless the needs this segment of the population are addressed

1 Trackback / Pingback

  1. Bus travel in times of COVID: How BMTC can accommodate senior citizens | Citizen Matters, Bengaluru

Comments are closed.