As the second wave of COVID has abated, Bengalureans are getting out and about. Many need transport services to go to work or for chores, but bus services by the BMTC (Bengaluru Metropolitan Transport Corporation) are yet to catch up.
In fact, the services have not even gotten back to the levels of last March, just before the second wave struck.
Bus numbers and schedules lower than in March
During the first COVID lockdown in March 2020, BMTC had stopped all of its services except those for frontline workers. Services started picking up gradually, especially after the first wave of COVID infections ended.
By the end of March 2021, BMTC had recovered to some extent – it was running 5,320 buses out of its total fleet of around 6,500, Citizen Matters had reported earlier. But with reduced passenger numbers and constant fuel price hike, BMTC was reeling under severe financial losses. And it had to cut down services in routes where passenger demand was lower, which also meant lack of transport options for many workers and low-income groups. At the time, transport experts had demanded government funding for BMTC so that services can continue.
Read more: Low ridership, high fares: COVID nudging BMTC into vicious circle
Now, ridership is expected to increase. But BMTC is operating only around 4,800 out of its 6,500 buses, according to Ajith Basavaraj Toragal, Public Relations Officer at BMTC. This is much lower than even the March 2021 numbers. The number of schedules operated daily is also low at around 4,900. In contrast, BMTC was operating around 5,300 schedules in March end, and 6,157 schedules in February 2020 (pre-COVID).
However, BMTC has increased the number of routes. According to Ajith there are 2,500-2,600 routes now, compared to 1,910 in March.
Passenger numbers low, but many regular commuters underserved
Currently the number of passengers is lower than in last March. While the number was around 25 lakh in March, currently it’s only 18-20 lakh per day, says Ajith. This also means even lesser revenue for the BMTC. “The situation is improving day by day,” says Ajith.
However, as BMTC reduces services to cut down on its losses, many regular commuters face difficulties. Citizen Matters got back to some regular commuters we had spoken to last April.
During a conversation on September 24, Geetha Menon of the Domestic Workers Rights Union said, “Today I waited 45 minutes for a bus at 4th block in Jayanagar to go to our office at 9th block.” In April too, she had said that wait times had increased since the pandemic. But now, even after the second lockdown was lifted, there are no substantial reductions in wait time, she said.
Afeena, a domestic worker Citizen Matters had spoken to April, says the bus timings and wait times are still unsteady. Before COVID, she used to take two buses to travel from Old Madras Road to her workplace near Domlur flyover. But one of these bus services became rare after COVID, and since then Afeena has been spending a lot more to travel by auto. Sometimes she has to walk the 4 km from her home to her workplace.
The situation has still not changed, she says: “Instead of waiting minutes for a bus, many [informal] workers turn to autos for commute because they don’t want to be late for work. For instance, I have to go for domestic work at 9 am. I finish my household chores and then go to the bus stop, only to see the bus leaving. I have to wait half an hour to catch the next bus, but the bus driver will wait another 15 minutes for some passengers to file in, thus making me late for work. Our employers might not always understand why we are late.”
In already-underserved areas like Baiyappanahalli, the reduction in bus services is a major concern. For example, in Old Baiyappanahalli, there have been no buses since 2010 due to construction of a rail overbridge, says M Saritha, a field activist working on the issues of informal sector workers at the NGO FEDINA (Foundation for Educational Innovations in Asia). She says that many informal workers from these areas walk several kilometres to work as they can’t afford auto fares.
Dynamic scheduling is not easy: BMTC PRO
As travel patterns kept changing since COVID, BMTC has been following a dynamic process of modifying routes and schedules. The corporation has been reducing or stopping services in routes where demand is low.
According to a BMTC press release on July 4, services would be increased based on passenger volume. Ajith says that dynamic scheduling of services is a continuous process, “It is not easy to analyse the number of people at a bus stop. We don’t have such high technology. In the US, the number of people moving can be analysed due to the low population. Here, we don’t know where people are moving, due to high population. However, we are analysing [data] sector-wise, and operating the buses. It is a complex process.”
Read more: Govt support is the only way BMTC can survive COVID: Experts
While bus scarcity remains an issue, BMTC recently launched more feeder buses to Metro stations. On August 30, BMTC launched 42 feeder buses from Kengeri Metro station to improve last-mile connectivity. Every 15 minutes there would be feeder buses taking passengers along 10 routes, connecting three places – RR Gate, Bengaluru University Gate and Kengeri TTMC.
Many users are unaware of new routes
As BMTC introduces new bus routes, it makes an announcement on Twitter. For example, on August 3, BMTC announced on Twitter the introduction of six new routes with a total of 223 daily trips.
But many informal workers are unaware of these announcements, says Saritha. Many route changes are also happening because roads in the city are being dug up for works. In such cases, commuters should be informed about the revised routes before the road construction starts, says Saritha.
“Number of buses, services should increase”
Regular passengers say that more buses should be introduced so that COVID norms can be followed properly. According to a press release by BMTC on July 4, passengers must wear masks and follow social distancing norms. It also said that passengers cannot board the bus if the seats are full.
Nisha M, a student who takes three buses from her home to college – Kammanahalli to K Narayanapura – says COVID protocols were followed properly during the initial ‘unlock’ post last year’s lockdown. But now, “the 9 am bus will be tightly packed like a nitrogen-filled chips packet. The crowd is so high that I won’t even have a place to get in.” She demands a higher number of bus services so that overcrowding can be avoided. This would also reduce instances of thefts which are common in BMTC buses, she says.
In addition to overcrowding, other COVID norms are violated too, says Nisha. “Most passengers don’t wear masks, and there is no social distancing either. Except for a few, most conductors do not bother about asking people to wear masks.”