A 2019 Tom Tom Index, a report about traffic congestion across 417 cities in 57 countries, found Bengaluru to be the most congested city in the world. And while the number of vehicles on Bengaluru’s roads keeps rising every year, there seems to be little attention paid to managing such numbers – by prioritising public transport, improvements in the road network and relevant infrastructure.
The lack of attention being paid to public transport, primarily bus services by the Bengaluru Metropolitan Transport Corporation (BMTC), is reflected in BMTC’s Performance Indicators which says 558 new vehicles were added in 2021-22 (up to Feb 2022) and 256 vehicles scrapped. Thus, the net number of new BMTC buses added was 302. In 2020-2021, however, the BMTC did not acquire any new bus but ‘Vehicles Scrapped’ were 168; in 2019-20, 361 new buses were added to the fleet and 190 buses scrapped.
Chandigarh has one of the best per capita bus fleet at 4.7 per 1000 population. With an estimated population of around 12 million in the city, and the number of BMTC buses as of January 2021 6565, Bengaluru has just 1 bus for 1800 people or 0.55 buses for 1000 people.
Furthermore, as per BMTC’s own report, the length of cancelled routes increased by almost 200% from 241.6 lakh km to 717.9 lakh km during 2013-14 to 2017-18. BMTC made over Rs 850 crores in losses, owing to which measures like cancelling routes from ‘low-revenue-generating’ routes were taken.
The result is traffic congestion on major roads thanks to the increasing use of private vehicles, resulting in longer commute time for everyone.
So what is the solution?
The unanimous answer is: Prioritise public transport, the only sustainable and scalable alternative, which for now is BMTC bus services. BMTC services can be made more affordable and convenient for commuters.
BMTC currently has around 5600 buses operating, down from 6200 before the pandemic, out of its total strength of a little over 6700 buses, according to a report in The Hindu. There are also plans to induct 300 new non-AC e-buses from August.
Why BMTC buses?
The Bengaluru Bus Prayanikara Vedike (BBVP), a forum campaigning to improve bus services, pointed out that BMTC provides 45 lakh daily commuter rides, while the Metro carries only 4.5 lakh commuters and existing suburban rail services carry just two lakh commuters.
While making a case for the BMTC as a sustainable mode of commute, BBVP further argued that the Metro project is capital intensive, and will take several years to become functional, with the complementary infrastructure involved for its set-up being extremely disruptive for all road traffic.
The ridership for Metro Phase 1 at 4.5 lakh has been well below the projected 10 lakh footfalls. A comparison with the Delhi Metro which runs across 343-kilometre network suggests that Delhi has 23 lakh riders while Bengaluru Metro, which has just 72 km network currently, is unlikely to achieve any significant increase in ridership even after completion of Phase 2.
Also, given that the planned suburban rail will have limited connectivity and will take many years to operationalise, BBVP firmly believes that only the BMTC has the potential to provide coverage across the whole city. And its buses can be deployed quickly.
But in its current state, the BMTC has many limitations it will have to overcome. BBPV offers some immediate first steps:
- Introducing new routes and making the timetables accessible and real-time.
- Adding additional buses.
- Re-planning routes and re-deploying buses, depending on changing mobility demands.
- And most important, reducing the bus fare.
Rationalising BMTC bus fares
A study by BBPV found that the minimum fare for the first 5km in a non-AC BMTC bus is Rs 15, while in cities like Pune and Delhi it is Rs 10, in Chennai Rs 6 and in Mumbai Rs 5. Also, the Karnataka State Government approved an increase in ticket prices of 18% in September 2018 for both the Karnataka State Road Transport Corporation (KSRTC) and the BMTC. The stated cause was an increase in fuel prices.
Bus service resumed in Bengaluru on May 19th, 2020 after a suspension of over two months due to the pandemic-led lockdown. BMTC had increased the prices as a result of accumulating losses caused by the COVID-19 lockdown. For instance, the bus fare had been raised from Rs 17 to Rs 20 for an 8km trip. Likewise, the price of Rs 22 for 16km went up to Rs 25. The BMTC justified the increase by claiming that the new ‘flat-fare’ structure will be more convenient for all. In order to ensure social distancing, it had also set a cap of 30 people for each bus.
Also, in an attempt to increase the ridership of the AC BMTC buses, the Vajra Services fare were slashed by 34% in December 2021. The monthly pass for Vajra Services now costs Rs 1500 instead of Rs 2000 earlier.
Additionally, an assessment made in conjunction with a public hearing by the BBVP suggested that the higher BMTC bus fare and the many gaps in its service, created an adverse socio-economic impact, including on the livelihoods, health care and education of commuters, said Cynthia Stephen, a social activist.
Cynthia also pointed out the difference in the frequency and quality of buses made available in working-class neighbourhoods like Hegde Nagar and Tannery Road as compared to middle-class localities like Vijaynagar. While buses in Vijaynagar are frequent enough to ensure better connectivity and are well maintained, the buses found in working-class neighbourhoods have low frequency and are often crowded.
Not enough funds for buses
Activists in Bengaluru who have been campaigning for a robust bus network in the city were disappointed when the state government ignored BMTC’s request for more funds to ensure an affordable and frequent bus network.
“The budget evokes a deep sense of betrayal for the common people of Bengaluru,” said Vinay Sreenivas of the BBPV. “Ordinary people and their daily concerns of survival linked to mobility has not been given proper attention. There was absolutely no mention of bus transport and no allocation of funds for BMTC, which is the city’s lifeline, and no reduction of fares.” The vedike had prepared a series of petitions that demanded an allocation of Rs 1000 crore for the BMTC.
“It is very unfortunate that BMTC, which caters to the needs of lakhs of commuters, did not find any support from the government,” echoed Srinivas Alavilli from Janaagraha. “Even if it had received a portion of the budget proposed for the metro project, many people could have benefitted. BMTC has far more reach in the city than Namma Metro.”
Back in 2017, the BMTC had written to the BMRCL Managing Director Pradeep Singh Kharola to provide funds to the BMTC for the feeder buses. BMTC chairman Nagraj Yadav had said the request for funds was justified as the feeder buses were a joint venture. “When the Centre is pumping in money for Metro rails all over the country using taxpayers’ money, it should also fund road corporations like the BMTC,” he had added.
Encouraging non-motorised transport – some ideas
Cycling is one mode of transport that could be encouraged. The government could form partnerships with private firms and incentivise affordable cycling for shorter trips.
Secondly, e-rickshaws could be added to the ambit of non-motorised transport systems. In fact the then Union Transport Minister Nitin Gadkari, in 2014, had announced that e-rickshaws with motor power up to 650W would be considered non-motorised vehicles. Prior to this announcement, only vehicles operating on batteries consisting of motor power of less than 250W with an average speed of less than 25 kmph were deemed as non-motorised vehicles. Thus the addition of e-rickshaws to the landscape of NMT in Bengaluru could be cost-efficient and socio-environmentally viable.
A simple look around would suggest that overcoming the problems of mobility in Bengaluru isn’t as complex as it may appear. The factors that cause traffic bottlenecks, apart from the ever-increasing numbers of private vehicles are poor planning and design of road space, inadequate space for pedestrian pavements, and lack of traffic discipline.
In this matrix of the mobility puzzle, BMTC, if given a booster shot, can be the solution.
[Errata: This article previously mentioned 20 new buses were added to BMTC’s fleet in the last 4.5 years. This has been corrected with the numbers of additional buses and number of buses scrapped over the last few years, as published in the BMTC website.]