Two years ago, an official showcasing Singapore’s ultra-modern Light Rail Transit to an international media team conceded that the humble bus was a better mode of public transportation.
Running on elevated corridors, LRT didn’t have to wait at signals or face traffic snarls. It had superb time efficiency and caused minimal air pollution. And yet, it was no match for a bus system.
Bus transport didn’t need million-dollar coaches and stations, elevated lines and the electrical paraphernalia. You just bought some vehicles and rolled out the service. Bus routes could be customised according to needs. It served last-mile connectivity like no other public transport.
However, in competition with the modern rail-based transits, the urban bus has long been demeaned as the poor man’s carrier. Former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s infamous quip (though widely used, could never be verified) that “a man who, beyond the age of 26, finds himself on a bus can count himself as a failure,” summed up the denigration.
But the resilient bus never went out of business. In fact, in many cities across the world, it is now getting cleaner, smarter and more efficient.
Singapore, for one, is all set to roll out driverless buses by 2018. A trial with two 12-metre electric hybrid buses that can carry 50 passengers each and ply at 40 km per hour is due in the next six months at the Nanyang Technological University campus.
Fitted with intelligent sensors and charging technology, and an autonomous system to navigate traffic and climate conditions, these buses can power up on the go and also utilise every 30-second halt at bus depots or bus stops along the route to recharge.
Helsinki (Finland) and Washington DC (USA) are trying similar technology. Rio de Janeiro (Brazil) is going for a simpler solution — the “bendy” bus — which will be put to use on the Bus Rapid Transit next year. This 98-feet-long double-articulated bus, reported The Atlantic’s CityLab last week, would carry up to 300 people.
A pollution-ridden China is going for zero-emission upgrades. According to CityLab, it is expected to have doubled its purchases of fully electric buses, from 10,000 in 2015 to 20,000 by the end of this year.
Delhi showed the same intent in 2010 during the makeover for the Commonwealth Games when it bought the bulk of its low-floor CNG-powered buses. The fleet size had jumped to 6,204 in 2011.
It went downhill from there. With just 4,121 buses, the fleet size today is at a six-year low. The Delhi government says it tried thrice to buy buses in the past two years, but could not find suppliers. The June 2016 audit by the CAG blamed it on “frequent changes in the proposals, cancellation of tenders and retendering”.
The government seems to have given up too fast and has now shifted focus on purchasing mini and mid-sized buses. But their carrying capacity would be half of that of regular buses and the operating responsibility will shift to Delhi Integrated Multi-Modal Transit System from DTC, adding to Delhi’s perennial problem of multiple jurisdictions of basic services.
The capital’s collapsing bus system is not just a commuting problem. The 8.8 million private vehicles on Delhi’s roads are not only clogging up the city but also taking a deadly toll on its citizens. Increasing mass transit options is not a choice but a compulsion where people breathe the world’s foulest air. But so far, our authorities have stuck to only long-term, capital-intensive solutions, mainly the Metro.
Even with its depleted fleet, DTC buses carry 3.5 million passengers every day, much more than the Metro’s average ridership of 2.7 million. RITES, the government-owned engineering consultancy, forecasts that even after the full completion of the Metro project, its ridership will be just 20% of the vehicular trips, including non-motorised transport in 2021. The report underlines that the bulk of city’s mass transport system has to be bus-based.
Indeed, cities world over are investing upgraded bus systems. Having failed to build on the boost catalysed by the Commonwealth Games, Delhi may have already missed the bus. If we do not show some intent now, it may soon be too late to even play catch-up.