It’s a classic Mumbai scene, those hardy red buses steadily labouring through the city’s roads both broad and narrow, carrying thousands of people to work and back.
The trusted local trains and the Brihanmumbai Electric Supply and Transport (BEST) buses — both public transport systems put in place by the British — have for decades been Mumbai’s wheels, carrying 1.5 crore people between them. The BEST buses quickly became popular among working-class Mumbaiites for being cheap and covering nearly every corner of the city.
But what was once called Mumbai’s pride and termed Asia’s best public bus service, is a crumbling mammoth today – the buses are in poor shape, there has been no attempt to revive the service and its popularity has taken a serious beating.
So, what went wrong?
Only 30 lakh people take BEST’s daily services today, a fall from 46.75 lakh daily passengers 20 years ago. There are 521 bus routes, but 446 of them —85% — make losses. Just 75 routes are at a break-even point. Till a few months ago, only two of these services made a profit; today, this figure is zero. Every ordinary BEST bus faces a loss of Rs9,000 a day.
“Everything that could go wrong with a public transport system has gone wrong with BEST. There is no political will to improve the system, which is the city’s cheapest travel option. Politicians are interested only in big-ticket projects like coastal roads and Metros, while no effort is being made to help BEST buses cater to the lowest strata of society,” said Sulakshana Mahajan, an urban planning consultant with the Mumbai Transformation Support Unit (MTSU).
Experts agree bad planning and poor understanding of how Mumbai is changing, political interference and BEST’s failure to use new technology are adding to its losses.
“BEST is being neglected by its own administration, the government, politicians and urban planners. The government is investing more than Rs50,000 crore on Metro networks that it claims will carry 80 lakh passengers. BEST is already catering to 30 lakh passengers, with just another Rs5,000 crore, it can easily cater to more,” said Rishi Agarwal, a transport expert.
Bring on the bus lanes
Several cities across the world are focusing on improving public transport to keep crowds off the roads. Dedicated bus lanes or a bus rapid transit system (BRTS) is popular in cities like New York (USA), Guangzhou (China), Bogota (Columbia) and Curitiba (Brazil). But in Mumbai, despite consistent demands by experts and the BEST administration for dedicated bus lanes, the government, fearing backlash from motorists, has kept this project on the backburner.
Mahajan said this is an “imaginary fear”. “There was no backlash when at Bandra Kurla Complex, a dedicated bus lane was started a while ago. Motorists were happy about road traffic getting segregated, those taking buses were happy about the speed at which they covered the distance,” said Mahajan.
Mahajan is referring to the 3-km stretch that was recently reserved in BKC for buses. BEST recorded a rise in operations after the lane was commissioned — from 150 to 180 an hour during peak time. But the lane was de-reserved after drain covers, unable to take the weight of buses, started wearing off.
Attempts have been made to create bus lanes earlier too, but they were never successful. In 2004, the city got its first bus lane — 3.5km between Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus and Mantralaya, but this was discontinued.
“The government is not serious about a mass road transit system. Bus lanes are the quickest way to carry maximum passengers and the cheapest infrastructure modification. It is also the only way BEST can be revitalised,” said transport expert Ashok Datar.
Adapt or fail
In the past few decades, there has been a major shift in where Mumbai works. Earlier, commuters needed north-south connectivity as residences were in the suburbs, while offices were in the island city. There were also set peak hours – once in the morning and once in the evening.
Today, new commercial hubs are sprouting, and working hours have changed, which means people are travelling all over the city and all the time. BEST, however, has not changed bus operations or its timetables. Further, with new modes of transport such as the Metro and monorail coming up, BEST should be finding ways to feed these services, experts said.
“There is complete lack of vision. The BEST administration should consider introducing midi buses (25-seaters) on congested roads. To cut costs, it should issue smart cards and open ticket-vending machines at bus stops so buses can run without conductors. The problem is, BEST is not being innovative,” said Jagdeep Desai, a transport activist.
Experts said several new technologies are waiting to be used —mobile tickets, smart cards, a system to inform passengers about when buses arrive, among others. Using the global positioning system (GPS), BEST can make their routes more efficient and track buses to serve the people better.
“We often see two buses on the same route following each other. This is complete waste of resources. The administration should use technology to track buses and make changes in operations,” said AV Shenoy, from the NGO Mumbai Vikas Samiti.
The BEST management, however, has its reasons for not adopting changes. “We operate midi buses in the hilly area of Bhandup. But operating these in other parts of the city won’t be economically feasible as fewer passengers will take it, resulting in losses for us,” said RR Deshpande, deputy general manager.
Deshpande added that a smart card system was introduced in 2009-2010, when it was a little-known concept, but it did not get the desired response from commuters.
The political conundrum
The BEST is an undertaking of the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation. The BEST committee, which has political nominees as members, takes policy decisions. Administration is handled by a state-appointed general manager who is an IAS officer.
So why have successive BEST managements failed to restructure operations and revamp the service?
Experts point to political interference. The BEST committee is at the helm, and most decisions are taken only after it approves. As a result, the administration is forced to start or sustain heavily loss-making routes too. For instance, the administration recently proposed to cancel 52 routes on which the service was facing losses, but after a protest by Shiv Sena corporators, they had to backtrack.
Similarly, all fare revisions for BEST buses have been influenced by elections. In 2014, the Bharatiya Janata Party-Shiv Sena ruled BMC did not allow a fare hike as the parliamentary and Assembly polls were around the corner.
“Political intervention by a ruling party is evident in BEST. During the 2014 elections, they didn’t allow fare hikes, but revised fares twice after elections. Now, a fare revision is not being allowed keeping in mind the upcoming polls, but fares will spike next year to make up for the losses,” said Kedar Hombalkar, a BEST committee member.
“We agree that we should be using tools and technology, but these proposals get stuck because of red-tapism. We will require new buses to start services in new business hubs, but our fleet has reduced. We hope to get new buses by January 2017,”said Mohan Mithbaokar, BEST chairman.
BEST is stuck in a vicious cycle — more losses mean fewer funds to improve the service’s quality to attract more passengers. It has been given almost no weightage in BMC’s comprehensive mobility plan, which only proposes 5% (or Rs1,769crore) of its funds for buses and the bus rapid transit system (BRTS). In comparison, Rs25,000 (64.9%) and Rs4,851 (12.6%) are estimated for Metros and construction of roads and highways.
“The comprehensive mobility plan focuses on infrastructure and engineering solutions to reduce bottle necks in the city like providing other routes, creating junctions or infrastructure constructions. It is not only about running buses,” said civic chief Ajoy Mehta.
But the commissioner agreed that BEST buses are important for the city. “We don’t consider BEST different from us (BMC). As far as dedicated lanes go, we have agreed it should be created.” Mehta also said, “We have agreed to give capital expenditure to BEST, which includes purchase of buses, remodelling bus depots and bus stands,” but added that day-to-day expenses should be earned by BEST.
“In the given circumstances, the future of BEST seems to be bleak. There is an urgent need for the state to realise BEST’s potential, as it is currently the second biggest mass transport after the railways. The state should extend financial and infrastructure assistance as mass transport should be given priority over class transport so that people stop using private vehicles,” said Shirish Deshpande, chairman, Mumbai Grahak Panchayat.
BEST is facing a crippling Rs2,700-crore loss till date, which means it has little to invest in upgrading its services. Passengers are wont to go for other modes of transport, and they are spoilt for choice —two-wheelers, taxis, app-based cabs, the locals and Metros. The bus network doesn’t have to crumble, but it needs to become a priority for authorities.