Metro Matters: Reliable bus services in Delhi a must for efficient urban mobility | columns | Hindustan Times
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Metro Matters: Reliable bus services in Delhi a must for efficient urban mobility

Even as Delhi Transport Corporation waits to procure more buses, what is stopping it from making the existing fleet more efficient?

columns Updated: Oct 30, 2017 13:38 IST
Shivani Singh
Delhi Transport Corporation has just 3,951 buses, which carry 8 lakh passengers every day.
Delhi Transport Corporation has just 3,951 buses, which carry 8 lakh passengers every day.(Raj K Raj/HT Photo)

A day before the Delhi Transport Corporation (DTC) was told to prepare for extra passengers if the air pollution levels peaked drastically and odd-even road rationing kicked in, it was another bus down.

A short-circuit gutted an air-conditioned DTC bus Tuesday morning, making it the fifth such fire this year. With just 3,951 buses left in its fleet — a seven-year low — every DTC vehicle counts. It is a miracle that even in its depleted state, DTC buses carry 800,000 more passengers than Delhi Metro on its 213-km network every day.

But this ridership does not mean DTC rakes in big earnings. A report released last week by the Union ministry of road transport and highways on the performance of state road transport units put DTC as the biggest loss-making among such utilities in India.

While the DTC spends Rs 39,129 per day on running a bus, it recovers only Rs 6,016 from it. Besides high wage bills and poor fuel efficiency, the Corporation blamed low fares for poor revenues. DTC fares have remained unchanged since 2009 even as the Metro has hiked ticket prices twice in this period.

Public buses have to keep their travel cost cheap. But it cannot get unrealistic. While the minimum travel cost is Rs 10 in a non-AC DTC bus and Rs 15 in an AC one, the maximum fare is capped at Rs 15 and Rs 25, respectively. This, even if a bus is running on the Outer Mudrika route that covers 100 kms and stops at over 50 locations. There are no differential charges for night-time use either.

It is a self-defeating cycle. Soaring losses mean fewer buses, longer waiting time and crowded journeys. Many Delhi neighbourhoods, including the rural outskirts, have fallen off the DTC map. Elsewhere, the faltering services lead to a drop in ridership and still lower revenues.

After switching to CNG in 2002, Delhi’s public transport made another big leap forward during the 2010 Commonwealth Games (CWG) when it dumped buses built on truck chassis for low-floor ones. It was also the first time it introduced AC buses. The fleet size jumped to 6,204 in 2011. But with the older ones removed and no new induction in four years, the fleet size has depleted.

The Delhi government says it tried three times to buy buses in the past three 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”.

Even as it waits for the next round of tendering, what is stopping the DTC from making the existing fleet more efficient? For years, authorities have been promising the use of Global Positioning System on every bus to update the commuter waiting at the bus stop. The LED display boards provided at bus stops built during the CWG have either been vandalised or run random trial messages. The kiosks to display routes and timetables lie vacant.

Our collapsing bus system is much more than a commuting problem. Delhi’s 10 million private vehicles are not only clogging the city but also taking a toll on its citizens. The graded response action plan (GRAP) to fight pollution calls for increasing the frequency of buses on bad air quality days to reduce the number of private vehicles on the road. Paris and Beijing, from where the GRAP is borrowed, do it regularly on high-pollution days.

Metro is, by design, a capital-intensive, time-consuming project. So the bulk of a city’s mass transport system has to be bus-based. Last year, Seattle, which already has a light rail, bucked the US-wide trend of falling bus ridership to get 4% more commuters on board.

Instead of waiting for a full BRT corridor that’s coming up next year, Seattle introduced queue jumps, where buses got advantages such as a few extra seconds at the red-light to get a head start on traffic. Authorities put transit islands in busy corridors for easier boarding and fixed the slow spots on bus routes. As frequency and reliability increased, so did the ridership, Citylab reported on October 16.

Delhi had an established bus ridership but it has just let it slip away in favour of polluting two-wheelers and cars. Those who could, took to the Metro. Others are still waiting in the bus queues — holding their breath under a sooty sky.

shivani.singh@hindustantimes.com