Pravesh Biyani, Associate Professor at the Indraprastha Institute of Information Technology-Delhi (IIIT-D), who heads the Centre for Sustainable Mobility to provide solutions related to the Capital's transportation sector speaks to The Hindu on the present state and fate of public transportation in Delhi. Excerpts:
Privately owned cluster buses are about to overtake those owned and operated by the Delhi government through the Delhi Transport Corporation. Isn't this a matter of concern?
For a population of two crore, we need at least 10,000 buses. Therefore, it's not a concern if the fleet owned by private operators in any city outsizes any government-owned fleet. Currently, in Delhi, less than half of the total fleet (of around 6,700) is owned by private operators. The DTC still has the bigger share of fleet. But importantly, we need more buses — throughout the country. Finally, to be fair to both, the DTC and the Delhi government, the bus procurement system is also not that friendly and is extremely complex. In India, we need reforms in the tendering and procurement processes.
In your experience, is the size of the bus fleet the only issue that needs to be rectified for a relatively better, more efficient and reliable experience for commuters in Delhi?
Not just in Delhi, for public transit in India, we need more service, we need better frequency, reliable service, routes with wider coverage. That can be done by using private operators as well as government-owned bus fleet. But more importantly, we need a more efficient system. A fleet size of 10,000 running on sub-optimal routes is worse than fleet size of 6,000 running in an efficient manner. The Delhi government has taken the first and the most difficult step towards making the system efficient by digitisation of their depots and opening up the transit data. Currently, Delhi is the only city with such initiatives.
What are the issues, both in terms of public perception as well as infrastructure, which you believe the government needs to rectify regarding its own fleet?
There are many things that can be improved in Delhi. For examples, bus stops can be de-encroached of parked private cars. Routes and timetable information can be provided in the bus stops. We have been working with the Delhi government to provide real-time passenger information system in the stops, that I think will solve the problem to a certain extent. For example, real-time information of buses is available on Google Maps, our own Chartr app as well as the One Delhi app in future. Further, operating routes in pre-decided frequencies in a timely manner will also help. Making these changes will certainly improve public perception. These processes take time but are certainly doable.
Is it safe to allow overage buses to carry lakhs of passengers on a daily basis?
Honestly, on the question of safety, I am yet to hear of a casualty because the bus was old. Yes, an older fleet will have more breakdowns and that will lead to many problems, but safety is not one of the bigger concerns. This does not mean that we should continue to run a bus till it completely breaks down.
Why could the government not procure vehicles in time to avoid this situation? Can it not buy smaller vehicles or vehicles of any other specification in the meantime till it is able to buy low-floor buses?
I cannot comment and judge the timelines of procurement of buses as I am not privy to the internal details. But as mentioned, procurement is in general a very complex problem.
Yes, there are other options possible, too, for buses. Just like metro feeder buses, the government can also operate smaller buses and other buses like standard buses (same as orange cluster buses) in their fleet.
The DTC's legacy as the largest CNG-propelled bus service provider in the world seems to be at stake along with its survival. How can the public transportation sector be saved?
The public transportation sector in India cannot only be saved but can also be turned around and agencies like the DTC can be the best and the most-used transit agencies in the world. The DTC, for example, has an envious monopoly in the bus-based public transit market in a city with a population of 20 million. It has a great infrastructure support in the form of depots. Unfortunately, many transit agencies in India have historically lacked passenger focus like their corporate counterparts. Public transits should consider their passengers as customers and, like every successful business, design all the features of their product accordingly.
How can the transportation sector transform itself in terms of public perception which, as you have outlined, has deteriorated over time as well as in terms of commuter experience?
The public perception of bus-based public transit has to be lifted throughout the country. Perceptions like buses are delayed and unreliable can be repaired easily by running buses by timetable and by apps and a passenger information system (PIS). The government should start with outcomes in mind. The government should emphasis on the eco-friendliness of public transit and this will certainly motivate younger passengers to take public transit. Taking a public transit should be made "cool" — just like driving an electric vehicle is.
What are the infrastructural improvements that the government can consider to improve the image of the public transportation sector in the eyes of the average commuter?
There are many places like airports, railway stations with enormous passenger demand. For instance, most air flyers are not even aware of the reasonable and cheap DTC services from the airport to the city. The buses at Nizamuddin and New Delhi railway stations are operated from a faraway place, thereby, missing lakhs of potential passengers every day. Public transit should be made accessible to commuters in such places. Public transit agencies should also collaborate with last-mile providers like e-rickshaw providers, bike-sharing companies, grameen seva, etc. to provide an end-to-end journey experience for its passengers. All the above can only happen by bringing a conscious passenger focus in the public transit agencies.
The government should also improve the most critical infrastructure of footpaths which has a direct bearing on the use of public transit.
Do you have any suggestions to transform the sector so that it is able to face both the advantages as well as the challenges that the ever-changing availability of technology presents?
The other often missing aspect is the involvement of new-age professionals that specialise in data and IT to compliment the excellent administrative and operations capacity in organisations like the DTC. Note that modern transit companies like Transport for London (TFL), Uber and Ola etc. hire world-class people with expertise in new-age technologies involving optimisation and machine learning etc. The government should engage such people to build their systems to meet the above mentioned outcomes in the public transporter. That being said, however, I must also acknowledge that Transport Minister Kailash Gahlot has prioritised many of the modern initiatives like open transit data, contactless ticketing etc. to make bus-based public transit better for passengers.
What are the options that the DTC has to fall back upon to survive given the lack of procurement of buses over more than a decade?
The other option for the DTC till they procure low-floor buses is to engage with private operators, especially for air-conditioned routes, airport routes and even electric buses. There are indeed many ways of adding to the fleet of the DTC; some even do not involve painful procurement and tendering processes.
The DTC has served the people of Delhi well in the last many decades and there is no reason that it cannot serve more in future. The DTC should be the pride of Delhi.
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