Two years ago, the Prime Minister entrusted the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) with the task of formulating an Auto Fuel Policy for the country together with a road map for its implementation. The Ministry of Petroleum and Natural Gas then notified a committee which submitted its Interim Report in January, 2002. The constitution of the Expert Committee on Auto Fuel Policy is a follow up and, part of the series of measures that the Government of India has taken in recent years to improve auto fuel quality and vehicular emission standards. One part of the auto fuel policy report delves into the status of bus based public transport systems in India and makes recommendations on the direction for public transport systems.

Consider the following figures brought to light within the report as part of a study conducted by the Central Road Research Institute: Delhi has an estimated population of 921,000 registered motor cars and 2,231,000 two-wheelers. Mumbai follows with 341,000 motor cars and 441,000 two-wheelers. Kolkata boasts of 292,000 motor cars and 356,000 two-wheelers. Chennai, Bangalore, Hyderabad have an approximate registration of 200,000 motor cars and around 900,000 two-wheelers each. Now compare these figures of privately-owned vehicles to public transport buses. Delhi begins with 41,000 buses, followed by Mumbai (13,000), Kolkata (31,000), Chennai (5,000), Bangalore (35,000), and Hyderabad (12,000).

The study points to one striking, but not surprising feature of the urban transportation system in these representative cities -– the marked public preference for private modes of transport such as motor cars and two-wheelers. This is despite the fact that fleet strengths of public buses have been increasing, and fares have been at a consistent low. In fact, these are as low as between Rs. 2 to Rs. 5 in India as compared to an equivalent of more than Rs.50 in Europe.

Urban commuters cite various reasons for their preference for private vehicles - efficiency, time consumption and reliability being the commonest. These are valid reasons. Equally valid is the fact that increased use of private vehicles has implications for the nation’s economy (higher fuel consumption) and urban air quality. Energy consumption, fuel consumption, as well as traffic congestion and pollution are areas in which public transport systems definitely score higher.

To meet a kilometre of passenger travel, a car consumes nearly five times more energy than a 52-seater bus with 82 per cent average load factor. The corresponding consumption factor for two wheelers is 2.6. The comparative fuel costs of a car and a two wheeler to meet the same travel demand as a public transport bus is 11.8 times and 6.8 times respectively. A car occupies 38 times more road space compared to a bus for a passenger kilometre, while a two wheeler’s requirement is even higher, being 54 times that of a bus. The skewed economic costs of personalised transport and its demands on road infrastructure are thus obvious.

Pollution is the more pressing concern of our times – automobile emissions are a significant source of air pollution in urban centres in India. According to the Tata Energy Research Institute, replacement of a single bus by an equivalent number of two wheelers would add to air pollution by 27 per cent. Similarly cars would cause 17 per cent more pollution. All this reiterates the virtues of the public bus system in terms of fuel savings, emissions and safety.

Despite these often chanted virtues of bus transit systems, the decline in the usage of public bus transport systems is not surprising. On analysis, the significant reasons for this phenomenon are to be found in the system itself.

The fuel policy report asserts that provisioning and expansion of public transport systems - be they operated by the state or private players – is impacted by the fare structure imposed by the respective authority. While the element of subsidy cannot and should not be ignored, currently, what one observes is a fare structure that is so high on subsidy that it ends up being disproportionate to the costs incurred in providing services. This coupled with the poor efficiency of the buses results in making the entire exercise non-viable.

Provisioning has also been impacted by post-independence policy preferences in favor of state-owned utilities, as was seen in the form of Public Sector Road Transport Corporations or Undertakings. The philosophy then was to let the state play a bigger role in the nation’s economy and the trends in passenger transportation were in accordance. The role of private operators increased only later due to growing demands of the populace and the inability of the state utilities to meet the situation, and this evolution continues to happen.

Appropriate design remains another issue. No special chassis has been designed for passenger transport buses. Buses and trucks have a common chassis. The heavier truck chassis which can carry 8 to 10 tonnes of load is a drain on fuel when it supports a light bus body and carries a passenger weight not exceeding 4 to 5 tonnes in full load. Not much attention has been paid to remedying this situation.

Further, bus body building is a cottage industry in India. Of the 65 bus body building units surveyed in north India, a good majority (55) demonstrate poor quality plant and machinery and possess only little fabrication capability. Only 8 units have a semblance of quality control. Design and development facilities are non-existent.

The problems ailing our existing public bus transport system reiterate what is needed to make this exercise work – speed, service, and convenience. These are the primary reasons that personalized modes of transport continue to gain ground. These three reasons must be taken into consideration by policy makers and transport corporations for the bus system to indeed become a viable option for travel. As we have already seen, commuting time and comfort heavily influences the choice of private over public transport. Among the operators in service, healthy competition can be encouraged. When allowing more players into the field, strict adherence to time-tables needs enforcement as opposed to the current practice where buses wait for the full-load of passengers before departing, paying no heed to time.

Many countries have introduced Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) Systems or Busways as they are popularly called. This system allows for dedicated bus lanes unhindered by other traffic, thus resulting in improved speed conditions and also the inclusion of large-sized buses. Further, such dedicated bus lanes also reduce congestion in the mainstream of traffic flow, an advantage recognised in developed countries such as Canada, USA, Japan, and Australia. Traffic signal priority for buses, bus tracking and passenger information systems can go a long way in improving bus speeds, reducing waiting times at bus stops and in scheduling journeys. Experience has shown that faster moving buses, short waiting times, (10 minutes or less) and reliable service increase bus ridership as well as help reduce air pollution significantly.

A well-planned and properly-executed public bus system can be the solution to today’s increasing traffic problems.

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Another step in this direction can be to determine the minimum number of vehicles deployed by the various operators. This “critical mass” can serve as a deterrent to small-time operators who neither have the capacity to maintain their present vehicles nor invest in new ones. Further, the abysmal physical and mechanical features of our buses, as discussed earlier, can be improved if the bus body building industry is streamlined. Adherence to the norms prescribed by the Technical Committee set up under the Central Motor Vehicle Rules for bus bodies, and accreditation of bus body builders can definitely result in greater passenger comfort, fuel economy and reduced air pollution. A face-lift of the buses will not do.

In cities, where other public means of transport exist such as the metro rail, a combination of these along with public buses can augment the transportation situation further. Charting bus time-tables in conjunction with those of the metro, and introducing a ticketing system simultaneously valid for both modes of transport can create a well-rounded public transport system, keeping the convenience of the commuter as its top priority.

At the end of it all, the report reiterates that a well-planned and properly-executed public bus system can be the solution to today’s increasing traffic problems. Instead of creating altogether new and often expensive alternatives or providing an impetus to personalized modes of transport –– the existing bus transport system must be modified to be the modern-day saviour of the hassled commuter.