Double Fun with a Double Decker

In the past, I had explained why bus journeys are fun. But there is, one thing more fun than a bus ride. A ride in a Double Decker.

While many cities including Bangalore, Hyderabad and Delhi had double deckers earlier, only a handful of them continue to operate them, namely Mumbai, Kolkata, Kochi and Solapur.

A BEST Double Decker on Route 138 at CST.
A BEST Double Decker on Route 138 at CST. Image copyright Srikar Kashyap, CC-BY-SA 3.0 Unported.

Now, Double Deckers have been in Mumbai since the 1930s. In the last few years, there were talks of BEST scrapping them, but they decided not too, saying that they were an irreplaceable part of the city’s heritage. Among the reasons for scrapping them were: Extra cost in maintenance, difficulty in maneuvering, and the fact that they required two conductors, one at each level.

But, but but, they were not scrapped, and we are thankful that have not been because they are really really fun to travel in.

BEST earlier used to ply them on 251 of the Oshiwara Depot from Versova to Andheri Station [West], but after the merger of the Versova and Yari Road Bus Stations into one, as well as the commencement of the Metro, they were replaced with regular buses, mainly due to the reduction in passenger traffic as well as height clearances on the West. They still run on the East, connecting Agarkar Chowk to SEEPZ due to height clearance from the Metro. Most of Mumbai’s flyovers are built at a height to allow double deckers to pass beneath them.

Among the prominent routes they run on, as 310 from Bandra Station [East] to Kurla Station [West], and 138 from Backbay Depot to Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus. 138 enjoys a reputation because it not only plies within the CBD, but also because it plies along Marine Drive.

Now, for the fun:

Double Deckers are fun because there is no driver in the upper level. As a kid, I was known to run up and sit up front to enjoy the breeze hitting my face. I was also branded the black sheep of my family because I once sent my cousin crying down after I told him the upper level had no conductor and only grown-up children were allowed. I do not regret doing that. During every trip of mine, I used to run up to the top, just for the air to hit my face. On one of my trips, a friend of mine from Gurgaon, who had never been in a Double Decker got in with me. He was awestruck, and spent the the entire journey with his DSLR stuck to the front window, capturing footage of vehicles moving at at 8pm at Bandra Kurla Complex.

We have been known for playing games, with the conductor being complicit in our [mis]adventures. We used to pretend that the upper level of the bus was a vehicle with a mind of its own, and that we, along with the conductor had to stop it from running into an obstacles.

Double Deckers have become an inalienable part of our culture. It is unfortunate that several cities like Chennai and Bangalore cannot ply them because of height restrictions.

Truly, these buses are a gem!

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When a Rumour spread about BEST

I was going thru the BEST website today, and was going thru the Daily Press Notes section, when I came across an interesting press note, dating to 21st February 2015. A very interesting note to say the least.

The Press Note, Numbered 65, on 21/02/15, is an appeal to Consumers of the Electric Department.

It talks of a rumour that has been spreading via Social Media to ask Consumers to check the back of the BEST Electricity Bill, where there is an alleged claim that BEST’s electricity department is charging consumers for losses made by the Transportation Department, and that if you wrote a letter and handed it over at the Head Office at Dadar TT, they would stop charging you.

BEST responded by saying that such rumours were baseless and consumers should not pay any attention to them. Fair enough right?

But, did anyone notice a deeper message?

For starters, this message came at about the same time when BEST made its first mistake. The disastrous fare hike of February 2015. This was followed by an even more disastrous fare hike in April 2015 that left BEST [especially its lacklustre AC services] completely alienated from its passengers. It was during the latter half of 2015, that BEST AC conductors at Thane Station encouraged passengers to take a TMT AC 65 or NMMT AC 131 instead of the AS 700. Even BEST conductors seem to have dissociated themselves from their own buses!

Next, as stated earlier, BESTs Transport Deficit is -₹858.02crore while the Electricity Surplus of ₹925.41crore. This ₹67.39 that is left over, along with some cash from the MCGM, as well other schemes such as JnNURM/AMRUT and from the State Government is what keeps BEST afloat. In the long run, it is true, that the Electricity Division surplus does pay for the deficit, but in a different manner. As per BESTs tariff, there is a Transport Deficit Loss Recovery Charge which is charged as a rate per kilowatt. Doesn’t this actually prove BEST’s notice false? Or was the notice only about getting the surcharge reversed on submitting a letter? Confusing, isn’t it.

But.. But.. But.. There’s something interesting to note here. BEST supplies electricity only to South Bombay. The Suburbs are served by Reliance Energy [formerly BSES], and MahaVitaran [MahaDiscom]. South Bombay is home to Mumbai’s richest people. Actually the country’s richest people.

So, let us take a look at the tariff structure of BEST, Reliance and Mahavitaran side-by-side, shall we. I’ll be comparing the regular rates for residences under the non BPL category.

BEST: Link to Tariff [Page 3]

Fixed charge goes from ₹40 to 100, the consumption charges vary from  ₹2.45 to ₹6.35 per Unit and only goes up to 8 when the consumption is above 500 units, that too for the balance units over and above 500 units.

Reliance Energy: Link to Tariff [Page 1]

Fixed charge goes from ₹50 to ₹100, the consumption charges vary from ₹2.43 to ₹5.57 per Unit and only goes up to 7.21 when the consumption is above 500 units, that too for the balance units over and above 500 units.

MSEDCL: Link to Tariff [Go thru all 381 pages.]

The format used by BEST and REL is not present and hence requires a little thinking and calculation.

While BEST might be charging more per kW/hr or Unit, it charges a minimal Transport Loss Surcharge which does not exceed ₹1.44 per Unit [Below 500 Units]. REL instead charges a fixed wheeling charge of ₹1.8 per Unit and a Regulatory Asset Charge, which ranges from ₹0.56 to 0.89 per Unit [Below 500 Units]. This brings the sum total of Reliance Energy’s charges to higher than BEST. Plus, with all the rich bigwigs and the who’s who of the social circuit living in BEST’s captive territory, does it really matter?

Now, the most important thing in the Press Note:

BEST, in 2015 recognised the existence of Social Media. Yes. They acknowledged that something called Social Media exists. Small, as it may seem, this is a significant step in getting our Government bodies on Social Media to respond to citizens better, as I had stated in an earlier post.

What are your thoughts?

P.S: The head office of the Electricity Department is located at Electric House and the Transport Department at Transport House, both of which are part of the Colaba Depot, which was BEST’s first depot.

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Let’s Keep Walking

Walking, the most fundamental way to travel, is a joy to many, while a lot of people crib and whine about it.

Walking brings joy to a lot of people. It’s the surest way to remain reasonably healthy, and also gets the job done: You reach your destination, albeit a little slower.

Walking is a lot like cycling, except it doesn’t require specialised equipment, namely a cycle, and is more compatible with rugged terrain than a cycle. In short, walking up and down a staircase or a craggy hill is easier than attempting the same with a cycle. However, both face the same issues with motorists treating them with contempt.

In an earlier post on Andhra Pradesh’s upcoming capital city of Amaravati, I had given a few suggestions on making cities cycle and pedestrian friendly. Now, let us leave that to the Planners and Experts. Our focus here is on walking.

Why would you walk?

Simple. To get somewhere. I walk to the provision store, I walk to the bus stop, I walk everywhere. In some places, like several IT campuses across the country, driving is restricted to certain designated zones, and thus, you would be required to walk or cycle in the other areas. If you cannot cycle, your only option is to walk.

Walking is crucial, not only for those using public transport, but also for cyclists and motorists. You need to walk to the parking lot. You need to walk where the cycle cannot be used. Walking in crowded areas is a pain, and this is where I realise that Mumbai is probably the best city [pun intended, of course] for walks. Why? The Mumbai Skywalk Project.

The Nana Chowk Skywalk at Grant Road.
The Nana Chowk Skywalk at Grant Road. Image copyright Srikanth Ramakrishnan, CC-BY-SA International.

Starting with the 1.3km long skywalk connecting Bandra Railway Station [East] to Kalanagar junction in 2009, the city of Mumbai has numerous skywalks connecting various railway stations to localities in the vicinity, bypassing the crowd, bus stops, vendors, and all below. The skywalk in Andheri East connects Andheri Railway Station, Andheri Metro Station, Agarkar Chowk Bus Station, as well as the bus stop atop the Gopal Krishna Gokhale Bridge, while the Bandra skywalk connects Bandra Station, Bandra Bus Station, Bandra Court, the Western Express Highway as well as Swami Vivekananda Road.

The Nana Chowk Skywalk, connecting Nana Chowk to Grant Road is a spectacular structure. Built at a cost of ₹43crore, the structure is a oval-shaped, cable-stayed one. It is illuminated with Pink LED lights at night, thus making it an interesting sight to see. Now, while many people might consider it a waste of money, I’d like to see things a little differently. We normally hear of crores of money being spent on building roads for vehicles,  but seldom do we hear about money being spent on making the lives of pedestrians easier. Right?

Governments need to realise the importance of pedestrian infrastructure. A four laned road just won’t do. A four lane road with provisions for pedestrians and cyclists at the periphery is the need of the hour.

Walking, is at the end of the day, the best way to exercise. Of course, I have been told that kissing burns more calories, but who cares? I can walk alone. That’s all that matters to me.

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The Joy of Solo Travel

Travel: Something we do on a daily basis. Also known as commute when done in the same city/region to head to work.

However, travelling alone, no matter where has a totally different ring to it.

I travel alone a lot. Be it long distance, or short distance. It can be in any form, auto, taxi, bus, or train. Planes can also be counted, but I’ve rarely had any fun on a plane, just earaches and snobby co-passengers. I end up sleeping while listening to music during the flight.

So now, coming back to our grounded transport. Here’s what I have discovered.

Traveling solo opens up your mind to new thoughts that otherwise wouldn’t penetrate you. If you’re traveling with a friend chances are that you will spend most of your travel time interacting with them. When you go solo, your mind is open to observing more around and learning more.

Whenever I’ve been in a long bus ride, be it something as short of Mumbai-Pune or something as long as Bangalore-Mumbai, I’ve always had interesting conversations. I’ve had discussions ranging from 3 Idiots to Nuclear Warfare.

One one bus journey, I spent 5 hours discussing the state of India’s road network with my co-passenger. He was extremely enthusiastic on discussing the road network with me. We later branched into the rail network and ultimately discussed luxury buses. On another trip, I was discussing career plans with a Software Industry. Being a Computer Science student, I wasn’t too keen on taking it up as an occupation, and I was not interested in doing an MBA. He convinced me to write the entrance exams, which I did, and got into one of India’s better known B-Schools, but didn’t take up ultimately. My favourite trip was in 2009, when I discussed the Indian Education System, Piracy, Bad Roads, Missal Pav, Batata Vada, and Free Markets with a man who was an engineer in Bosch. How cool is that?

On trains, I recall various conversations with people too. On a railway trip from Mumbai to Delhi in the Rajdhani, I had an intense debate with an elderly Tambram couple from Matunga on the pros and cons of Dairy Whitener that was given with the Tea and Coffee on the train. Yes, a 2 hour conversation purely devoted to Milk Powder. On the return journey, I was both given and giving relationship advice from a complete stranger. It might have seen awkward, but I have multiple times in the past been accorded the status of the Single Guy who gives the best Relationship Advice. Of course, knowing me, I an probably give you the BEST advice, even on an NMMT or TMT bus.

On one trip in a Mumbai local, I was gifted a copy of the Bhagvad Gita. A month later, I was gifted a copy of the Bible by someone in the Delhi Metro. I’ve read both and keep them in my library of books.

It was on one trip in the Delhi Metro that I discovered that the MG Road station in Gurgaon was renamed after Syska. This was my first encounter with branded stations on the Delhi Metro. Prior to this, I had only encountered them on the Gurgaon Metro. Excited, I tweeted out an image to The Metro Rail Guy who promptly put out a post on his website and linked it back to me! [See: Delhi Metro’s MG Road Station in Gurgaon Renamed to SYSKA MG Road]

Travelling solo has made me understand more, learn more, and have interesting conversations with people from all walks of life. I think you guys should give it a shot too.

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Buses are burning in Karnataka: When will be safe?

As I started typing this, I saw images of 50 odd buses, belonging to KPN and SRS Travels, both while based in Tamil Nadu, having buses registered in Karnataka [that’s right, paying taxes to Karnataka] on fire in Kengeri and Shanthinagar. I see Volvo buses on fire. That’s right. Expensive buses, on fire. That’s not all. I see numerous trucks damaged and on fire today. None of this is untrue. My family members have reported them, first hand, having seen it happening in front of them. Tamil Nadu registered trucks, buses, cars are being torched. Elsewhere at work, a relative of someone I know had his TN-registered car vandalised. His phone has been switched off, and his whereabouts unknown to us.

Read this for more updated info:

Cauvery row live updates | Watch: 20 buses set on fire at KPN bus depot in Bengaluru

Meanwhile, 400km North of the state capital, in the city of Hubli, trucks with TN registration are being attacked by mobs. This is in Hubli, a city that culturally has more in common with the neighbouring state capital of Mumbai, that it does with its own state capital. While Hubli and Belgaum [or Hubbali and Belgavi if you prefer] are culturally similar to Mumbai, they are integrally a part of Karnataka.

However, the point is that the state is burning. Especially its capital. Not Hubli, not Mysore, not Mandya, but Bangalore.

What started this? The Kaveri river. Or, as someone like to call it, the Cauveri.

On 5th September, the Supreme Court directed the Karnataka government to release 15000 cusecs of water from the Krishnarajasagara Dam to Tamil Nadu for the next ten days, and also directed Tamil Nadu to release water appropriately to the Union Territory of Puducherry. What happened next? A bandh was declared on Friday by Vatal Nagaraj and activists of the Kannada Rakshana Vedike.

Now, interesting to note here, is that ever since the last week of July, Karnataka has been in a turmoil. 25-26-27 July witnessed a bus strike in Karnataka. 29 got wasted because of incessant drizzle, while on 30th, a Bandh was declared by the pro-Kannada activists after the Mahadayi Water Dispute Tribunal rejected Karnatakas’s plea for 7.56 thousand million cubic feet of water from the Mahadayi or Mandovi River. Following this, Karnataka witnessed bandhs when trade Unions went on strike in the first week of September and today, mob violence.

Katnataka filed a special appeal with the Supreme Court. The verdict for this came out on 12th September at 10.30am. The SC directed the Karnataka government to release 12,000 cusecs instead of the earlier 15,000 cusecs.

Now, let us put all of this aside. What caused this?

The media? Yes. The media. The media ran various stories of Tamil youth allegedly beating up Kannadigas in Tamil Nadu. Nothing wrong in doing that. But… But but but. They chose to upload a whole damn video along with it. This video went viral and is what started the problems in the first place. The next day, I received a video of goons in Tamil Nadu hacking a woman to death, claiming that it was done because she was Kannadiga. I did what I had to do as a citizen. I forwarded the video to the Whatsapp number of the Bangalore City Police and they later issued a notice that the video was an old video and had *absolutely nothing, nothing whatsover* to do with the current scenario.

My question is. Why are these anti-social elements *still* in Existence in our society?

When India has been sharing Indus water with Pakistan and Ganga/Brahmaputra water with Bangladesh without issues, why are river related issues in India so bad?

Someone, please answer my question. Buses are on fire, trucks are on fire. Do these so called activists and protestors realise that someone’s livelihood depends on those buses? How does burning buses solve a water crisis? This isn’t my question, but the question from KPN travels.

Buses are burning. When will we be safe? Click To Tweet

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[Satire] Apple Reveals Why The iPhone 7 Has No Headphone Jack

Cupertino: A day after Apple announced the new iPhone 7, iPhone 7 Plus and Apple Watch 2, Apple has announced a new feature in the iPhone 7 that is bound to excite users, mainly in what is seen as an attempt to explain why the new phones do not have a 3.5mm headphone jack.

Independent and out of work reporter Aapil Saathukudinathan managed to sneak in through the air ducts of Apple’s head office at 1, Infinity Loop and hold a developer hostage with smelly socks till he divulged details of Apple’s top secret plans.

What he reveals, of course, is quite amazing. Aapil writes:

Apple is working on revolutionising the Transportation sector. They’re planning to take on Uber, Tesla, General Motors head on.

For the past six years, Apple has had a new Underground Research and Development centre, located under ground somewhere in the Rocky Mountains. They’ve been trying to build a prototype of a personal transit vehicle, intriguingly called the iCar. The prototype did revolutionise transit by providing an electric car with completely closed windows and air-conditioning all at all times, but failed because charging it with the Apple Lightning Connector wasn’t such a great idea. A proposal to produce a prototype iBike was trashed because bikes were apparently too mainstream for Apple. A similar iBus prototype model was built, but it had the same problem as the others. After an intervention from the Government of the US, Apple worked on a prototype at Area 51 for an iPlane based iSpaceship. However, all of these were scrapped because of the Lightning Charger.

Now, coming back to the iPhone 7. While most people think that removing the 3.5mm headphone jack was foolish, Apple has indeed, had other plans for it. The removal of the jack was to position a new microchip, which Apple calls iTransit.

This iTransit chip, is also the reason behind Apple’s new AirPods. These new devices, which have a built in accelerometers and optical sensors, also feature a Revolutionary Thrust Engine within them.

Apple Airpods
Apple AirPods. Image credits NBC News

This new Thrust Engine, thankfully not called iThrust, will literally lift the user into the sky and fly them to their destination. The device shape will ensure that they don’t fall out of the user’s ears. The iTransit app, will track users realtime, and automatically make adjustments to prevent traffic jams and collisions mid-air.

To travel, all one needs to do is wear the new AirPods, open the iTransit app [still in development], and enter the destination. The AirPods, once they use the advanced technology to ensure that they are properly placed in the ear, will automatically power itself up and take the user to their destination. During flight, a user can use the AirPods as headphones as well and continue listening to their beats. iTransit can also be controlled using Siri.

However, iTransit will be a paid service. While the App itself will cost $1.99 to purchase from the iTunes App Store, Apple will also charge users for using the service. Users can either pay for an unlimited plan, or a pay-as-you-use plan on a distance wise-basis. A free plan will also be introduced, wherein ads will be played during transit.

Apple intends to market this to China where 100km long traffic jams have been experienced and India, because everybody from Bangalore is complaining about Central Silk Board.

Once Aapil Saathukudinathan, managed to sneak his way out, for the Apple employee had passed out due to the smelly socks, he made his way to the Googleplex at 1600 Amphitheatre Parkway in Mountain View and later on to Redmond to the Microsoft head office. Alphabet immediately announced plans to put the Google Driverless Car on standby and start work on a new and updated version of Google Glasses called Google Fly which would allow people to fly, while Microsoft decided, they’d provide the software to Google for the new product.

Aapil Saathukudinathan is now back in India, after having fooled the US and Indian authorities by flying without a valid visa.

Note: All content in this article is fictitious, and must not be taken seriously. This article is satire, and should ideally be treated as such.

 This post is dedicated to my Gurus, Ashwin S Kumar of The Unreal Times and Rahul Roushan of Faking News.
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Corrupt Babus from the Stone Age are Impeding Better Transport

Many ‘futurists’ and a significant number of urban local government officials and policymakers I’ve met and/or interacted with hold the following view – ‘Internet, faster communication and changing social attitudes will soon make large urban agglomerations i.e cities in the form of cities irrelevant. We will be participants in an era of small, compact cities with innovators, job creators and seekers moving to such cities from megacities to make their fortunes’.

This view is often represented as a fact in many conferences, seminars and ‘talks’ by organized by the intelligentsia which in turn has transformed the view into conventional wisdom. They are wrong. The internet or any other faster means of communication (except  teleporting perhaps’ will never be able to match  This view combined with the very Indian tendency to ‘equalize’ development of different regions has led to some perverse policy prescriptions but that is a matter for another day. In this post, I will discuss a little on why the ‘compact future city’ view is incorrect and touch upon what we need to improve transportation outcomes..

In his book- The Rise and Fall of Nations, Ruchir Sharma writes:

‘In recent years it became fashionable to argue that location no longer matters, because the internet makes it possible to provide services from anywhere. But physical goods still make up the bulk of global trade flows, and location still matters for companies that want to be close to their customers and suppliers.’

Some of you may argue that physical goods will not constitute a majority of trade flows in the near future where trade will mostly constitute IT based service sector transactions; and that’s when we will see intelligent people leaving cities along with their businesses for small towns. You would then be wrong. Again. Later in the book, Ruchir Sharma writes this:

‘Today the internet is making geography irrelevant neither for manufacturing industries nor for service industries. People still meet face to face in order to manage and build service companies that provide everything from internet search engines to cargo logistics, and new companies in these industries typically set up in the same town to tap the same expert talent pool. The result is the rise of cities with a cluster of companies and talent in a specific service niche.’
‘In South Korea, Busan continues to thrive as the nation’s leading port and as a regional hub for logistics service companies. In the Philippines, Manila has been rising for some time as as a major global provider of back office services, and now that business is spilling over to its satellite cities, including Quezon and Caloocan. Dubai continues to build on its dual role as a major port moving oil and other goods and as a service hub for the Middle East.’

To the above list, I would add- Bangalore continues to thrive as India’s leading education hub and as a hub for R&D, IT-BPO companies; Mumbai continues to thrive as the city whose professionals arrange financing for mega projects across India and Kolkata for producing intellectuals who fill our history textbooks with crap.

In short, cities will NOT become small. Businesses and intelligent people will NOT move to compact cities. Most of India’s megacities will keep getting bigger. (I’m not saying that there is no future for second cities and therefore we should ignore them. They are a very integral part of the modern economy and need to be accorded that status. That discussion is for another post). Our planners and urban administrators need to imbibe this very basic fact when they are managing our cities. In my opinion, amongst these planners and urban administrators, the ones that need to learn this lesson the most are – public transport officials.

A few months ago, St Srikanth of Depot (Srikanth) and I had a chance to interact with officials of BMRCL (Bangalore Metro Rail Corporation Limited) and BMTC (Bangalore Metropolitan Transport Corporation). Almost every second conversation we had with a management level employee revealed their deep discomfort about private operated public transport facilities. Before these conversations, I admit to having hoped that public transport officials would recognize that government ownership of public transport infrastructure and the legal monopoly over these operations would increasingly lead to very bad transportation outcomes. Those hopes were dashed after the above mentioned conversation. I realized that these buggers are going to sit on their arses, wait for their retirement and meanwhile prevent and/or harass tech enabled transportation systems like Uber, Ola and ZipGo and oppose private entry into the business in the traditional forms.

Before continuing that rant, I will emphasise the need for an efficient public transportation system in every city. As mentioned before, every city is essentially a concentrated labor market. Businesses – low tech, high tech, service sector, manufacturing like to set themselves up in cities as these cities offer them access to a large pool of labor in short distance. This in combination with the fact that most of their suppliers and customers too do the same lead to something known as agglomeration benefits. All the above depends upon the efficiency of the transportation system and the density of urban living. The higher the efficiency of transportation networks and the density of urban living, the greater the agglomeration benefits and therefore higher incomes.

Let me illustrate this with an example from our National Capital Region. Say Srikanth decides to shift from Bengaluru [He is desperate to] to the wretched hellhole that is NCR and rents a place in Dharuhera (About 45kms from Gurugram). He is forced to rent here because he has a taste for luxury and but his bank account isn’t all that good enough to enable him to live in Gurugram. It takes about an hour to travel between Gurugram and Dharuhera as he travels through public transport, Uber and Ola aren’t available in Dharuhera and the nearest metro is HUDA city center which is about 40kms away.  What are the chances of him accepting a job paying ₹60k per month near Rajiv Chowk i.e. Connaught Place, New Delhi over a job paying ₹55k in Gurugram ? (It takes about 2.5 hrs to travel from Dharuhera to Connaught Place). Very low. He most probably will take the ₹55k job as it saves him 3 hours of travelling everyday. The company in Connaught Place will probably have to do with lower quality labor or increase the offer and thus incur higher labor cost.

Haryana Roadways is one of the worst state road transportation companies (SRTCs) with only about 100 buses in operation in Gurugram on about 15 routes. If one attempts to go via public transport from Dharuhera to Gurugram, he or she is forced to take the very rickety illegal buses as the Haryana Roadways buses on the route are very infrequent. The private ones that operate are harassed and sometimes seized if they use the Haryana Roadways logo to escape harassment. If private bus operators existed and the construction on the highway is completed, the route will take about half an hour. Srikanth might take up a job a little further away from Gurgaon say at Hauz Khas @ ₹58k.

Now, back to my rant on BMTC and BMRCL. The old geezers in BMTC and their parent PSU- KSRTC will NEVER give up their legal monopoly. The ones in BMRCL will take another 10 years to realize that Majestic and MG Road no longer are the locus of business activity in Bengaluru city and that the locus has shifted to suburbs like Whitefield and Sarjapur. If Karnataka and other states stop harassing tech based taxi and bus aggregators like Ola, Uber, ZipGo and ends the legal monopoly of SRTCs and their subsidiaries, the transportation outcomes in our cities will vastly improve and believe me and the years of Urban Economics research- the resultant increase in agglomeration benefits will make everyone richer off.

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My fascination with buses

Impromptu Post Alert: I’m going to try and explain where my fascination for buses comes from.

It all dates back to 1998. I believe I had mentioned this on the second blog post where I spoke about why Bus No. 56 meant to much to me. This pretty much predates that. I spent my early days growing up in in Madras, known to most people as Chennai, where buses have an interesting story of their own. Earlier operated by the Pallavan Transport Corporation, and since renamed to the Metropolitan Transport Corporation, these buses [originally green in colour] enjoyed a notorious infamy similar to Delhi’s Blueline buses. They had a nickname too: Pallavan Kollavan, which literally means Killer Pallavan. My first encounter with a Pallavan bus was aroun 1997 when a bus drove off the bridge over the Adayar River at Ekkaduthangal and landed on the older bridge below. For some strange reason, this incident remained on my mind for weeks.

Fast forward to 1998, shift to Bombay, also known as Mumbai. The city that I today consider my home. I had been to Bombay back in 1996, but it was when I shifted in 1998 that things started falling into place. Staying in Vashi, the first thing that was done was to find a school to get into. The school we found, was in Santacruz. Thus, my first trip in a BEST bus, a 505 Ltd from Vashi to Bandra occurred.

A BEST Bus No. 505Ltd in its current avatar, with a scrolling LED display.
A BEST Bus No. 505Ltd of the Bandra Depot heading from Bandra Bus Station to CBD Belapur in its current avatar, with a scrolling LED display. Image copyright Srikanth Ramakrishnan, CC-BY-SA 4.0 International, available on the Wikimedia Commons.

Slowly, as I grew up, trips by buses increased. First, it was the school bus. Since we had multiple school buses going to the same destination, with different routes, several of my fellow bus mates started having mock rivalries with students in different buses. It became a matter of prestige when our bus reached before the other one.

Slowly, I started taking BEST buses when I missed the school bus, or had to come back late. I used to take BEST buses for various classes and my attachment to them began. Of course, living in Bombay meant that there would be an extra attachment to BEST because there were proper marked bus stops, both shelters and unipoles everywhere.

This slowly escalated to a point where I preferred my 56 to the school bus.  I used stuff all the tickets [then and now considered a Collectors item] in my backpack. I was once caught by a Ticket Checker and he went thru around 300 tickets in my bag looking for the right one. I’ve never had such a collectors fetish for any other city’s tickets.

Come 2008, and a shift to Bangalore. I have to take a bus home from college. I discover that the city’s buses were [and still are] lacking in many ways. No direct buses home! I had to switch buses for a 5km distance. This acute badly managed set of buses got me interested in how to fix the issues. I wrote numerous times to the BMTC and then Transport Minister R Ashok. I posted on Facebook, and Skyscrapercity. Not that it made much of a difference though. I had a box of BMTC tickets, and unlike BEST, had no special attachment to them. I decided to build a model plane [curiously named the Flightplane Vajra after BMTC’s Vajra buses from where most of the tickets originated]. I designed the template with a regular sheet of paper, and thickened it with layers of bus tickets. Of course, the plane never did get built, its fuselage and wings are lying in different sections of my cupboard, mainly because I abandoned my Engineering dreams to take up a BSc.

In 2009, I came to the conclusion that buses were the future of Transport. I badgered anyone around me who was willing to listen. It was the year I made my first long-distance bus trip from Bangalore to Bombay, one that was to occur frequently in the years to come. I just hunted around looking for validation for my theory. I thought I was right when Mercedes Benz launched their buses, but it fizzled out. Later on, Scania’s entry and its presently strong market share have proven me correct. The biggest validation I did receive, however, was in 2016, when R Jagannathan of Swarajya wrote an article titled Why The Future Of Urban Transport Is The Bus, And Not Necessarily The Metro. I lurk around Swarajya too, writing on transport and urban affairs.

Post Bangalore, I moved to Coimbatore. I took to buses again. I traveled around the city, the suburbs, nearby districts, exploring towns, villages, rivers, farmlands, temples, etc. During Republic Day 2013, I traveled 350km by bus to Ulundurpet and Villupuram to take a photograph of two Toll Plazas.

I made a few trips to Ahmedabad in this period where I got addicted to traveling by the Janmarg. Being my first BRTS experience, it had a profound impact on me.

Then came the next move to Pune. Along with Pune, came a few trips to Dehradun, Delhi and Gurgaon. I made full use this time, with complete travel across all cities, taking as many buses as possible. The Pimpri-Chinchwad BRTS has a special connection to me.

By 2015, I had decided that I *just had to* start writing about buses somewhere. Starting a blog seemed to be the most apt thing to do, and thus, I did.

Here is my philosophy behind taking buses:

  1. You learn the city. I don’t look at a city by its stores, malls and cafes. I look at it for its topography, its layout, the culture of each locality.
  2. Buy a Daily Pass, board a bus and just scoot off! Take a camera or a phone, and click random photographs while traveling. You learn a lot of interesting stuff.
  3. I learnt Kannada and Marathi thanks to buses. I went from knowing just Aai Kuthe [Where is your mother] to Bus kramank 56 ghe, ani Khar dandachya bus stop utara [Take Bus 56 and get down at Khar Danda bus stop. I know my Marathi is still weak].

So, that’s the story behind my bus-mania!

This post is dedicated to three very special friends:

  • Geetzy, who although doesn’t take a bus, encourages me to remain positive. To put it in perspective, don’t fret in traffic. You are in a bus with a Pass, not in an Uber, paying by the minute.
  • Nidhi, who till date is the only person who has understood my craze, and has bought a pass to accompany me in a bus with her camera.
  • Sammy, who clicked a photo of a bus when I badgered him to do so.

So go ahead, share my craze among your friends. We all have a passion or obsession. What’s yours?

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How serious are we about Security?

How serious are we about security while traveling?

Everyone has been through a security check at airports, often having to go thru multiple levels of checking, scanning, and frisking. But what about others?

X-ray Luggage screening device at Suvarnabhumi International Airport, Bangkok
X-ray Luggage screening device at Suvarnabhumi International Airport, Bangkok. Image copyright Mattes in the Public Domain, available on the Wikimedia Commons.

It is rare to see functional Security systems in Railway stations across the country. Mumbai’s Suburban Rail witnessed a series of horrific bombings a decade ago while BEST buses have been the target of bomb blasts twice: 2002 and 2003, both outside Ghatkopar Station.

So what do we do?

Stringent security checks aren’t always feasible. You can do it for an airline because of the lesser crowd. But can you imagine doing that for every passenger at Mumbai Central or New Delhi station? It’s humanely impossible, mainly because of the volume of people.

Metro systems do have a decent security check in place. Delhi Metro uses the Central Industrial Security Force that the Airports across the country use. The Airport Express also has CISF guards, but they are stricter, and the security checks are more in line with the airport security checks. Mumbai’s security is handled by the Maharashtra State Security Corporation do a good job too. Bangalore, Chennai and Gurgaon employ Private Security agencies who, depending on the situation, may or may not be great.

But this will be a herculean task across bus stops right? Maybe, but there can be a workaround for this.

A simple workaround would be installing CCTV cameras in public spaces, starting with Bus Stations, Railway Stations, Malls, Shopping Areas, etc. where the public throngs in huge numbers. This can then be gradually rolled out to other sections of the city.

An addition to this would be using an Infrared camera along with the CCTV camera. An infrared camera is able to capture images in low light which a normal camera would not be able to see. Along with this, a thermal image scanner can also be employed. A thermal scanner will show the monitoring guards, different heat levels of anything within range. Combined with the CCTV and Infrared, it might help pinpoint explosive devices or weapons. Of course, installing lakhs of them across each bus stop would be a pain. The plus side is that this set-up can then be used for tracking buses, as well as curbing violations of traffic rules.

What do you say?

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Saving the BEST: A look back

Saving the BEST, a wonderful article by Rajendra Aklekar, journalist and author of the highly acclaimed book ‘Halt Station India’, appeared on Sunday’s edition of The Hindu. I’m going to attempt to reinterpret his article with a little bit of my own thoughts in the process.

Mumbai has traditionally been dependent on its railway lines for commuting. This dependency has been justified by their reach, optimal efficiency, and reliability. This makes them more than just a Rail Network. It makes it a lifeline, because it brings together the entire Mumbai Metropolitan Region.

The story with the road is similar. BEST buses have been on the roads for quite a while now. Motor Buses were to make their first appearance in 1913, operated by the Bombay Electricity Supply and Tramways Company Limited [BES &T Co. Ltd] which was set up in 1907, but didn’t turn up till 1926 because of World War I. Prior to this, the Bombay Tramway Company Limited operated horse-drawn trams in Bombay from 1873 with Electric Trams appearing on the scene in 1906 after BES&T took over the BTC. Today, BEST’s ubiquitious red buses form the last mile [or kilometre] connectivity for millions of passengers from both the city itself, as well as its suburbs and satellite towns.

However, things are changing. BEST is already in knee-deep trouble, getting passengers, especially for its lacklusture AC services that have been beaten by NMMT and TMT, although BEST is seemingly gaining a steady foothold after the recent fare revision. Further, app-based aggregators, including Ola, Uber, ZipGo, Shuttl, rBus, are all eating into BESTs revenue. To add to this, the Mumbai Metropolitan Regional Transport Authority [MMRTA] is now allowing private buses to ply point to point within the city without a permit.

The fault here lies in not only the competition, but also BEST. Corruption, Politics, Unions, all have made the Red Bus seemingly irrelevant in today’s life.

To put it in figures, BESTs Transport Deficit is -₹858.02crore. Its Electricity Surplus of ₹925.41crore is what is keeping it floating, along with some cash flowing in from the MCGM.

While it common to understand that Public Transport, being considered Public Service is bound to go thru losses, why are BESTs coffers in such a precarious state?

As Mr. Aklekar puts it, it all has to do with the management of BEST. It has an Administrative Wing and a Committee that is a Political Body. The two often overstep their boundaries, since it is blurred, and cause skirmishes, which leads to losses.

Along with this, it is also BESTs lack of keeping pace. NMMT and TMT went the BMTC way by procuring high-end Volvo buses while BEST remained with their scam-tainted Punjab-made Cerita fleet that were procured under the name of ‘Kinglong’ buses. This, along with the fact that BEST had abysmally high fares for their dilapidated buses just made things worse. BEST’s ITS was a total failure, because it required users to send an SMS and was full of bugs. Later on, it got shut down. Of course, let us not forget BEST’s tryst with Electronic Ticketing, which for a Municipal Level Transco, is a commendable effort, one worthy of a case study.

While BEST doesn’t provide WiFi on buses, something the Mumbai Metro does, I have seen a bus with a White Box behind the Driver saying WiFi. Maybe this was a one-off trial.

While Mr. Aklekar points out that BEST didn’t have a public time-table, I did find out that BEST did indeed have one, visible on its website when searching for a route, and also visible on the Mobile app m-Indicator. Of course, the increased traffic on the city’s roads have practically rendered timetables useless. Last September, the day after Anant Chaturdashi, I ended up catching the 9.30 AS4 from NSCI to Backbay at 10.15 thanks to the traffic.

When Delhi can track its Cluster buses and Autos, why can’t BEST? 3500 buses aren’t hard to track. BEST can set up a system on a Public-Private Partnership and licence its API for others to use if they’re unable to give it out for free.

He also talks of bus stops using electricity for advertising. The power can also be used to light it up for the safety of commuters, as well as a Public Information system for arrivals. I believe this should be easy, atleast within town limits, given that BEST supplies power there. BEST can also explore the possibility of solar powered bus stops.

Why can’t BEST go the Ola-Uber way and tap into the Google Maps API to show where a bus is? Get an app, track buses, guide commuters to the nearest bus stop. Let them buy a ticket with the app! Paper tickets are great. Make them greater. Print some ads on them. BEST used to do so with their earlier punched tickets. Why not now? Print a WiFi password on it as well, so that commuters with a ticket can use it. Passholders can probably have it using an app!

While I had earlier stated that I would be favour of participation from the private sector to keep the city’s transport in shape, the case with BEST is peculiar. The decentralised nature of the Mumbai Metropolitan Region allows each Municipal Corporation to run their own buses. Why can’t BEST, NMMT and TMT coordinate their bus services? Why do they have their toxic competition?

BEST represents the city of Mumbai in many ways. It is a Heritage structure in itself. If not for anything else, BEST, its red buses, their bell pulls, the Double Deckers, makes the Undertaking unique in India. Even the Purple Faeries make them unique.

BEST needs to get its act together. Or else India’s Oldest Transport Body, a crucial part of Mumbai’s Heritage, Culture and History would be lost to the annals of time.

 

Click here to read Rajendra Aklekar’s article Saving the BEST.

Click here to buy Rajendra Aklekar’s Halt Station India

 

 

 

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