Lessons From The Diamond City: How Surtis Gave Up The Tuk Tuk For The Bus

At a time when every transco is struggling to get people to board the bus, there’s a faint glimmer of hope, and interestingly, it comes from the Diamond City of Surat.

A year ago, Surat was like Pune in the early 2000s – autorickshaws and two-wheelers ruled the roost, but now, the Surat Municipal Corporation (SMC), has managed to get 93 per cent of the city on a bus!

But how did they manage to do this?

Times of India, in a report has listed exactly what Surat has done. Surat used the two most important things in modern mobility – technology and pricing – to achieve this stellar record. The disadvantage the SMC had to fight – only the SitiLink BRTS buses were air-conditioned while the Surat City Bus (SCB) was not.

Starting in 2013, the SMC launched a new line of services labelled Blueline buses, operated by a private operator. These buses included air conditioned buses.  A total of 120 bus stops were constructed by the SMC prior to the Blueline buses being flagged off. The Blueline service is expected to run 125 buses for six years.

The advantage that the SMC had was both SitiLink and the SCB were agencies of the SMC, leading to better existential cooperation between them.

Prior to the launch of SitiLink, private operators ruled the roost. With an average 7-8 per cent growth, the city needed an efficient transit service.

The Sitilink deployed an IT-based system to monitor transit violations like speeding, missing stops and arbirtary change in routes (Wish BMTC did something of this sort). It also has a central messaging system for all vehicles in case of any event or emergency (BEST does this using their Trimax ETMs). Fares are kept relatively low with ₹4 being the minimum fare to compete  with share-autos.

However, the SitiLink incurs an annual loss of ₹7-8 crore. The figure is expected to increase as more services are brought in, but is still low given how much losses other transcos (especially DTC) makes.

In order to combat losses, the SMC collects a one-time “vehicle tax” from each new vehicle. At 2 per cent, this gives them enough money to keep operations running smoothly. Along with this, a portion of the Floor Space Index (FSI) along the transit corridors are collected and meant exclusively for public transport.

The important advantage that Surat (and even Ahmedabad) has is that it services are operated by the civic body which knows the city best, and also can raise funds the right way.

Well done Surat!

Featured image: BRTS Buses in Surat (CEPT University)

 

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Competition or Not, Why is BEST not innovating much?

It’s not new that BEST is in serious hot water. The Undertaking has for long been in dire straits, going so far as to allow full body advertisements on every bus in the fleet to canceling all AC buses. But what is the reason? Lack of innovation? Yes.

 

The oldest transco in India has been unable to keep up with the times, forcing it into this situation. Why?

Simple. The lack of innovation due to toxic competition, with toxic being the key word. You’ll soon realise why it’s important.

BEST is an autonomous agency of the MCGM. Thus, the MCGM isn’t liable to bail out BEST if it ever needs to. Other transcos, such as DTC, MTC, BMTC, NMMT, PMPML, all get bailed out by their municipal bodies/state governments.

Further, due to BEST’s core competition being NMMT and TMT, both of which are sarkari bodies, innovation won’t happen.

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Should I write an ‘argumentative essay’ on the benefits of land transportation?

Should I write an ‘argumentative essay’ on the benefits of land transportation?

I think I should. I really should. Another month has gone by without much on this blog. I’m sorry. Being in the media business is not an easy task.

Like last month, I did manage to get myself featured in Swarajya’s print edition this month as well; do check it out here: 70 Years After Its Creation, Pakistan Is A Failed State.

Now the important question. A while back, a friend of mine told me about a discussion she had with someone else. She told me that the topic moved towards land-based transit vs others, and referred the other person to my first article on Swarajya: Lesson From Amtrak’s Failure: Invest Heavily In Railways. She then asked me if I could write an ‘argumentative essay’ on the matter. Perhaps I should. I asked on Twitter:

The results were surprisingly positive, so yes, I am going to write one.

I intend to do it in two sections: Intercity and Intracity. I have had my had my reservations about aviation in intracity spaces, you can read about it here: Are We Ready For Three-Dimensional Transport?

So, requesting you folks to drop in a line in the comments section with additional feedback.

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If I were to write a book, what should it be about?

Okie, so I apologise for not posting on the blog for the whole of August. It’s a bad habbit for a blogger. I admit, I have not written much this month either. I was down with dengue for a week (thank you Bangalore). I have, however, been featured in Swarajya’s print edition this month, do have a look here: Dharma and the Manager.

So, you now know that my writings have been featured on several other places including Swarajya, The Quint, and most importantly, the Foundation for Economic Education.

Given that I have managed get myself this far, I know that the day won’t be too far when I will be able to write for other publications.

At this juncture, I’d like to ask you, dear readers, one important question:

If I were to write a book, what should it be on?

I ran a Twitter poll on this; it surprisingly got 22 votes.

Don’t go by the poll options however, for I could only put four options there. I can write on a lot more but preferably transport and infra related.

I plan to soon write a long-form piece on a major economic concept related to transport along with another blogger, Kundan Srivastav. You can follow Kundan on Twitter, he tweets @kun_srivastav.

Till then, do drop your ideas, suggestions and more in the comments. I plan to start writing a series of essays on modern transit, maybe this can be a good start.

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The viability of EVs hinges on deregulation of the transport sector

The last two months have been very eventful for electric vehicles in India. Starting with Nagpur’s Electric Mass Transit Project, the sector has been abuzz with various entries into the electric vehicle (EV) scene. With Ola Cabs calling the shots in Nagpur, two Munjal family ventures– Hero Future Energies and Hero MotoCorp announced their foray into the charging infra sector, while public-sector NTPC Limited set up charging stations in the National Capital Region (NCR). Further, it was also announced that the Centre was reportedly in talks with Japanese investment major Softbank to procure two lakh electric buses.

Given Piyush Goyal’s announcement that India would sell only EVs by 2030, this might sound like things are on track, but are they?

Arguably, the question that arose after this statement was whether this would be feasible or not. At this juncture it is crucial to look at Goyal’s words. The target, according to what Goyal to PTI reporters was to ensure that only EVs are sold. Going by this, it would be possible to ensure that fuel-based vehicles are not sold, either through taxation or emission-based policies. There is no doubt about that. However, whether electric vehicles would be practical is something with a bigger question mark at the end of it.

So, are electric vehicles really that viable from a practical view?

Possibly not, at least not yet. The market is still not open enough for demand and supply economics to take over.

Start deregulating the market

Governments across the country have stopped private operators from plying legally. Of course, this doesn’t stop many of them from plying illegally, like the ones commonly seen on Bangalore’s roads. When the Government of Maharashtra is partnering with Ola Cabs to provide electric cabs in Nagpur, why can’t it allow Ola to operate electric buses? Private players will be able to raise the capital required for electric buses faster than government bodies and given the stark contrast between the two in terms of operations and quality of service, they would operate them better too.

Services like Ola Shuttle, CityFlo and ZipGo appeal to the middle-class by offering services such as a reserved seat, free wi-fi, cashless payments and convenient timings. If the government cannot offer these services, which it evidently seems unable to do so, let the markets take over.

Some manufacturers like Volvo Buses are even offering their buses on a turnkey basis where the operator need not buy the bus, but just pay the company who will lease out the buses. Public sector agencies may not go in for these for various reasons, but the private sector surely will.

 

Charging Points Need Deregulation Too

From all the investment that we have seen so far in charging spaces, there is a clear trend visible. Charging infrastructure is entirely in the hands of a few large bodies establishments that have money. While it is perfectly reasonable to expect the government to provide charging points as a means of garnering additional revenue, it is not desirable for the government to either be involved in, or control the entire system.

As we move towards a more market-oriented economy, we need to understand that EVs, like any other commodity needs to be deregulated massively.

To start this, we need to enable individuals to lease out parking spaces for those looking for them. Not every major provider will have a charging point in the vicinity, and not every vehicle might have enough battery power to go up to a charging point. If an individual has a vacant parking lot with a charging point, they can then choose to lease it out to someone. Leasing out vacant spaces as parking is not exactly legal in India and the closest we have come to legalising this was in 2016 when the Gurgaon Municipal Corporation proposed to make amendments in the local laws to allow people to do so.

Outside of India, leasing out vacant lands as parking spaces is quite common with several countries even having an app for it. If the sector was deregulated, this would solve a lot of problems for us, from congestion to charging and would in many ways make commuting easier. It might even encourage people to take up public transport for part of their journey while leaving their vehicles to charge at some parking space. This system of ad-hoc charging spots will answer a lot of demand and supply questions similar to how platforms like Airbnb helped make living spaces more affordable.

Unlike fuel, electricity as a commodity is a lot more flexible. In this scenario, electricity is not being resold– only the parking space is being leased out. Electricity is another commodity being consumed by a tenant who in turn pays for it. Further, similar to concept of peak pricing followed in the hospitality and transport sector, such pricing can be applied here too. Since most distribution companies charge different rates based on the total electricity consumption, owners can change price brackets as and when their consumption goes up.

Local bodies also could provide incentives or tax rebates to builders who provide charging spaces in residential complexes. Since many commercial and industrial complexes have charging points, it shouldn’t be much of a problem to have this emulated across all sectors.

The government needs to ponder about deregulating the transport sector heavily, if it intends for a complete EV scene by 2030.

Note: This article was written on 13 June 2017, after reading an article titled A misguided push towards electric vehicles. For some reason, I thought it would be a great idea to send this article across to Mint, which was stupid on my part. The Mint team did respond to me, but then practically sat on this article for over a month, making it evident that they had rejected the article but had failed to inform me about it.

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How can we reduce the time taken to cross Toll Plazas?

Ever sat in a 505Ltd at the Vashi Toll Naka wondering when the bus would cross?

Recently, word spread that people would not have to pay if they waited for longer than two minutes and 50 seconds in the queue at a toll plaza. While the original report stating this was later on rectified, stating that the three minute window was valid at the counter only and that too only in the state of Punjab, it did leave a lot of people wondering­ – How much longer do we have to wait to cross this toll plaza?

The Ministry of Road Transport and Highways (MoRTH) did clarify back in April that there was no provision for exemption from toll due to time delays.

In 2015, it was reported that delays at toll plazas cost the country Rs 60,000 crore a year in terms of productivity.

 

So, how do we fix this problem?

The first of them is ostensibly, the FASTag. As I had mentioned earlier, FASTag could solve nearly all the problems caused due to time delays at toll plazas. However, the issue is that it would solve nearly all the problems and not all of them.

Delays due to non FASTag users as well as the large queue of vehicles before reaching the counter need to be tackled, albeit separately.

Round fares

Toll rates need to be rounded off to the nearest multiple of Rs 10. Some toll plazas, such as the Thoppur toll plaza in Tamil Nadu are notorious for having fares such as Rs 83 or Rs 292 which cause delays due to returning change. When change is not available, operators resort to giving toffees to the driver. Rounded fares would make it easier and more efficient to pay and will plug revenue leaks. It also reduces the time taken to pull out change, count it and hand it back.

Exact Change Lanes

The exact change lane, pioneered by the Garden State Parkway in New Jersey is an automated lane where the user has to pay the exact amount. The system uses a basket where coins are thrown in by users and then mechanically counted by a machine. A photograph of the vehicle and its registration is also taken and the gates open. While the exact same method cannot be replicated in India – toll rates on the Parkway don’t cross $1.50 – a system that accepts notes, similar to those seen at Metro stations can be replicated. The only possible issue that could arise out of this is the damage to the machines. We have all seen how dysfunctional touch-screen machines and ATMs across the country get because people are not too sure how to use it.

Lane Discipline

The lack of lane discipline is undoubtedly the largest cause of delays at toll plazas. Impatient drivers cut lanes and try to fit themselves between two cars when they see another lane moving faster. Often, a driver might see an empty gap between two lanes and drive into that gap, followed by others, thus creating a new lane where none existed. At the toll plaza itself, when it becomes clear that no lane existed there, they then force themselves into existing lanes. Since the level of impatience is common across both lanes, nobody allows another to join in, thus resulting in more delays.

While enforcing lane discipline is the duty of the Regional Transport Authority (RTA) while issuing driving licences and the traffic police, these are long term changes. At the toll plaza, different approaches need to be made to enforce lane discipline. In order to solve lane discipline, physical changes need to be made.

Lane separators

Lanes at toll plazas need physical barriers separating them from one another. These barriers which are usually not very long need to be at least 100 metres long so to prevent lane switching and ensuring smoother flow. Further, they need to be removable so that in case a lane shuts down due to a technical glitch, they can be shifted to another lane.

Reversible lanes

The concept of reversible lanes has been in use in India, most notably at the two toll plazas along the Mumbai-Pune Expressway. Reversible lanes refer to lanes that can be used in either direction. At toll plazas, depending on the volume of traffic per direction, certain lanes on the side with lesser traffic can be “reversed” and the side with more traffic. Therefore, depending on the volume of traffic, lanes can be reversed accordingly and more vehicles can be accommodated in the same space.

Staggered toll plazas

Another concept that has slowly seen implementation in India, at several locations, staggered toll plazas are toll plazas where some lanes in the same direction cross the main toll plaza and then have a separate set of counters of their own.

(can insert a Google map screeny here)

This system was referred to by Ralph E Gomory as the addition of lanes ‘upstream’ or ‘downstream’ of a toll plaza and has been use in New York City where it was reported to have reduced congestion.

 

Reducing delays at toll plazas can greatly reduce travel times, increase productivity and ensure faster shipment of goods and services across the country. It just remains to be seen if government agencies and concessionaires are willing to go the extra mile and implement some measures to reduce the waiting time at toll plazas. Toll plazas cannot be eliminated, but the delays can be.

Now for buses: The only time I’ve seen government buses use any non-cash form of payment is on the AC Express series on the Bandra-Worli Sea Link. Otherwise, while they are generally exempted in several areas such as the MEP toll plazas, they still have to stand in line.

The solution is simple. Get FASTag. Enforce FASTag lanes. That way, these buses won’t have to stand with the rest of the vehicles and can go through without any hiccups. All state-owned buses too should get them. It would make things a lot easier, wouldn’t it?

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Lessons From Dubai’s Robocop

Dubai recently inducted a robot police officer into its police force. While the reaction is varied, it is largely full of awe that a robot has been made a police officer.

According to The National, the robot in its initial phase is to be stationed at malls and tourist attractions where people can report crimes or pay traffic fines using a touchscreen on its body. The Dubai Police intends to later on extend its applications to chasing suspects and catching those who don’t pay parking fees in paid parking lots. The robot also is fitted with cameras to stream footage continuously to a command centre. A future batch of robots will be deployed for handling major crimes.

All said and done, this single robot means a lot to human society as a whole. It is not only about law enforcement, automation and jobs, but a whole lot of other things that can drastically change the way we live our lives.

Automation Is Key

Automation and getting a machine to do work greatly improves our efficiency, as individuals as well as organisations. Remember the time when a bus conductor had to manually count and tabulate the number of tickets sold and then report it? The system got an overhaul when electronic machines were introduced, reducing the workload on the staff, but didn’t eliminate the problem of conductors pocketing money. Then came the entirely automated system of prepaid cards and conductor-less transport, and the problem pretty much solved itself.

Similarly, when Indian police departments got smartphones to issue challans for traffic violations, it make the work easier for the police department, it did not do much to check bribes being taken by cops and letting people off. In fact, a report in The Hindu states that corruption levels rose by a huge margin.

With a robot handling things, it would reduce corruption a lot. A machine will not ask for a bribe unless it is programmed to do so. And if it is programmed to do so, it would be easy to find out who did it.

Automation has made a lot of things easier and improved transparency. Digitisation has made it easier to maintain records, catch offenders, and increase punishments for serial offenders.

More Jobs?

Automation also increases employment. A 2015 report in The Guardian says that automation has created more better-paying jobs as opposed to destroying them. In the context of the ‘Robocop’ in Dubai, it will certainly create more skilled jobs. The National reports that these robots will be trained to speak in various languages, issue violation tickets to offenders, accept crime reports and even carry heavy loads. People will have to work on the software, add new features, maintain the systems, etc. Further, other companies may develop their own product. This competition will definitely create more jobs for people in the information technology and electronics industry.

Focus on what matters

Now for the crucial part. If basic tasks such as general traffic policing and issuing tickets is taken care of by robots, humans can focus on more important tasks such as major crimes. This improves the efficiency of the entire force. Further, with the robot stated to get facial recognition systems soon, it can help recognise perpetrators and make things easier for the police force to both prevent crime, as well as catch criminals.

Automation in the law enforcement sector is a welcome step towards a better quality of living for humans. Given how crimes often go unsolved either due to understaffed polices forces or inept officials, the Dubai Police Robot may well be a role model for all of us to emulate in varying degrees.

Similar to how EVMs helped curb electoral crimes, robots too can do the same but to a larger extent. Imagine a troop of robots deployed in areas subject to left-wing extremism. Police officers can remotely monitor the system and take calculated steps in the event of an attack. While the robots are susceptible to attack, making them impervious to bullets would make it better to send them in rather than send in a human.

Dubai has shown the world that automation is indeed needed. The world should take heed of this and emulate atleast part of it.

Featured Image: The new Robot Police Officer in Dubai (Photo Credit: Dubai Police Smart Services Department)

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Transit Review: Hello There

Dear Reader,

Thank you for subscribing to Transit Review. It makes me feel happy that you have trusted some of your valuable time on a weekend to read about transport.

While I was hoping to launch the newsletter this week, several unscheduled and unforeseen events prevented this from happening. However, rest assured, things will be on track, and next week, we hope to see things rolling out.
A special thanks to the x number of subscribers (0<x<50; solve for x). Your support is is the sole reason this newsletter even exists.

In This Week’s News:

Heavy rains continued to have absolutely no impact on transport in the city of Bangalore, as always. The city’s transport system only struggles during periods of incessant drizzle.

Elon Musk commended India’s ‘We will go fully electric in transit by 2030’ plan. Of course, whether we will succeed in it and whether we will have that much electricity by 2030 and more importantly whether it will be green or not…. Never mind.

Nagpur has launched India’s first ever ‘electric mass transit’ project. Someone tell Maharashtra that mass transit is not mass transit without buses.

That’s all from this end folks. Till next week. Adios.
Please send all comments, feedback, angry mails, by hitting reply.
If you want to write or would like to commercially exploit this newsletter, feel free to drop a line by hitting reply.

Thanks, and regards,
​Srikanth

Transit Review from BESTpedia (Volume 1)

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Newsletter: Transit Review

Yo folks,

Some of you may be happy, some may be not-so-happy about the fact that this blog does not have email newsletters. To be honest, email newsletters telling people what has been published may or may not work. However, what does work, is a newsletter, one that has some good content.

Presenting, Transit Review. (No, unlike the earlier post about a new magazine titled Transit, this ain’t no joke)

A weekly newsletter, (currently planned for the weekend) Transit Review is basically a a quick write-up of what’s going around in the commuting scene, giving what I hope can be considered a fresh new perspective of transport and commuting. After all, you need to get to work right?

I promise not to spam you, but merely make you read a small write-up (not more than 1,200 words I promise).

So if you think you’re game to be made a Transport Zombie like me:

Go ahead; sign up. Be nice, share this page as well.

Note: If you came from Facebook Instant Articles, you probably won’t be seeing the sign-up form below this. In that case, please visit the following link to sign up:

http://tinyletter.com/TransitReview

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Transit Review is proudly powered by a combination of TinyLetter by MailChimp and WordPress. (Not to forget the various buses I take).

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Local Economies, Explained

Alright, I know this isn’t really bus-related, but it is transport economics related. So here goes.

Men selling goods at a traffic signal in Mumbai
Men selling goods at a traffic signal in Mumbai. Image copyright Vikramdeep Sidhu, CC-Attribution 2.0 Generic, available on the Wikimedia Commons.

Ever head of the local economy or the local ecosystem? Or its variants: The Traffic Signal Ecosystem or the College Ecosystem?

Any establishment that witnesses footfalls develops an informal ecosystem around it. The traffic signal ecosystem is among the best visible examples. At a traffic signal, it is not uncommon to find people selling toys, books, newspapers, flowers. The same is often visible at railway level crossings. Similarly, the temple ecosystem sees people selling flowers, camphor, fruits and other offerings outside a temple. A college ecosystem sees numerous housing units (hostels), eateries, stationery shops, tea shops, juice stalls, chaat vendors, etc. in the vicinity of a college.

If one were to take a stroll outside Andheri station in Mumbai, they would see umpteen outlets ranging from book stores, newspaper vendors, tea stalls, juice vendors, eateries, vegetable vendors, shoe stalls (cobblers), people selling stationery, clothing, jewellery and more. This is more or less the same across all major railway stations from Mumbai Central to Ahmedabad Junction to New Delhi. It is common sense that any major project will develop an ecosystem of this sort around it. A popular joke says that when Neil Armstrong first set foot on the moon, he was greeted by a Marwadi tea vendor. Point proven.

Whenever any government announces a major development project (mostly infrastructure), it is invariably met with a lot of scepticism and criticism. While scepticism stems from corruption within the system, delays in execution and the fact that some money is siphoned off within the political and bureaucratic ecosystem, criticism is more often than not based on unfounded claims.

To give a context to this discussion; I am referring to an article carried by Swarajya in January this year about the economic benefits of the Mumbai-Ahmedabad High Speed Rail (HSR) corridor, also known as the Bullet Train. While the direct benefits of the project to the economy of the belt has been discussed earlier, there are a few things that need to be addressed. As with any announcement related to a major infrastructure project, it met with a fair amount of scepticism, and predictably a lot more criticism, for various reasons. Among the various phrases thrown out describing the project, were “White Elephant”, “Showpiece”, “Waste of Money”, and “Hypocrisy” (due to the two cities being connected). Let us address these issues, keeping just the ‘Bullet Train’ in mind.

The Formal Impact

The formal impact refers to the people formally associated with the project once operational. Metro projects employ hundreds of staffers. Metro projects employ engineers, maintenance workers, public relations spokespersons, security staff, ticketing and administrative staff, locomotive pilots, etc. Given the magnitude of the project, plus the level of automation involved, the number of people formally employed will be huge. The engineers form a bulk of any mass transit project, and have a round-the-clock duty to ensure that services run uninterrupted.

Why can’t the money be used elsewhere?

On one hand we demand better services from the government, and on the other hand, we criticise it when it decides to spend money on a project that will benefit thousands.

These big ticket projects will definitely go forward in getting more people employed, be it in the formal or the informal sector.

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