Uber Movement: Can it help us solve our Transport Problems?

Uber recently debuted its new Platform, Uber Movement (http://movement.uber.com) which will offer users access to its traffic data.

According to Uber’s blogpost on the same, Movement is meant to be a website that uses Uber’s data to help urban planners make informed decisions about our cities.

Now this might actually work out to be the best thing to happen to us!

Let us take Mumbai and Bengaluru as an example.

Both BEST and BMTC and an eTicketing system and an ITS with a vehicle tracker in place. With these two systems, the transco is able to:

  • Place the bus on a map.
  • Compute the number of tickets sold on different stages of different bus routes.
  • Superimpose the two onto a single dataset to identify where maximum passengers are and and what time. Using this data, one can come to the conclusion of time taken between two stops, and what time people are more or most likely to catch the bus.

Now, what can Uber’s data add to this dateset:

  • Average traffic conditions. While this can be ascertained using the Vehicle Tracking in Buses as well, Uber’s data is bound to be a little more accurate.
  • Alternative routes between two points. Since Uber relies on Google Maps for its navigation, it normally is able to plot multiple routes from Point A to Point B. This data can be used to launch additional bus routes.

The purpose of a Public Transport Undertaking like BEST or BMTC using Uber Movement’s data is to provide streamlined traffic flow.

Now let us take a real-world example:

Bengaluru

Building up on a previous post (Stuck in Traffic: How I Might Have Averted a Major Jam), let us assume that one would have to travel between Arekere Gate on Bannerghatta Road and the junction of 5th Main and 17th Cross in HSR Layout. As discussed earlier, there are two main routes. Traffic data from Google, Uber and BMTC’s ticket sales would be able to place things on a map. Since BMTC does not have a smart card system in place, it would be difficult to ascertain if the passengers disembarking at Jayadeva are taking a bus towards HSR Layout. If it did have a Smart Card system, or load passes onto an RFID card, this could be ascertained easily.

BMTC can then, based on traffic movements and passenger loads, introduce minibuses between Arekere and HSR Layout via Bomanahalli during peak hours.

Mumbai

Here, let us assume that one has to travel from Cadbury Junction, Thane to SEEPZ, Andheri.

Buses have two routes. Some of them like AS-422 take the Cadbury Junction-Marathon Chowk, Mulund Check Naka, Bhandup, Powai Route. Some, take the direct route by continuing on the Easter Express Highway and taking a right turn onto the Jogeshwari Vikhroli Link Road and then proceeding on to SEEPZ. Uber Movement can help BEST figure out when there is maximum congestion, and using its dataset on how many passengers and where they travel from and to, plan a more optimal route.

 

At the end of the day, Uber Movement is nothing revolutionary, it is merely Google Maps with a little more data, but more data is good for all of us.

What Uber Movement will certainly help us with is planning of land acquisition for newer transit projects, wider roads, metro lines, et al. But those are capital intensive projects. Newer bus routes would be the first step to implementing a full-scale transformation project. It will help make the city’s people smart, irrespective of whether city itself is smart or not.

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USSD Bus Travel: Is it worth a try?

Last week, I wrote an article on Swarajya about a little known Banking System that exists in India: USSD Banking, aka the National Unified USSD Platform (NUUP) that allows anyone with a basic GSM phone to perform financial transactions. You can read the article here: No Smartphone? You Can Still Transfer Money Using A Basic Mobile Phone

A user dialing *99# to access NUUP.
A user dialing *99# to access NUUP. Image: Srikanth Ramakrishnan/Swarajya

Now, to buses. Can we try and replicate the USSD Banking model for bus travel? Why not? We have two major applications for it.

  1. Ticketing.
  2. Tracking.

For all practical purposes, we will try and take BEST and BMTC as an example here. We will also assume a simple USSD number to dial: *456#

Ticketing

Since both BEST and BMTC have an Electronic Ticketing System in place, this can be relatively easy. It is easier for BEST, since BEST has all its bus stops numbered as well. Example: If I am at Nehru Planetarium/NSCI/Lotus bus stop at Worli, with a Bus Stop code 07187. I dial *456#, it asks me to enter the stop code, then I type 07187, it then asks me if I want to 1.Buy a ticket or 2. Know the arrival of buses, I choose 1. It then lists out the buses arriving in the next 30 minutes. I choose AS-4. It then lists out the stops from NSCI to Backbay Depot, I choose Backbay Depot, it asks for confirmation, I say yes. It deducts ₹75 from my wallet and sends me an SMS with the ticket details. It gives a 4-digit reference number which I show the conductor when I board the bus. He enters that onto his machine and that’s all.

Tracking

This is even more simpler than booking a ticket. The process is pretty much the same. Dial *456#, enter stop code 07187, choose 2 and it shows the list of buses. I choose AS-4. It shows the last stop the bus has crossed and the ETA, like : AS-4, Acharya Atre Chowk, ETA 4 min. This is similar to BEST’s existing SMS based system, but provides more real time data.

Shortcodes

A shortcode can be created enabling faster access to frequenters.

Eg: *456*1*07187# to open the list of buses to book a ticket. Or *456*2*07187# to open the list of buses to track then.

Pricing

Now comes the tricky part. Rates for the NUUP are charged, with a maximum cap set by TRAI at ₹1.5 per transaction. As far as tracking is concerned, the existing SMS system (although not functional right now) costs ₹3 per message. A ₹1 charge per transaction/lookup might be good for tracking. The issue comes for payments. Charging a rupee extra per ticket doesn’t sound like a good move. However, since BEST already charges ₹30 for the ePurse Card, and ₹10 per month for bus passes as administrative charges, it might not be a problem if it is charged as a rent from the user’s account.

What do you say? USSD Banking is here. USSD Bus Travel? Why not

 

 

 

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Subsidies in Transport: Good or Bad

Subsidies in Transport are visible everywhere. Tamil Nadu has kept its bus fares at rock bottom rates, gives free bus passes to school students, Delhi has dirt cheap rates with the maximum fares being ₹15 and ₹25 in a non-AC and an AC bus. So, what else?

As stated earlier, extreme amount of subsidies bleeds the Transco of its revenue, and create a heavy indifference among the commuters to quality of services. Given that a vast majority of India’s transport services are entirely General Class services, revenues are inherently low. Similarly, in the case of Roads, a lot of people argue that Tolls are a “scam”, especially when they pay road taxes. Again, this is a false notion, one that can be explained if we cared to look at the Basic Difference between Toll and Road Tax: Toll is a User Fee. Road Tax is a Tax. I repeat, Toll is a Fee, and not a Tax. A tax is levied on a category of people on the basis of the income or what they own, in this case a vehicle. A toll, or a fee, is levied only on those who use the certain service or product, in this case the road. Many users accept this, but go on to further state that they are unjustly charged for using the entire section of a road rather than just the portion they used. Again, this is a flawed point of thought. In India, it would be a superhuman effort to set up Toll Plazas at every junction, man them [an automated one wouldn’t work, people will definitely find a way to avoid paying it then] and operate it. Of course, the Coimbatore bypass has 6 Toll Plazas on it, but 6 of them on a 28km two lane road, we all know the jam that occurs most of the time.

Toll Roads and other BOT transport projects, such as BOT Railway lines, like the Mumbai Metro One, Rapid Metro Gurgaon, Hyderabad Metro, et al, have specific intervals at which they are allowed to hike fees and fares, which makes it easier to operate and break even. In case of Transcos, most of them are either under pressure from the state or municipal body to keep their fares low [Prime Examples being DTC, MTC, TNSTC]. A few exceptions exist in the form of BEST, BMTC, TSRTC, which by virtue of the autonomy enjoyed by them revise [hike or slash] their fares at a reasonable interval. One method of determining rates is market oriented rates, which is what Uber and Ola normally does. When demand goes up, fares go up so that those who are willing to pay extra for it. However, this isn’t a feasible solution in all cases. In such situations, BEST’s Happy Hours concept works well. Similarly, KSRTC and the Indian Railways have successfully emulated the aviation industry with dynamic pricing in the form of Premium Tatkal tickets. Every transport corporation has schemes to attract customers. Similar to Toll Plazas offering a return ticket and seasonal pass, buses offer Passes and other forms of subsidies to frequent customers like the market.

Now, to take this further, below is an article from the Foundation for Economic Education which talks about the ill effects of subsidies.

 

The Distorting Effects of Transportation Subsidies

This article won the 2011 Beth A. Hoffman Memorial Prize for Economic Writing.

Although critics on the left are very astute in describing the evils of present-day society, they usually fail to understand either the root of those problems (government intervention) or their solution (the operation of a freed market). In Progressive commentary on energy, pollution, and so on—otherwise often quite insightful—calls for government intervention are quite common. George Monbiot, for instance, has written that “[t]he only rational response to both the impending end of the Oil Age and the menace of global warming is to redesign our cities, our farming and our lives. But this cannot happen without massive political pressure.”

But this is precisely backward. Existing problems of excess energy consumption, pollution, big-box stores, the car culture, and suburban sprawl result from the “massive political pressure” that has already been applied, over the past several decades, to “redesign our cities, our farming, and our lives.” The root of all the problems Monbiot finds so objectionable is State intervention in the marketplace.

In particular, subsidies to transportation have probably done more than any other factor (with the possible exception of intellectual property law) to determine the present shape of the American corporate economy. Currently predominating firm sizes and market areas are the result of government subsidies to transportation.

Adam Smith argued over 200 years ago that the fairest way of funding transportation infrastructure was user fees rather than general revenues: “When the carriages which pass over a highway or a bridge, and the lighters which sail upon a navigable canal, pay toll in proportion to their weight or their tonnage, they pay for the maintenance of those public works exactly in proportion to the wear and tear which they occasion of them.”

This is not, however, how things were actually done. Powerful business interests have used their political influence since the beginning of American history to secure government funding for “internal improvements.” The real turning point was the government’s role in creating the railroad system from the mid-nineteenth century on. The national railroad system as we know it was almost entirely a creature of the State.

The federal railroad land grants included not only the rights-of-way for the actual railroads, but extended 15-mile tracts on both sides. As the lines were completed, this adjoining land became prime real estate and skyrocketed in value. As new communities sprang up along the routes, every house and business in town was built on land acquired from the railroads. The tracts also frequently included valuable timberland. The railroads, according to Matthew Josephson (The Robber Barons), were “land companies” whose directors “did a rushing land business in farm lands and town sites at rising prices.” For example, under the terms of the Pacific Railroad bill, the Union Pacific (which built from the Mississippi westward) was granted 12 million acres of land and $27 million worth of 30-year government bonds. The Central Pacific (built from the West Coast eastward) received nine million acres and $24 million worth of bonds. The total land grants to the railroads amounted to about six times the area of France.

Theodore Judah, chief engineer for what became the Central Pacific, assured potential investors “that it could be done—if government aid were obtained. For the cost would be terrible.” Collis Huntington, the leading promoter for the project, engaged in a sordid combination of strategically placed bribes and appeals to communities’ fears of being bypassed in order to extort grants of “rights of way, terminal and harbor sites, and . . . stock or bond subscriptions ranging from $150,000 to $1,000,000” from a long string of local governments that included San Francisco, Stockton, and Sacramento.

Government also revised tort and contract law to ease the carriers’ way—for example, by exempting common carriers from liability for many kinds of physical damage caused by their operation.

Had railroad ventures been forced to bear their own initial capital outlays—securing rights of way, preparing roadbeds, and laying track, without land grants and government purchases of their bonds—the railroads would likely have developed instead along the initial lines on which Lewis Mumford speculated in The City in History: many local rail networks linking communities into local industrial economies. The regional and national interlinkages of local networks, when they did occur, would have been far fewer and far smaller in capacity. The comparative costs of local and national distribution, accordingly, would have been quite different. In a nation of hundreds of local industrial economies, with long-distance rail transport much more costly than at present, the natural pattern of industrialization would have been to integrate small-scale power machinery into flexible manufacturing for local markets.

Alfred Chandler, in The Visible Hand, argued that the creation of the national railroad system made possible, first, national wholesale and retail markets, and then large manufacturing firms serving the national market. The existence of unified national markets served by large-scale manufacturers depended on a reliable, high-volume distribution system operating on a national level. The railroad and telegraph, “so essential to high-volume production and distribution,” were in Chandler’s view what made possible this steady flow of goods through the distribution pipeline: “The revolution in the processes of distribution and production rested in large part on the new transportation and communications infrastructure. Modern mass production and mass distribution depend on the speed, volume, and regularity in the movement of goods and messages made possible by the coming of the railroad, telegraph and steamship.”

The Tipping Point

The creation of a single national market, unified by a high-volume distribution system, was probably the tipping point between two possible industrial systems. As Mumford argued in Technics and Civilization, the main economic reason for large-scale production in the factory system was the need to economize on power from prime movers. Factories were filled with long rows of machines, all connected by belts to drive shafts from a single steam engine. The invention of the electric motor changed all this: A prime mover, appropriately scaled, could be built into each individual machine. As a result, it was possible to scale machinery to the flow of production and situate it close to the point of consumption.

With the introduction of electrical power, as described by Charles Sabel and Michael Piore in The Second Industrial Divide, there were two alternative possibilities for organizing production around the new electrical machinery: decentralized production for local markets, integrating general-purpose machinery into craft production and governed on a demand-pull basis with short production runs and frequent shifts between product lines; or centralized production using expensive, product-specific machinery in large batches on a supply-push basis. The first alternative was the one most naturally suited to the new possibilities offered by electrical power. But in fact what was chosen was the second alternative. The role of the State in creating a single national market, with artificially low distribution costs, was almost certainly what tipped the balance between them.

The railroads, themselves largely creatures of the State, in turn actively promoted the concentration of industry through their rate policies. Sabel and Piore argue that “the railroads’ policy of favoring their largest customers, through rebates” was a central factor in the rise of the large corporation. Once in place, the railroads—being a high fixed-cost industry—had “a tremendous incentive to use their capacity in a continuous, stable way. This incentive meant, in turn, that they had an interest in stabilizing the output of their principal customers—an interest that extended to protecting their customers from competitors who were served by other railroads. It is therefore not surprising that the railroads promoted merger schemes that had this effect, nor that they favored the resulting corporations or trusts with rebates.”

Reprising the Role

As new forms of transportation emerged, the government reprised its role, subsidizing both the national highway and civil aviation systems.

From its beginning the American automotive industry formed a “complex” with the petroleum industry and government highway projects. The “most powerful pressure group in Washington” (as a PBS documentary called it) began in June 1932, when GM president Alfred P. Sloan created the National Highway Users Conference, inviting oil and rubber firms to help GM bankroll a propaganda and lobbying effort that continues to this day.

Whatever the political motivation behind it, the economic effect of the interstate system should hardly be controversial. Virtually 100 percent of roadbed damage to highways is caused by heavy trucks. After repeated liberalization of maximum weight restrictions, far beyond the heaviest conceivable weight the interstate roadbeds were originally designed to support, fuel taxes fail miserably at capturing from big-rig operators the cost of pavement damage caused by higher axle loads. And truckers have been successful at scrapping weight-distance user charges in all but a few western states, where the push for repeal continues. So only about half the revenue of the highway trust fund comes from fees or fuel taxes on the trucking industry, and the rest is externalized on private automobiles.

This doesn’t even count the 20 percent of highway funding that’s still subsidized by general revenues, or the role of eminent domain in lowering the transaction costs involved in building new highways or expanding existing ones.

As for the civil aviation system, from the beginning it was a creature of the State. Its original physical infrastructure was built entirely with federal grants and tax-free municipal bonds. Professor Stephen Paul Dempsey of the University of Denver in 1992 estimated the replacement value of this infrastructure at $1 trillion. The federal government didn’t even start collecting user fees from airline passengers and freight shippers until 1971. Even with such user fees paid into the Airport and Airways Trust Fund, the system still required taxpayer subsidies of $3 billion to maintain the Federal Aviation Administration’s network of control towers, air traffic control centers, and tens of thousands of air traffic controllers.

Eminent domain also remains central to the building of new airports and expansion of existing airports, as it does with highways.

Subsidies to airport and air traffic control infrastructure are only part of the picture. Equally important was the direct role of the State in creating the heavy aircraft industry, whose jumbo jets revolutionized civil aviation after World War II. In Harry Truman and the War Scare of 1948, Frank Kofsky described the aircraft industry as spiraling into red ink after the end of the war and on the verge of bankruptcy when it was rescued by the Cold War (and more specifically Truman’s heavy bomber program). David Noble, in America by Design, made a convincing case that civilian jumbo jets were only profitable thanks to the government’s heavy bomber contracts; the production runs for the civilian market alone were too small to pay for the complex and expensive machinery. The 747 is essentially a spinoff of military production. The civil aviation system is, many times over, a creature of the State.

The State and the Corporation

It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the dominant business model in the American economy, and the size of the prevailing corporate business unit, are direct results of such policies. A subsidy to any factor of production amounts to a subsidy of those firms whose business models rely most heavily on that factor, at the expense of those who depend on it the least. Subsidies to transportation, by keeping the cost of distribution artificially low, tend to lengthen supply and distribution chains. They make large corporations operating over wide market areas artificially competitive against smaller firms producing for local markets—not to mention big-box retailers with their warehouses-on-wheels distribution model.

Some consequentialists treat this as a justification for transportation subsidies: Subsidies are good because they make possible mass-production industry and large-scale distribution, which are (it is claimed) inherently more efficient (because of those magically unlimited “economies of scale,” of course).

Tibor Machan argued just the opposite in the February 1999 Freeman:

Some people will say that stringent protection of rights [against eminent domain] would lead to small airports, at best, and many constraints on construction. Of course—but what’s so wrong with that?

Perhaps the worst thing about modern industrial life has been the power of political authorities to grant special privileges to some enterprises to violate the rights of third parties whose permission would be too expensive to obtain. The need to obtain that permission would indeed seriously impede what most environmentalists see as rampant—indeed reckless—industrialization.

The system of private property rights . . . is the greatest moderator of human aspirations. . . . In short, people may reach goals they aren’t able to reach with their own resources only by convincing others, through arguments and fair exchanges, to cooperate.

In any case, the “efficiencies” resulting from subsidized centralization are entirely spurious. If the efficiencies of large-scale production were sufficient to compensate for increased distribution costs, it would not be necessary to shift a major portion of the latter to taxpayers to make the former profitable. If an economic activity is only profitable when a portion of the cost side of the ledger is concealed, and will not be undertaken when all costs are fully internalized by an economic actor, then it’s not really efficient. And when total distribution costs (including those currently shifted to the taxpayer) exceed mass-production industry’s ostensible savings in unit cost of production, the “efficiencies” of large-scale production are illusory.

Kevin A. Carson


Kevin A. Carson

Kevin Carson is a senior fellow of the Center for a Stateless Society and holds the Center’s Karl Hess Chair in Social Theory. He is a mutualist and individualist anarchist whose written work includes Studies in Mutualist Political Economy, Organization Theory: A Libertarian Perspective, and The Homebrew Industrial Revolution: A Low-Overhead Manifesto, all of which are freely available online. Carson has also written for such print publications as The Freeman.

This article was originally published on FEE.org. Read the original article.

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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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This article was later republished on Swarajya.

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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?

I am taking my Alexa rank to the next level with Blogchatter. Current rank: 696991 globally and 59804 in India.

Why am I fascinated by buses? #TransitStories Click To Tweet

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BMTC’s ITS: Misleading and Fraudulent

BMTC’s much touted ITS is nothing but a fraud. There is a lot more to it, but if you happen to be an ardent BMTC fan, I’d suggest you read this post before defending this third rate transport corporation that needs a major revamp.

For starters, the ticket machines are the biggest problem right now. Some BMTC buses, both the regular rattletraps as well as the Volvo and Corona fleet use the older Ticketing Machines; The older Quantum Aeon machines and not the Verifone machines that Trimax has supplied. These machines are not compatible with the current system. As simple as that. As if this wasn’t enough, there are some Volvo buses where the conductor still uses the older manual ticketing system. He tears out a ticket from his bunch and gives it.

Now, coming to the crucial part:

I wanted to travel from Central Silk Board to Arekere Gate at 7.30pm. I pulled out my phone and checked the BMTC app. It showed me a 411GT Volvo with the number KA57F996 with an ETA of 12 mins. The map showed the bus at Iblur. I waited. I tracked the bus on the map. After Agara, he suddenly turned into HSR Layout, before coming out at 5th main. I had a doubt when I saw the bus with a 57F registration. After a few minutes I saw it whiz past me. A green Vayu Vajra on an ORRCA route.

I looked up the app again. It showed the next 411GT 11 minutes away. This time, the number was KA01FA1418.

Screenshot of the BMTC app showing KA01FA1418 on route 411GT
Screenshot of the BMTC app showing KA01FA1418 on route 411GT

Along with this, the BMTC app shows me buses contracted to Manyata Tech Park, Bagmane Tech Park, ORRCA, etc. All the buses which a regular commuter cannot board.

Fine. I waited. I waited for 25 agonising minutes, possibly because of the traffic. Silk Board is not to blame here. It does its job well by holding up traffic so that the signals on the other side do not get overwhelmed.

The bus arrived alright, but just as I had expected, it turned out to be something else. A 500NA.

BMTC bus KA01FA1418 on route 500NA
BMTC bus KA01FA1418 on route 500NA

This annoyed me to no end. Here I am wasting 40 minutes of my time, and BMTC is taking me for a ride [figuratively].

Now, listing out buses leased out, itself is misleading. For someone new to Bangalore, they simply won’t know that this bus is not meant for them. Listing out a bus as en route, but not plying that route at all, is not only misleading, but fraudulent. I’d call it a criminal waste of my time if I could.

Now, the situation wouldn’t be so bad normally, but this is Bangalore, where the state government has made life difficult for commuters in every possible way. Starting with ridiculous laws for Uber and Ola, thanks to which it is near impossible to find a cab, even a sharing/pooled one. Next, the government came up with a plan to Nationalise bus transport in the state. While I’m not really fond of all those flashy, colourful Private buses on the road that drive like Delhi’s Blueline buses, they are the lifeline for some sections of the society, mainly those going from far flung suburbs to KR Market. On top of all this, remember what a chat with a conductor revealed?

I’d like to title this as the Great Bangalore Transport Scam. Sab Mile Hue Hain.

Remember that all the data from the ITS will be freely licenced for others to tap into the API and use it for their apps. Such wrong data is just going to screw things up badly.

I hope the BMTC learns something fast. It already has a snarky reputation for not stopping at bus stops and not opening its doors when it does stop.

What can be done here?

Decentralisation is pointless. Handing BMTC over to the BBMP is as good as the GoK handling it. Both are inept, incompetent, and brazenly corrupt.

BMTC's ITS is a sham. #TransitssuesIN Click To Tweet

What are your thoughts?

Note: We decided to give the ITS a second shot today. It just confirmed our belief that this is all one big scam.

The embedded tweet below should explain everything. In the event it doesn’t load, here is a direct link to the tweet: BMTC’s ITS Today.

 

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Strike it Off!

Strikes. Strikes by Auto Rickshaw drivers. Strikes by Bus Transport employees.
Strikes. An old Blackmail method used by the Communists and Socialists [the Left] that unfortunately works even today.

There are two common reasons why Transport related employees strike:

  • Competition from the Private Sector or others.
  • Demand for Hike in Wages.

Competition from others

Frequently seen in cities like Mumbai, Bangalore and Delhi, both, employees of state run transcos, as well as auto/taxi drivers have often protested against others disturbing their Monopoly.

Recently, autos and taxis in Delhi went on a strike demanding that the government shut down app based aggregators such as Ola and Uber.

The irony of the situation is that such strikes force the public to turn to the aggregators, totally defeating the purpose of the strike. In cities like Mumbai and Pune, an auto or cab strike might affect businesses because both run by the meter. However, the use of non Kaali-Peeli cabs and auots is quite high in the city.  In Delhi, Bangalore, Chennai, these strikes would be problematic, because the autos in the city rarely go by meter. In the long run, an Uber or Ola would cost lesser than an auto anywhere in Delhi.

Demand for Hike in Wages

The other reason for a strike, a more legitimate one, is the demand for a hike in wages.

Recently, employees of BMTC, KSRTC, NW/NE-KRTC in Karnataka went on a 3-day strike demanding a 35% hike in wages. Though the strike lasted only three days, it was declared as indefinite, and would have gone on had the Government of Karnataka not convinced the striking staff to accept a 10.5% hike. This strike made life miserable for people in Bangalore. Autos began fleecing commuters, something that they are experts at. To compound the issue, the Karnataka Government’s draconian 1950-era rules for Cabs and Aggregators just made life miserable. With some universities choosing to remain open, life looked very dystopian.

In Ocober 2015, BEST employees threatened to strike because the higher-ups held back their Diwali bonus. Common sense prevailed and the strike was called off.

This kind of strike is a bit legitimate, since employees do deserve an occasional pay hike.

Now, what can be done?

What can be done about a strike?

A Strike or Bandh can cripple a city, or in this case, a state. It kills productivity, and destroys the economy. Of course, there are some people who claim that Strikes and Bandhs are Good for the Environment.

Here are some methods to help limit strikes and their impacts on the society and its economy.

  1. Decentralisation
    A decentralised transport system limits the impact of a strike. A strike by BEST employees won’t affect transport in Nagpur. However a strike by BMTC will affect Mysore since BMTC is essentially a subsidiary of KSRTC.
  2. Salaries must be on par with inflation and the private sector. Bus drivers and conductors aren’t the ones with the easiest job in the world. Pay them what they’re worth.
  3. Take strict action against those striking. Just because employees belong to a government body, that doesn’t let them strike as and when they feel like.

 

 

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The Extra Tax on AC Buses needs to go

Recently, the Government of India decided, in order to expand its Tax Base, to implement an additional Sales Tax on Air Conditioned Stage Coaches. According to notification, a service tax of 15% is applicable on 40% of all revenues collected from AC bus services. This works out to roughly a 6% increase in ticket fares.

While BEST has reduced its fares, leading us to believe that the new fare structure incorporates this 6% increase, others have hiked fares. TSRTC Hyderabad and BMTC have increased the cost of a Daily Pass from ₹150 and ₹140 to ₹160 and ₹150 respectively, BEST has reduced it from ₹200 to ₹150. MSRTC charges a rupee extra for its Shivneri/Ashwamedh services, though this has been there from somewhere in April, thus making it probably unrelated.

While I am for government measures to increase the tax base, this is most certainly not the right way. Let the government start taxing rich farmers instead. The reasons I’m opposed to this tax are:

BEST – We all know the story behind BEST and its Purple Faeries. Barring a few buses from the Oshiwara Depot, these buses are pathetically underpowered, have terribly low-powered airconditioning. They struggle to climb simple slopes. Their Volvo fleet is in good shape however. However, in light of the recent fare reduction, I guess we can give BEST a breather in this section.

BMTC – The first to implement the new Tax, the BMTC had a very interesting thing to do. They used to issue the regular ticket with the ETMS, but charge the Tax with the old Punched tickets. Thus, I used to get a ₹20 printed ticket and a ₹1 punched ticket. BMTC finally managed to incorporate this tax on the ETMs, but now I have pay ₹22 because the Tax amount is rounded off to the next rupee irrespective of how much it is. However, this move is unwarranted because BMTC buses are bad. The older FA series of Volvo buses are rickety, pollute a lot and water leaks in thru the emergency exits. The Corona fleet have buses where the airconditioning just does not work. The newer 57F series Volvos rarely come to the Public because they spend most of their time on Corporate trips for the ORRCA or Manyata Embassy Tech Park.

MTC – Possibly among the worst Volvo fleet, MTC has 100 odd buses which are in horrendous conditions. Buses creak, and reapairs carried out are not what one you’d expect in a Volvo. Damages sections of the exterior and interior are usually patched up with Substandard Aluminium that is used in the regular buses instead of Volvo’s standard Steel or Glass. If this is the condition of the exterior, you can imagine how the Engine or AC might be. However, knowing TN, they might have not implemented this tax as it goes against the populist nature of the state.

DTC – The worst AC bus fleet that I have seen, DTCs Ashok Leyland buses and Tata Marcopolo buses at times do what no other Transco’s buses do. The BEST Cerita AC struggles while climbing a slope. The BMTC Corona AC struggles when the bus is in heavy traffic. The DTC AshLey and Marco AC struggles when the bus is on regular traffic, and even on minor downward slopes! With the maximum fare on an AC bus set to ₹25, this tax is most certainly a welcome move. Delhi is used to subsidies and cheap stuff and it is high time that AC bus fares were increased in the capital.

TSRTC – TSRTC has also increased its fares, but I am confused on which side to take. TSRTC has among the best Volvo fleets in the country, atleast in Hyderabad. The buses are maintained well, operate on good routes and frequencies, and are in general above expectations. However, the fares are already on the higher side, and thus the extra bit is a little unwarranted.

On the whole, I think this Additional Tax needs to be rolled back. It’s a bad idea to tax the Middle Class more. The upper class doesn’t take the bus, the lower class doesn’t take an AC bus. As always, increasing the Tax Base comes and burns the Middle Class pocket.

Dear @ArunJaitley, the extra tax on AC Stage Carriages needs to go ASAP! Click To Tweet

What is your take on this?

 

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#YogaDay special: Yoga and its contribution to Public Transport

Today is International Yoga Day, something that was recognised by the United Nations last year.

Not many people are aware of the immense contributions that Yoga has had on Public Transport.

We often hear negative news about Staff and Employees of Transcos allegedly harassing commuters. Sometimes, we also hear about bus drivers moving down people. While, I don’t want to get into the specifics of all of this, let us look into the root cause of all of this.

All of them have a common cause: Stress.
A bus driver and conductors job is most certainly not the easiest task in the world. It requires a lot of skill and patience. Drivers have to put up with traffic jams, negligent and rash drivers, bad roads, and also passengers who don’t board/disembark through proper doorways or at specific bus stops. This adds to a lot of stress.
A conductor has to deal with people not giving change, rude passengers, passengers boarding/disembarking via the wrong pathways or at bus stops, people not moving to emptier sections of the bus, etc. This, again adds to the stress.
Now, multiply these instance by multiple passengers, number of trips, depot officials asking for fuel reports and fare collections, and you have a perfect recipe for a Nervous Breakdown.

To reduce the load on the staff, several Transcos decided to take up Employee Care measures by introducing Yoga, and Meditions sessions.

MTC has mandatory yoga sessions for staff involved in accidents. They also have sessions to prevent a stress overload, as well as sessions on effective communication and life skills. Similarly, KaSRTC, too has sent its staff to Yoga and rehabilitation to help reduce alcoholism among its staff members.

Others, such as BEST, MSRTC, and BMTC too have had sessions on meditation, anger management, and relaxation to keep staff at ease during long working schedules in order to help reduce stress levels and increase productivity.

Yoga is something we should be proud of. It is pretty much a Soft Power that originated in India. It was earlier laughed off by critics, but today is accepted as an international practice.

Hats off to the government for promoting Yoga as a stress-buster and natural relaxant. If people practiced Yoga on a regular basis, it would help everyone. A stress-free and relaxed person has the ability to keep calm in tense situations, and altercations may be avoided. If everyone is in such a state, imagine the transport scenario will also be one which people would look forward to.

#YogaDay Special: How Yoga is beneficial to Public Transport. Click To Tweet

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A sneak peak at BMTC’s and MCTD’s ITS

A lot has been said about Smart Cities and Smart Transport. Earlier, a post on Smart Bus Stops made an appearance as well. This article aims to cover the Intelligent Transport System [ITS] of two Southern Cities: The Bangalore Metropolitan Transport Corporation [BMTC] in Bengaluru and the Mysore City Transport Division of the KSRTC in Mysuru.

Bangalore

BMTC has recently rolled out their [ITS]. I managed to get a chance to talk to someone in the Office of the Chief Systems Manager at Shanthinagar today.

The ITS is being implemented by Trimax Infra, who earlier implemented the Electronic Ticketing System for BEST, RSRTC, and UPSRTC.

A handheld ticket machine used in BMTC buses in Bengaluru.
A handheld ticket machine used in BMTC buses in Bengaluru. Image copyright Srikanth Ramakrishnan, CC-BY-SA 4.0 available on the Wikimedia Commons.

Here is what I gathered. The ITS is being implemented in three parts:

  • Electronic Ticketing Machines: Trimax has deployed 10,000 Verifone ETMs to 39 depots of the BMTC and trained 7,000 of its drivers. The earlier used Quantum Aeon machines were junked in favour of the new ones which BMTC claims was to enable compatibility with RFID-smart cards. Real-time monitoring of ticket sales is possible, although not being used.
  • Tracking of Vehicles: Every bus has been fitted with a GPS-based tracker which can be tracked online, or via an app.
  • Public Information System: Under the PIS, displays have been installed at major bus stations to inform the public of which bus is arriving soon. This is similar to what several BEST bus stops on the Western Express Highway have, and what Coimbatore was experimenting with in the post on Smart Bus Stops.

All three components of the ITS are already in operation with the PIS displays installed only at select Bus Stations. BMTC has decided to go for an Open Data Policy, thereby allowing developers to build apps and interfaces with an API to access the data from the ITS.

For more details on the Open Data Policy of the BMTC, do read this post on DataMeet.

Smart Cards are not part of the ITS project. They are being done separately and are due to be rolled out in 3-6 months with all the Pass Issuing Centres being upgraded to issue Smart Cards.

A chat with a conductor later did explain the shortcomings with the ETMs, although Trimax does take quick action on faulty equipment.

BMTC's ITS: Electronic Ticketing and Vehicle Tracking get a Boost! Click To Tweet

Mysore

The Mysore City Transport Department [MCTD] of the Karnataka State Road Transport Corporation [KSRTC], also has an ITS in place, called the Mysore Intelligent TRAansport System, known as MITRA. MITRA was formally inaugurated in 2012 by the then Minister for Transport R Ashoka.

Among MITRA’s aims are:

  • Real-time monitoring and tracking of buses and help reduce road congestion and other transport issues.
  • ITS improves passenger safety, fleet efficiency, services and traffic situation through transmission of real time information.

According to the MITRA microsite, it’s components are:

  • Vehicle Tracking
  • Real Time Passenger Information System
  • Electronic Display Systems

Mysore was smart enough to implement it before the situation got out of hand and sought funds from the World Bank under GEF and JnNURM.

As part of MITRA, the MCTD recorded the pronunciation of every bus stop name, fitted buses with LED Displays, Speakers, set up display units at Bus Shelters, as well as trained its staff to handle the system. An app was also released less than a month ago for commuters to be able to get bus details as well as fare details on their phone.

KSRTC also ran a User Satisfaction Survey, which showed positive results. The entire results of the survey can be seen here.

While MITRA may not seem as fancy as BMTC’s ITS, it is most certainly benefiting commuters positively and helping promote Public Transport in Mysore. One hope that BEST learns a lesson from this, when restarting its own ITS.

Mysore's MITRA is certainly a game changer in Intelligent Transport! Click To Tweet

Both BMTC and MCTD built a huge control room with a server to handle the large volume of data. Data is crucial to any project that involves the common man, mainly for operational efficiency.

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