As Bengaluru, along with the rest of the country began its gradual exit from the COVID-19 lockdown, public buses resumed services in the city from mid-May. And with the Namma Metro services yet to resume and the suburban rail services running at skeletal capacity on select routes, buses are presently the only public transport for intra-city city commuting.
However, like many other public activities, what needs to be done to make public transport safe as well as viable during the pandemic? TNM spoke with the Bangalore Metropolitan Transport Corporation (BMTC, the state government operated bus company), citizen activists and transport experts on the same, and how public transport is crucial to enabling livelihoods.
While public buses are running in Bengaluru, some public surveys seem to indicate that many will not be availing public transport over coronavirus fears. One such survey was done by Bangalore Political Action Committee, or B.PAC, where around 70% of the 1,072 respondents said that they wouldn’t be using public transport in the next three months. Surveys like these could deter the government from continuing or increasing BMTC services.
However, Tara Krishaswamy, co-founder of Citizens for Bengaluru, an activist platform which advocates for better public transport in the city argues that those who can afford to will prefer using private vehicles. But it is people belonging to the economically disadvantaged section (mostly informal workers) who do not have options other than walking who will use buses.
“When it comes to public perception, it is often the dominant upper middle class’s voice that tends to overshadow the masses, given the former’s influence and presence on social media. So, the notion that the public will shun government buses is biased because the surveys are filled by the upper middle-class lens. But unfortunately, governments tend to get inordinately swayed by that. Other than the poor, the majority of the population who travel in buses are often women. This is because on average, ownership of vehicles among women is negligible,” she says.
“We must remember that even now, the majority of the population do not have any other choice other than to rely on public transport or lose their livelihoods. So, the government must invest in making it accessible,” she adds.
While BMTC is government owned, as the ‘corporation’ in its name suggests, it is run like a company and expected to generate profits while getting little financial support. Additionally, it is subjected to more than 10 forms of direct and indirect taxes.
Pawan Mulukutla, a Bengaluru-based urban mobility expert says that the BMTC should seek a viability gap funding in the tune of Rs 500 crore for the current and next financial year in addition to the relaxation of the taxes. VGF is funding support given by the government where it bears a certain percentage of the cost of the project that is economically justified but isn't financially viable.
Further, to attract more passengers, Pawan adds that ticket prices on the most commonly travelled distance brackets should be made cheaper, and the validity duration of bus passes should be made more flexible to make them more attractive than buying daily tickets.
“Beyond the daily, weekly, and monthly, can they introduce maybe a 10-day pass or a 15-day pass and bring down the price for the same. Nobody needs a pass for 30 days, so there should be more flexible options to make it attractive to more people,” he says, adding that he is not in favour of blanket reduction in fares.
He emphasised, “BMTC will have data of dominant travel patterns (distance stages) and thereby lower those fares selectively to make it more affordable and also attracting new passengers.”
Tara states that it is not only for the economically backward sections that public buses should be backed, but also to restart economic activity.
“The economy can only be back on its feet when the woman who works in a mall as well as a domestic worker can go back to work, and has money to spend. The government should understand it can’t kickstart the economy by just letting the IT crowd work and everybody else loses livelihoods. So, the government should not cut down bus services,” she says.
She adds that poor women losing their livelihoods also impacts public health. “It is often that the women’s income provides children with nutrition and in these difficult times, you are much more likely to fall sick if your nutrition is affected.”
Tara emphasises that all this should be done without compromising safety issues for the staff and the commuters.
A small silver lining of the COVID-19 lockdown has been the environmental gains worldwide, such as the drop in air pollution. The same has been true for Bengaluru as well, given that vehicular pollution is one of the major causes of the city’s poor air quality.
In the pre-lockdown period, BMTC on average clocked a daily ridership of over 35 lakh. While the city’s population has increased over the years, BMTC ridership has come down in recent years from 50 lakh in 2013-14, according to its own data. Even then, its ridership is much higher than the metro which is around 5 lakh daily across the two functional lines.
Now with life inching back to normalcy, despite the spike in COVID-19 cases, bus ridership is feared to go down further.
“Rather than cutting services, they should double the number of services and by doing this they will be sending a message to the public that since there are so many buses, there won’t be incidents of crowding. If BMTC announces that the frequency of the buses will be increased, then even people who have the option of using private transportation will think of using buses,” Tara says.
BMTC resumed operations with due precautions like sanitising buses from May 19. While BTMC provided protective gear for its own crew, it was made compulsory for commuters to wear masks. To minimise contact between staff and commuters, a QR code-based fare collection system and flat fare has been put in place as well.
Speaking to TNM, BMTC Managing Director, C Shikha, an Indian Administrative Officer (IAS), said, “To avoid crowding amongst people travelling at a time, we have put restrictions on the maximum passengers per bus. This has led to a drastic reduction in revenue collection for BMTC. While cost of operation has remained the same, earning per bus is reduced to one third of what it was earlier.”
She added, “To make up for this loss in revenue, we have taken some measures. A proposal has been sent to the central and state governments to extend exemptions from various taxes. In addition to that we have reduced operations during non-peak hours and are also trying to cut costs on various fronts.”