Hooting Through Indian Roads: Time For a Change

Imagine walking into a room, and the first thing that hits you is an argument between two people. One of the parties is a privileged person judging the other without any basis whatsoever, while the other is a commonly misunderstood person that the privileged party loves to hate.

What is the likely tone that each party is likely to adopt? Methinks the privileged party is likely to raise their voice and use a judgmental tone while the commonly misunderstood party looks on, thinking this is a case of the same old story with a different cast.

This analogy is designed to tell you about the story of public transportation in India, where the privileged judgmental party is the Indian government, and the commonly misunderstood party are the informal public transportation modes in the populous country.

An image of a rickshaw speeding through an Indian road. Informal public transportation is on the government's wrong books. {Image Source: TheCityFix}
An image of a rickshaw speeding through an Indian road. Informal public transportation is on the government’s wrong books. {Image Source: TheCityFix}

Is it unfair to use the word judgmental to describe the Indian government in this context?

This is my basis.

Poor Synergy

Digging through a study report dubbed Informal public transport modes in India: A case study of five city regions authored by Megha Kumar, Seema Singh, Akshima T.Ghate, Sarbojit Pal, and Sangeetha Ann Wilson, a couple of things stand out.

  • Privately operated public transport modes like rickshaws, minibusses, and Tata Magics are not appreciated for their massive role in enabling mobility in India.
  • The government perceives these modes of transport as unsafe, high polluting, and a cause of traffic congestion without pointing to any form of research to justify this perception. The government has also not gone out of its way to determine why citizens rely on them so much.

The study also shows that these systems are not as unsafe and polluting as people often perceive them to be. However, there is significant room for improvements in terms of vehicle efficiency and compliance with regulatory provisions related to public transport.

REPORT: INFORMAL PUBLIC TRANSPORT MODES IN INDIA: A CASE STUDY OF FIVE CITY REGIONS
A Tata Magic is a common means of informal means of public transport in India. {Image Source: Wikipedia}
A Tata Magic is a common informal means of public transport in India. {Image Source: Wikipedia}

The paper adds that even in cities where public transport is available, services are inadequate and unreliable, prompting citizens to depend on personal mobility and informal public transport options.

Overwhelmed System

Another report fills in the gaps and explains why many commuters in India, which is home to 1.3 billion people, depend on informal means of transport to move around.

The Crisis of Public Transport in India: Overwhelming Needs But Limited Resources, authored by John Pucher and Nisha Korattyswaroopam, notes that the rapid growth of India’s urban population has piled so much pressure on all transport systems.

The paper describes the situation as the classic case of a limited supply of transport infrastructure services overwhelmed by massive demand.

Public transport, in particular, has been completely overwhelmed. Most bus and train services are overcrowded, undependable, slow, inconvenient, uncoordinated, and dangerous..

REPORT: THE CRISIS OF PUBLIC TRANSPORT IN INDIA: OVERWHELMING NEEDS BUT LIMITED RESOURCES
Indians traveling in a bus with some posted up on the roof. Studies show the country's public transport system is currently overwhelmed. {Image Source: World Economic Forum}
Indians travelling in a bus with some posted up on the roof. Studies show the country’s public transport system is currently overwhelmed. {Image Source: World Economic Forum}

Huge Deficits and Safety Concerns

Audit firm KPMG in a study dubbed Reimagining Public Transport in India observes that although India has made massive strides in the last decade by investing heavily in metro rails, highway infrastructure and embracing modern transport technology solutions like ride-hailing apps, serious deficits remain in the country’s public transport system.

The extensive but overburdened rail system has raised major operational and safety concerns. Bus transport, mostly dominated by state-owned transport corporations fails to match modern global standards. Inter-modal integration is largely nonexistent. First mile and last mile connectivity challenges deprive users of a consistent experience.

KPMG REPORT
The Delhi Metro is one of the rapid transit systems serving Indian citizens in a major city. KPMG report observes although the country has invested heavily in infrastructure, serious deficits remain in the country’s public transport system. {Image Source: Intrepid Travel}
The Delhi Metro is one of the rapid transit systems serving Indian citizens in a major city. KPMG report observes although the country has invested heavily in infrastructure, serious deficits remain in the country’s public transport system. {Image Source: Intrepid Travel}

The KPMG paper further points out that the government’s heavy investment in roads has not matched the quality of public transport, which reverts users to personal means.

The result: fatalities, air pollution, and congestion.

Public Transport Subsidies

A book published by The World Bank authored and edited by Maureen Cropper and Soma Bhattacharya dubbed: Public Transport Subsidies and Affordability in Mumbai, India gives a great insight into how public transport subsidies affect different classes of citizens in the city.

It is important to note that both rail and bus transport is subsidized in Mumbai.

BEST, the company that operates public buses in Mumbai, is also an electric utility and subsidizes fares from its electricity revenues.

In Mumbai, the middle class is more likely to use public transport for travel than the poor. The poor, however, also use public transit and their expenditure on public transit constitutes on average a larger share of their income than it does for the middle class.

It is, therefore, the case that the poor benefit from transit subsidies in Mumbai as well as the middle and upper-middle class; however, the poorest 27% of the population receives only 19% of bus subsidies and 15.5% of rail subsidies.

report: PUBLIC TRANSPORT SUBSIDIES AND AFFORDABILITY IN MUMBAI, INDIA

Indians waiting to travel at a train station. The poorest section of the Indian community spends a lot of its earnings on transport. {Image Source: Hindustan Times}
Indians waiting to travel at a train station. The poorest section of the Indian community spends a lot of its earnings on transport. {Image Source: Hindustan Times}

Despite Mumbai public transport being subsidized, public transport still consumes a considerable chunk of poor people’s income (16% or 5000 rupees).

Public Transport in India

Having understood the context, let us look at the different modes of public transport in India.

Rickshaws

Rickshaws are a popular means of transport in urban and rural areas in India.

They are three-wheeled motorized contraptions with sides and a roof made of tin or canvas.

They are commonly referred to as scooters, autos, and riks. They are also known as tuk-tuks in Southeast Asia.

Rickshaws parked at a stand in Mumbai. They are a common mode of informal public transport means in India. {Image Source: World Resources Institute. Ross Centre}
Rickshaws parked at a stand in Mumbai. They are a common mode of informal public transport means in India. {Image Source: World Resources Institute. Ross Centre}

A rickshaw usually has room for two passengers, although, in India and other developing countries, three passengers are shoehorned to maximize profits.

Traveling via rickshaws is preferred by low-income citizens primarily because they are cheaper— usually half the price of taxis.

Rickshaws have meters, although some unscrupulous drivers claim that the meters are not functional to exploit commuters.

In major Indian cities like Delhi and Mumbai, there are environmentally friendly e-rickshaws nicknamed totos.

Data Corner

While the Indian government views the rickshaw as the enemy, a research report published by EMBARQ and the World Resources Institute titled Sustainable Urban Transport in India: Role of the Auto-rickshaw Sector authored by Akshay Mani, Madhav Pai, and Rishi Aggarwal holds that Big Data can be used to streamline this sector to the benefit of all parties.

Implementing the recommended reforms – such as promotion of fleet-based dispatch services and vehicle improvements in the areas of engine technology and safety features – will be key to ensuring that auto-rickshaw services promote public transport usage as feeder modes and serve as an effective door-to-door alternative to private motor vehicles while mitigating the environmental and road safety challenges that exist in this sector currently.

REPORT: SUSTAINABLE URBAN TRANSPORT IN INDIA: ROLE OF THE AUTO-RICKSHAW SECTOR

Bus Transport

Buses are the most preferred and convenient mode of mobility in Indian urban cities.

Approximately 1.6 million buses have been registered in India, while the public sector operates 170,000 buses which ferry approximately 70 million people each day.

However, as captured during the course of this article, bus transport service providers have not been able to meet the high levels of demand in urban areas and, to some extent, the country at large.

An attendant cleaning one of two buses at a stop in India. The demand for bus transport in India is not serviced by the inadequate supply. {Image Source: Quartz}
An attendant cleaning one of two buses at a stop in India. The demand for bus transport in India is not serviced by the inadequate supply. {Image Source: Quartz}

By the time Intelligent Transport’s study was published, only 30,000 buses were operating in city areas, of which 3500 were being operated under a public-private partnership agreement.

Fast track to now, all bus operators are in the red, have been bleeding financially, and do not have the liquidity needed to buy new vehicles and technology consistently.

Conversely, the average age of the fleet ranges from 2 years to 11.8 years for state bus transport operations.

A report dubbed A Comparative Evaluation of Public Road Transportation Systems in India Using Multicriteria Decision-Making Techniques authored by Anand Kumar, Gurmeet Singh, and Omkarprasad S Vaidya finds that India is light years behind on bus penetration.

It observes the bus penetration in India is (1.4 buses per 1000 persons) is very low compared to other countries like Mexico (2.8 buses per 1000 persons), South Africa (6.5 buses per 1000 persons), and Thailand (8.6 buses per 1000 persons).

Data Corner

If bus transport is so important to Indian commuters, what is being done to maximize current resources?

A working paper dubbed Big Data and Urban Transportation in India: A Bengaluru Bus Corporation Case Study authored by Vanya Rakesh, Richard Heeks, Sumandro Chattapadhyay, and Cristopher Foster helps us answer this question.

The study sought to interrogate how Big Data could help Bengaluru, the capital of Karnataka state in India,  home to ten million people, solve its perennial urban transport problems.

At the heart of the key question is how the Bengaluru Metropolitan Transport Corporation (BMTC) could better manage its more than 6,000 buses and 35,000 employees, considering the company’s buses complete more than 5 million passenger journeys over more than 8,000 bus stops and 2,000 routes.

The company also collects over US$500,000 in revenue while the buses clock more than 1.2 million kilometres.

The paper underscores that proper data collection technology has enabled the capture of large tracts of daily data in digital format for the first time.

The aim was to create a smart transport system for real-time tracking of buses as well as of passenger trips. It had an internal purpose of helping BMTC managers make more data-intensive decisions: e.g., operational decisions around cash flow and more tactical decisions regarding planning bus routes and schedules. And it had an external purpose of enabling passengers to make more data-intensive decisions about journey planning.

REPORT: BIG DATA AND URBAN TRANSPORTATION IN INDIA: A BENGALURU BUS CORPORATION CASE STUDY

Taxi Transport

Taxi transport is standard in Indian urban areas for short-distance travel.

Traditional taxis are either hailed on the street or booked via phone.

All traditional taxis are required to have a fare meter installed, which protects commuters from overpricing.

While they are a bit expensive compared to other modes of transport, they are preferred because of security and convenience.

The entry of digital apps was a game-changer in the Indian taxi business economy, as captured by a report dubbed Consumer Behaviour on Online Ride-Hailing Apps in India compiled by Grishma Thappa.

The paper states that since the entry of digital taxi apps in 2009, India’s taxi industry has evolved from being disorganized to a modern, convenient and digital way to move around.

Thappa’s study also found that digital apps offer better value than most traditional taxi services. It also notes that the apps protect consumers in a way traditional taxi services never did.

Taxis parked at the side of a road in India. There is friction between traditional taxis and hailing apps over market practices. {Image Source: India Online}
Taxis parked at the side of a road in India. There is friction between traditional taxis and hailing apps over market practices. {Image Source: India Online}

India’s most popular digital taxi apps include Ola Cabs, Uber, Meru Cabs, Carzonrent, Savaari Car Rentals, Fasttrack Taxi App, Mega Cabs, Tab Cab, NTL Taxi, and My Taxi India.

Data Corner

One of the biggest challenges taxi companies in India have faced over the years is ride cancellations, but with the evolution of technology comes a solution.

This is captured in a report titled Big Data Analytics on Cab Company’s Customer Dataset Using Hive and Tableau.

This study done by Dipesh Bhawnani, Ashish Sanwlani, Haresh Ahuja, and Dimple Bohra sought to analyze a cab company’s customer dataset to help the company profile its regular customers so that it can understand its customers and provide them with offers that suit their needs.

We have analyzed the possible cancellations of cab booking by the customer using data obtained from the company. The goal is to reduce the cost incurred by the company as a result of cab cancellations made by the customer.

Cab companies will be able to manage their vendors and drivers by providing them with up-to-date information about customer cancellations. We have also analyzed travel and package types used by the customer.

REPORT: BIG DATA ANALYTICS ON CAB COMPANY’S CUSTOMER DATASET USING HIVE AND TABLEAU

Train Transport

Rail transport is the most common mode of long-distance transportation in India.

Indian Railways, a state-owned company, runs rail operations throughout the Asian nation.

India’s rail network is one of the largest and busiest in the world. It transports an average of 5 billion passengers and 350 million tonnes of freight every year.

Indians traveling in a train with some hanging on the side and others posted at the top. {Image Source: BBC}
Indians travelling in a train with some hanging on the side and others posted at the top. {Image Source: BBC}

About 16,000 kilometres of India’s 63,028 route length is electrified, while the country’s ticketing network is largely computerized save for some remote places.

Tickets are either booked online or via mobile phone calls.

As part of Indian Railways’ inclusion strategy, the firm discounts tickets for senior citizens above sixty years old, the disabled, and students.

Tickets are also discounted for high-ranking government officials.

The company also sells season tickets, allowing the buyers unlimited travel on specific sections for a defined period.

The company also has a plan for foreign tourists via the Indirail pass, which allows them unlimited travel across India for a specific period.

Metros

There are 13 cities in India served by metros (rapid transit systems). They include;

Bengaluru (Namma), Gurugram (Rapid Metro), Kochi, Hyderabad, Noida, Ahmedabad, Kolkata, Mumbai, Lucknow, Chennai, Jaipur, and Delhi.

These metro systems in different Indian cities are not run by Indian Railways except the Kolkata Metro, which has its dedicated division within Indian Railways.

In Focus — Delhi Metro

The Delhi Metro is the most extensive rapid transit system in India by distance. It is currently working a distance of 231 kilometres and has 160 stations.

It was opened in 2002 to much fanfare because of the nature at which it would transform the lives of the city’s constituents.

The Delhi Metro. The line was opened in 2002 to much fanfare because of its transformative value. {Image Source: TechStory}
The Delhi Metro. The line was opened in 2002 to much fanfare because of its transformative value. {Image Source: TechStory}

It cut down travel time from Delhi to the North-Western town of Dwarka to 24 minutes.

Data Corner

The Deccan Herald in December 2020 reported Indian Railways was planning to start using Artificial Intelligence and Data Analytics to run train operations, maintain its systems, take stock of its railway assets and run freight operations

We will analyse all this data with the help of AI and analytics and use it in our Passenger Reservation System (PRS). This will also help in the introduction of new trains, predictive asset maintenance.

DECCAN HERALD REPORT QUOTED AN INDIAN RAILWAYS OFFICIAL

The rail operator is planning to incorporate a predictive asset maintenance system that will consistently monitor the condition of equipment and issue alerts in the event of an anomaly, which will help the firm take up immediate maintenance.

Give and Take

To solve any conflict, all parties must be willing to give and take for the dispute to be resolved.

Without that, the conversation will go round and round without any sign of coming to a meaningful end.

At this juncture, can we flashback to the heated argument between the Indian government and the rickshaw drivers.

If there’s a way for the government to regulate this sector without alienating the very people who depend on it, it is prudent to explore that option.

Since Big Data offers a viable solution, everyone can leave the negotiating table happy.

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