Bus transport-based mobility enables access to all fundamental rights. National Urban Transport Policy (2006) recommends promoting public transport and disincentivising private transport; but urban transport in Bengaluru has not made this policy shift in the past two decades. Investment in public transport is heavily skewed towards Metro Rail which has a small share of public transport, whereas BMTC with a substantive share of public transport is neglected.
Budget allocations for procuring more buses and implementing bus priority lanes in the previous budgets have not seen any progress. BMTC fares are the highest in India, denying urban poor affordable mobility and curtailing their spending capacity on other essentials. Moreover, pandemic and lockdown have exacerbated their economic conditions, making affordable mobility an even greater concern. Two wheelers and shared modes being more economical than the bus has increased congestion as well.
BMTC is heavily dependent on ticket revenue to run operations. Without adequate financial resources, BMTC is unable to address its issues. It is also unable to address legitimate concerns of its staff regarding timely payment and revision of salaries and benefits. Loss of revenue due to reduced services and commuter base during COVID pandemic has aggravated the systemic and financial crisis in BMTC.
The following proposal can help strengthen BMTC, enable it to provide improved mobility in Bengaluru and ease the economic burden on the urban poor.
Mobility and Public Transport in Bengaluru
Urban transport is an important domain that requires serious attention in all cities. In Bengaluru, there are many crucial concerns regarding urban transport. During the budget season, it’s especially important for the government to consider sufficient allocation in the budget towards urban transport solutions that are affordable, equitable, and sustainable. Mobility is an essential enabler for access to education, livelihood, health, and leisure in cities.
It’s well known that the right way to provide mobility is to promote public transport and discourage use of private modes of transport. The National Urban Transport Policy (NUTP) recommended this in 2006. Even now, Bengaluru has not taken any substantive measures to discourage use of private modes of transport. The government has not made a holistic plan or substantive investments in public transport and associated infrastructure for safe walking and cycling. In fact, even after widespread public opposition and protests, the Comprehensive Mobility Plan (CMP) for Bengaluru is still heavily invested in projects like elevated corridors which are part of the failed model that incentivises private modes.
Instead, efforts continue to promote “big ticket” projects like the metro as the main mode of public transport. The Metro’s exorbitant financial and other costs beg the critical question of whether and to what extent this investment really serves the public. A recent survey by the Delhi government is instructive in this context: After building a city wide metro network of 370km over 20 years spending 70,000 crores, a mere 6 percent of Delhi’s commuters travel by metro and 60 percent still rely on the bus. These eye-opening figures should make Bangalore’s planners seriously rethink whether expanding the Metro network beyond Phase-2 will really bring significant enough benefits to mobility in Bengaluru to justify the costs.
Bus-based Public Transport has received very little policy attention and public funding for decades. The BMTC bus fleet has largely remained the same while the city’s population and private vehicles saw explosive growth over the past two decades. A small beginning to rectify this was made in the last couple of budgets by allocating funds to BMTC to procure new buses. Budget allocations provided for a net increase of 1500 buses (after scrapping old buses). After the successful pilot of the bus priority lane on the ORR, the 2020-21 budget had announced extending bus priority lanes across the city, along 12 high density corridors. While these are welcome moves, they are insufficient for improving public transport in one of the most congested cities in the world. Further, despite the policy announcements and budget allocations, actual procurement of buses and expansion of bus priority lanes did not happen, as last year’s budget allocations were used to tide over BMTC’s revenue deficits and sustain operations through the pandemic and lockdown induced crisis.
The pandemic has again brought the precarious financial health of BMTC to the fore. Without enough ridership during the pandemic, BMTC was forced to reduce the number of buses and schedules, bringing down its revenues significantly. This has affected its ability to pay staff salaries on time. Although the government stepped in to cover the salaries, the delayed payments even during festival times and other dissatisfactions among staff also led to a four day strike and suspension of bus services in the city (and across Karnataka).
Being forced to depend on revenue to pay salaries and finance operations has led to serious concerns for commuters as well. BMTC has the highest city bus fares in the country, making public transport expensive for large sections of urban poor and a squeeze on their incomes. Coupled with the economic crisis post pandemic and lockdown and loss of incomes and jobs for many in the working class, affordable mobility has become even more of a concern. These concerns become even greater if one takes into account the fact that women are much more dependent on public transport, and have also suffered disproportionately in the pandemic year. But BMTC is not in a position to provide affordability mobility due to its revenue-driven approach to provisioning services. The high fares also make BMTC non-competitive when compared to two-wheelers or shared modes of travel such as auto/cabs for families and groups. This has led to proliferation of other modes at the cost of public transport.
Activities and Initiatives Proposed
Keeping this context and these issues at the forefront, BBPV would like to submit the following as our budgetary demands to the government of Karnataka.
- Free travel for women: The Delhi government made DTC buses free for women in 2019. This measure by the Delhi govt was a highly successful intervention and very popular among commuters and the larger public as well. This measure proved to be a major relief to the urban poor and made the bus a more economical and competitive mode compared to other modes. More women took to buses bringing along the accompanying men as new paying commuters, increasing the revenue as well. While the outcomes and benefits of this intervention can be further studied, we can be sure that such a measure in Bengaluru will significantly improve the affordability of transport for the urban poor and increase the mode share of buses, thereby impacting congestion as well. It would be a significant transformative step to the government’s credit and a mobility game-changer if city bus transport can be made free for women.
- Fast-track city-wide implementation of Bus Priority Lane: This will improve the travel time by bus and make the bus more attractive and efficient. Along with bus priority lanes on high traffic density corridors, route rationalization to improve connectivity to the corridors and across corridors and last-mile connectivity from bus stops to homes also needs to be provisioned for Bus priority lanes to deliver its fullest potential. Encroachment of bus lanes by other vehicles is a major deterrent to its success, therefore measures to ensure compliance such as the deployment of adequate traffic police, cameras along bus lanes or in buses, etc. must also be accounted for when planning the budget. In addition to allocating adequate funds for all of these, clear responsibilities must be assigned to the relevant authorities such as BBMP, Traffic Police, DULT, BMTC, etc. and an effective coordination mechanism put in place to ensure speedy and effective implementation and success of Bus Priority Lanes across the city.
- Expand the bus fleet: Increase the fund allocation to BMTC to buy more buses. Provide adequate funds to enable direct procurement of buses by BMTC without forcing adoption of PPP models like GCC. PPP models will weaken and impoverish public transport in the long run. While it may be beneficial for BMTC to pilot e-buses, larger procurement in hundreds should be taken up after careful evaluation; direct procurement and operation by BMTC gradually should be encouraged even for e-buses.
- Operational support for BMTC: It’s a well-known fact that public transport will always be a loss-making enterprise and it cannot fund its operations from its own revenue. Affordability is also a concern for commuters, especially the working class and urban poor, more so now in the deepening economic crisis post lockdown. Under the circumstances, financial support for BMTC to provide affordable mobility and provide services across the city irrespective of revenue considerations is very important. This support could be provided in various forms:
- Viability Gap Funding to cover the gap between ticket collection and operational costs or by paying staff salaries (like Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh do).
- Waive off various taxes that BMTC needs to pay to the government, like Motor Vehicle tax, Fuel taxes, taxes on spare parts, etc.
- Free passes could be extended to a wider cross-section of workers by the government like was done for construction workers and garment workers. The Labor department and social welfare department also could contribute to these as social welfare measures.
Additional resources could be raised through congestion taxes and parking charges and other innovative taxes on the use of private vehicles. Substantive share of State Urban Transport Fund, Smart City Mission and other such sources could be used for bus transport considering a majority of people travel by bus.
5. Improve NMT infrastructure: Walkable footpaths, safe at-grade crossings and walking paths at major bus interchanges and junctions such as K R Puram, Silk Board, Domlur, Jayadeva junction, etc. are also the essential infrastructure for bus commuters as well as to encourage more use of buses. These are basic facilities that any city cares for the safety and well-being of its residents, let alone a city like Bangalore which aspires for global standards of urban living. GoK should provide adequate funds to achieve this vision for the entire city. Furthermore, the installation of bike racks on all buses will allow greater integration with workers who rely on bicycles.