Driving toward Innovation in India’s Bus Systems

By Alisha Sud —

Traffic snarl in Delhi, India. Source: Carol Mitchell’s flickr photostream, used under a creative commons license.

Amid increasing domestic pressure to alleviate chronic traffic congestion on India’s heavily-traveled roadways, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government has sought to reprioritize public transportation and highway projects across the country. The 2016 Union Budget, released in February, includes roughly $8.5 billion for the state and central ministries of Road Transport and Highways to help advance Modi’s drive to increase connectivity and efficiency in the transportation sector. Importantly, India’s bus systems have received renewed attention from both public and private sector stakeholders looking to create energy efficient public vehicles as well as eliminate the overcrowding of public transportation resulting from rapid urbanization. Investing in public transit rather than individual car travel may also encourage high-density development, which research suggests is beneficial for economic growth. But to increase passenger confidence in India’s buses and encourage wealthy city-dwellers to abandon private autos in favor of public transit, the government needs to fund solutions that counteract widely-held negative perceptions of its public bus systems.

These negative perceptions stem from the failure of well-intentioned initiatives aimed at making bus travel more efficient. Notable among them is Delhi’s experiment with Bus Rapid Transport (BRT), which began construction in 2006. Intended to cut down on traffic congestion in a city that had 7.35 million cars in 2012, the initiative ultimately caused more traffic thanks to inadequate bus stations, badly planned routes, and poor quality vehicles and maintenance procedures. The project was scrapped and the city began dismantling it in January 2016, at a cost of around $1.6 million.

Delhi is not the only Indian city that presents commuting challenges. At present, a Mumbai bus line, BEST, averages an all-time low speed of 7.5mph during peak hour, while private cars travel a rate of 12.4mph or greater. Consequently, the bus line has witnessed a decline in commuter strength by one million passengers a day and forces those commuters who do opt to take the bus to endure extremely long wait times. Beyond leaving commuters aggravated, cities with older fleets of diesel-fueled buses are contributing to India’s intense struggle with air pollution. Even India’s newer buses, which run on compressed natural gas, produce alarming levels of nitric oxide pollution.

Considering this host of issues, is it time for the Indian government to consider funding privately owned alternatives to traditional passenger buses? In one such move, Transport Minister Gopal Rai of Delhi announced in April 2016 that the city would introduce and support several private bus services  – similar in concept to taxi aggregators Uber and Ola – to encourage greater ridership on buses. Considering private buses are several times smaller than those of the public bus segment, individuals can be accommodated much more easily through route optimization. As such, private bus companies like Ola and Shuttl are expanding rapidly and currently running over 1,000 buses in Gurgaon, Noida, and Ghaziabad at fares of Rs. 20 to 25 (about a third of $1) for distances of three miles—roughly comparable to the normal fare on an air-conditioned public bus. Ola’s bus service has already staked its claim as the largest service of its kind, carrying more than 20,000 passengers daily across 120 routes in Delhi. Shuttl, a newer company only operating in Delhi, focuses on completing short routes that connect residential neighborhoods to major public transport hubs while also providing rides from satellite towns to economic centers. While these private shuttles cater to middle-class Indians, they’ve been effective at eliminating a significant number of private autos from the roads.

These services could create more room on the roads for the government to try again with plans for a more robust public transport system. There is talk that India may experiment once more with BRT under the country’s smart city initiative, learning from mistakes made in Delhi. The city of Aurangabad in Maharashtra, which currently employs 50 buses rather than its estimated requirement of 560, plans to invest $16.2 million in its bus system, while also ensuring a separate $24.7 million is spent on smart bus stands, street lights, and traffic signal systems – elements missing from Delhi’s BRT system. In addition to this, the smart city initiative could also help move India from using old, diesel-fueled buses to models that run on clean fuel or are electric-powered. Already, strong progress has been made in this realm. In October 2016, manufacturing firm Ashok Leyland unveiled India’s first ever indigenously-produced electric bus, which can travel up to 93 miles on a single charge. The company plans to sell about 50 electric buses by the end of the current fiscal year, and 200 units the next. Ashok Leyland is representative of the shift India’s bus manufacturers are undergoing, each year increasing the portion of total capital expenditure planned to be spent on electric buses.

Increasing ridership on India’s public buses is an integral component of the government’s effort to steer consumers toward cleaner, more efficient modes of transport while eliminating India’s traffic problem. Heavy investment in stronger private and public bus systems and fuel efficient vehicles underscores India’s commitment to solving its current transportation disaster.

Ms. Alsiha Sud is a researcher with the Wadhwani Chair in U.S.-India Policy Studies at CSIS.

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