There was a time when one said ‘for the price of a bus ticket’ when something was low-cost, as distinct from cheap; just like one said 'ek cutting chai ka daam’.
But that bus fare too has become expensive for some. According to a member of the Brihanmumbai Electric and Transport (BEST) managing committee, as many as three lakh erstwhile passengers have given up using the buses for they had something else as an alternative.
The preference was for shared autorickshaws which traverse a distance, point to point and charge one passenger a third of the pre-fixed rate. It could be marginally higher than the fare by the meter but when divided between three, It works lots cheaper. In this case, cheaper than the bus fare.
The new fare structure, with a 33-35% hike on the ordinary and limited services, and nearly 100 per cent on the King Long AC services, has depleted the enthusiasm for using the bus for a commute. If it is the share-auto, as is popularly known in the suburbs, it is the share-taxi downtown, like from CST to Nariman Point.
June-end, BEST was patronised, on an average, by 37.78 lakh commuters per day which was lower by three lakh to the pre-hike months. However, BEST is raking in more from the fewer passengers, Hindustan Times has said.
The point is less about the BEST economics. The concern is how even the cheapest option for commute seems to be not within the reach of the common man. The fare hike has not added to comfort or improved the travel on the buses. This ought to be disturbing since already, according to World Bank data, nearly 50 per cent of the city residents walk to work.
A good service ought to be the responsibility of the city government towards the citizens of the city. That is the philosophy why the various private operators’ services in the city were taken over and run by the municipal corporation. Implied in it is that getting persons from place to place, especially for work, does keep a city’s economy going.
The Indian Railways have probably this in mind when they charge such low fares for commute on their super-dense crowd trains. A ticket for 35 km journey cost about Rs 12 a shot and if you buy a season ticket, much less. The BEST has not understood this logic; it has actually forgotten it. They may be arguing that they need to at least break even. Is fare hike the only way?
It is quite likely that the affection for the autorickshaws, especially when shared, may last as long as the one-by-three is cheaper. If the fare were to be hiked the way Sharad Rao, the even-demanding boss of the three-wheeler union, wants, then the loyalties may shift again, in a see-saw fashion. But to imagine that public transport has a cheaper alternative is unheard of.
However, the BEST seems to have some foresight. It knows that soon as the city gets its much-delayed, long-awaited metro services which would operate in a manner there would be substantial east-west connectivity in a city where railway’s mass transit is north-south, it would lose its charm, even utility.
There would be some surplus buses because, with the dip of three lakh commuters a day, increasing number of the iconic red buses, are being stabled during the afternoons. Perhaps that explains why it has shown some enthusiasm to foray into neighbouring markets where bus services are poor. Of course, under existing norms, BEST cannot operate within another city’s limits but can link that city to Mumbai.
It has enlarged service between Thane and Mumbai, Navi Mumbai and Mumbai, Mira-Bhayander and Mumbai. Connecting near-bus-less Bhiwandi, Kalyan, Vasai Virar is a task since the distances are far too big to make any sense. In Thane, the routes are via key areas to the extent that on some routes, Thane Municipal Transport has become virtually pointless.
They have plucked passengers from areas in Thane where TMT had not even looked before. These buses go packed, are regular, and reliable unlike TMT which, since 1980, does not even have a timetable since they are not sure if a bus would be run at all because half of them are stabled for maintenance.
BEST operates buses more efficiently in these areas so that it traverses paths where locals can travel between two places within Thane. For want of good service by Thane Municipal Transport, people are happy with BEST, though the fares are higher in TMT buses if it happened to pass by. But that does not mean it can make travel within Mumbai unaffordable.