The red bus on the roads of Mumbai are as emblematic of the city as is the Gateway of India, the glass-fronted skyscrapers, the overcrowded local trains, and the slums which are mostly ignored by everyone, except the slumdwellers and the real estate developers. The Brihanmumbai Electric Supply and Transport Undertaking (BEST), however, seems to be caught in an existential crisis.
One would image that in a city, where everyone grumbles, but struggles with commuter trains and unaffordable private transport, the people would patronise the BEST services which has a good network of routes. It has long-haul routes within the city and to the neighbouring Thane, Mira-Bhayander, and Navi Mumbai. Yet, it is now forced to beg passengers to come board them.
With a little over 4,000 buses, BEST now carries around 28-30 lakh passengers daily, which is a far lower a figure than what it had in the past. An undated update on its website mentions fewer buses carry 45 lakh passengers (paragraph 8). Obviously, a transport-hungry city’s major chunk of commuters has turned its back on BEST.
It had once claimed, “To use a figure of speech, the city inhales and exhales through the BEST bus services.” But who is to be blamed for the steep decline in its users, despite its intricate web of routes? Theoretically, if one has the patience to wait five to 10 minutes for a bus, I suppose the personal car could be chucked. That would create space for these buses to operate.
Waiting is an oppression because the buses are often delayed, or sometimes two or more buses come together on the same route and sometimes they are crowded. Moreover, bus stops are only a notion; they have no shelters, which is a major inadequacy because of the city's sweltering heat and vigorous monsoons. And till June 30, one had to pay a high price for a ticket.
After much deliberation, its administrators have decided to bite the bullet, bear the losses and attract the passengers, who deserted it over the past few years, back to the seats. It has decided to slash the fares by half for the air-conditioned buses, so that people using personal cars and cab aggregates switch to the public transport. This, however, may be a half measure, as fares for the ordinary red buses remain almost the same.
The bulk of the commuters use the non-AC buses, and it is they who are hard put to use the buses and prefer the share-rickshaws, a truly innovative, legally sanctioned system where people travelling from a specified point to another can share the three-wheeler and the fare. The routes are set. These are not the carwallahas, but those who need a feeder service to the railway station, and are the core user base.
The BEST should have tried much earlier to prevent people from using cars, which of course, was a major upswing since 2000, and once gripped by the comfort of an AC capsule of their own, never mind the bad roads, potholes during monsoon and the time-consuming rides. There are no rapid transport lanes and now, it's an unimplemented cliché.
Mumbai is caught in a vicious transportation trap. Historically, it had tried its best, putting more trains, quicker trips, more buses, even air-conditioned ones. But somehow, it has not been enough. The trains remain overcrowded, the roads which the BEST intended to use, are so congested that a gridlock is likely to emerge in the near future, and for which the buses cannot operate optimally.
The buses are unable to keep to their required 200 km/day run when deployed on routes to break-even. That is because cars have taken over carriageways, and even the curbsides to park them. In fact, footpaths are put to use for everything, but walking. In some places, especially outside elite clubs, cars are parked on footpaths.
If the city inhaled and exhaled through the BEST buses, it was for a single reason that transportation is key to economic growth and yet, profit-seeking, and consequent loss-making put the operator in dire straits to the extent that it now talks of leasing private buses, as if they can operate on losses. Possibly, the lower overheads of a private operator, if he doesn’t have to pay bribes to the police and RTO staff, could be an attraction, but impractical.
If the Railways can transport people on a subsidised basis from distant suburbs which are not within the civic limits of Mumbai to keep its economic engine humming, there is no reason for the BEST to look for another model. It has to understand that the richest civic body in the country has to provide that lifeline. Just like the Railways are, which transport twice as many as the BEST would like to.
The user base began to crumble when oil prices shot up and so did the bus fares as a result. Then, on some routes, it was almost a 100 percent hike, something that does not lure the common and the middle class man. It took almost half a decade to realise that they have to be lured back, but the steps are only half measures. If chain retailers know price points attract buyers, why not here? BEST is yet to come up with a good idea.