A journey back to civilisation

Earlier this evening, I was at a coffee shop in Whitefield with a friend when it started raining cats and dogs. I got a message from a wife stating that it was raining insanely in her part of town, and that I should be careful while coming back. I promised her that I would wait it out before returning, and returned to my conversation.

I made my first attempt at booking a cab at 1845, by which time the rain had stopped. Uber showed that the nearest cab was 8 minutes away, except that when I tried to book it it failed to find me a ride. Ola was no better – except that it showed that the nearest cab was 20 minutes away when I opened the app.

I continued waiting, and continued checking on both platforms. No cabs materialised. And after some 45 minutes of waiting thus, I decided to get out and find a bus. My friend was surprised that I was willing to change buses to get home. “I would never do that”, he declared, adding that it would be easier for me to move back to India.

I walked up Varthur main road looking for a bus stop. It had stopped raining but there were huge puddles on the roadside, and mosquitoes buzzed all around. There was a huge crowd at the bus stop. The first two buses came at an interval of five minutes each. Both were jam packed.

It was clear that Varthur main road wasn’t a great place to be, since the bus frequency there was low – most buses would be coming from the other side of Whitefield, so it was clear that I should get to Kundalahalli gate.

Presently an “illegal bus” (an office bus picking up passengers for some extra income for the driver) materialised, and it was a good opportunity to get to Kundalahalli gate. The bus sped there, and charged 10 bucks.

As expected, there were plenty of buses, including Volvos, at Kundalahalli Gate, except that there was no room to get into any of them. Once again, there was no luck to be had on the Uber or Ola front. I even tried UberPool and Ola Share (stuff I normally never use), but nothing materialised. The only result of all that was that my phone battery drained like crazy. And it started raining as well – I was happy I had behaved like a rich man this morning and bought a new umbrella when I realised I’d forgotten mine at home.

An airport bus appeared as a sort of a saviour. It was empty, and the conductor said passengers not headed to the airport weren’t allowed on it. I offered to buy a ticket till the airport, and was allowed on. The conductor said I best get off at the next stop (Marathahalli bridge) given where I was headed. He charged me Rs. 16.

So at every step I got closer and closer to civilisation. Kundalahalli Gate was civilisation compared to Varthur Main Road. Marathahalli was civilisation compared to Kundalahalli Gate. Another illegal bus there dropped me to Domlur (Rs. 20), and under normal circumstances that should count as “proper civilisation”. Except that the design of the Domlur flyover means that it’s rather desolate and dark and unwalkable under it. So I needed to reach the next stage of civilisation, which I did when yet another illegal bus dropped me to Richmond Circle (the driver demanded Rs. 15, but I gave only Rs. 10 since I didn’t have change).

At all stages, I continuously tried to get cabs and autos, but perhaps due to tomorrow’s state elections, none materialised. Most of the time I was on one road (Old Airport Road), and most sections of it are rather badly lit and seem unsafe and “rural”. This was a journey I would have never done if I had been with family.

And the mode of transport was bimodal – three of the five buses I took to reach home were “illegal”. Two others were the most expensive Volvos. The last leg of the journey was completed on yet another airport Volvo, where the conductor made no fuss of letting people in, and not only gave me change for Rs. 100 (ticket cost Rs. 37), but also gave me 5 100 rupee notes for a 500 rupee note I handed him.

The entire journey, from the time I started hailing the cab to when I opened my door, took exactly three hours. A cab would have cost me upwards of Rs. 500, but my bimodal transport cost me Rs. 105. Frankly I would’ve been more than happy to spend the former amount for the pleasure of getting home an hour and half earlier, and being able to do something productive on the ride home.

But then it’s not often that an NRI has an adventure such as this!

Red bus

No, not that red bus. I’m talking about the red BMTC buses in Bangalore. They used to be red till 1998 or 1999, and then the government of the day decided that the buses were due an image change (red being danger and all that). This coincided with the spinning off of the BMTC from the erstwhile BTS (which was part of the Karnataka State Road Transport Corporation). The buses were all painted blue.

Over the years, new kinds of services have been launched. There was the Pushpak – coloured beige. Then there was the slightly premium Suvarna, coloured a very light purple. And then there were the pass-only green buses, women only pink buses (yes, really) and the red Volvos. For some reason, red buses have started making a comeback to mainline BMTC routes, though I don’t quite know the reason for the reintroduction of the colour, or if they are any different from the blue and white buses.

So for the first time in fifteen years or so, I rode a “normal” red BMTC bus today (in the intervening period I either rode “normal” blue and white buses or premium Volvo red buses). Some pertinent observations from this rather momentous (!!) journey.

I was close to Shivajinagar, and had to come home to Jayanagar. Considering that it’s a pain haggling with auto rickshaw drivers in that area, I decided to take a bus (especially since I was coming from a place really close to the bus stand). I quickly walked up to the Shivajinagar TTMC (“travel and transit management centre” or something). The footpath on the St Marks Road extension on which I walked was quite poor – I hope the TenderSure project that is rebuilding roads and footpaths in the middle of the city reaches there soon.

Even navigation within the TTMC is quite bad – it’s badly designed in the sense that there’s no space to walk where you have no chance of being hit by one of the hundreds of buses there. A helpful official told me where I would get the bus to Jayanagar, but to get there (walking fast) was quite a challenge. Finally I got there and found a red 27E (going to JP Nagar) and hopped on.

The BMTC is definitely not cheap – the journey set me back by 19 rupees (to put that in context, I had traveled there in the morning by auto rickshaw and paid Rs 86). It’s definitely been a long time since I’ve traveled by bus as I handed the conductor a ten rupee note and looked expectedly for change. I had to shell out another ten bucks.

I didn’t get a seat but found a comfortable place for myself to stand (right at the back of the bus). The concept of having the door in the middle of the bus rather than at the fag end is a good one – it allows you to go deep into the bus and find good places to stand. Also, you are looking ahead while standing and can look out for any shuffling in the seats which might potentially get empty!

What I noticed during my journey (which took 25 minutes which is not bad at all for that time of the day) is that each of these longish distance buses actually serve several small markets – if we can figure out a metric for how many times the passengers in the bus “churn” ¬†(it’s not too hard, just feeling lazy right now) it might help us plan routes better in terms of multiple short routes rather than a few long routes (that can help cut down uncertainty in timings, etc.).

So the bus for example completely emptied itself out at the Shantinagar TTMC (which is a very good TTMC IMHO, since no buses terminate there), and then got refilled a couple of stops later in Wilson Garden. Earlier, there had been massive churn near Richmond Circle. And so on.

This is perhaps related to the cost but there seemed to be a very different demographic that populated the bus (based on looks – I’m being judgmental and all that, I know) compared to the type 15 years back. In terms of social strata the bus seemed much less diverse today than 15 years back, and it worked both ways. It seemed like most bus travellers today could be broadly defined as being lower middle class – I hardly saw any labourer types (might be a function of the route also) or too many upper middle class types in the bus. It is interesting how these things change!

Crowding out with public transport

This is an idea that’s been in my head for a while. About whether it is possible to nudge people who normally travel in cars to use public transport by simply flooding the roads with buses. The motivation for this comes from the hassles associated with marking and enforcing bus lanes, a form of public transport that is generally considered superior to subway trains in terms of cost of implementation and effectiveness.

So the idea is that as the number of buses on the road increases, the average speed of cars comes down. And after a point, the number of buses on the road means there’s enough supply that one can travel comfortably in them. And there will come a point when people will give up their cars in favour of buses since they can now spend the time more usefully rather than waste it by concentrating on the road.

Of course, this point is still far away for a city like Bangalore, though the BMTC has been making efforts, with initiatives such as the Bus Day. Still, now I’ve begun to have my doubts about it. About whether just increasing bus connectivity and frequency and quality will be enough to take cars off the road. I’ve begun to think if the comfort of not having to drive but travel at the same speed is enough to compensate for the cost of walking to and from bus stops and waiting for buses. The other cost of traveling by bus is that once you get into a bus you travel by a fixed route rather than adapting to daily traffic flows.

The important thing here is the distribution of waiting time for catching a bus. If a passenger is convinced that he is very likely to get a bus within a certain span of time with a very high probability (using vague words to avoid putting random numbers) he is likely to wait for a bus. However, if there are no such bounds, then the passenger might choose to travel by an alternate means of transport.

Still it needs to be seen. From what I know, all cities that currently boast of great public transport actually built a lot of the basic public transport infrastructure before the boom of cars in the place. I can’t recall off the top of my head any city that has actually nudged passengers from personal cars to public transport after cars had become default mode of transport (if you know of such cases, please let me know). In that sense, this nudging towards public transport is still a hard problem to solve. Nevertheless, I still think it might still be a good idea to try crowd out private transport by public transport.

Bus Day and Extensions

So in Bangalore, the fourth of every month is celebrated as “bus day” when people are encouraged to give up on their private¬† transport vehicles and opt for the BMTC bus. So far, what the BMTC has been doing is to increase frequency of buses on certain corridors so that people who travel those routes are further encouraged to use buses. Hopefully soon there will be a time when public transport in the city is so good that every day is a bus day.

Problem with getting everyone to use public transport is that certain routes are extremely “illiquid” in the sense that there just aren’t enough passengers who want to travel between a particular pair of points for the BMTC to put a bus on that route. Even if they do put a route, it is likely to be extremely infrequent and not really serve the purpose.

Problem with growth of bus services in Bangalore over the years (starting with Jayanagar-Yeshwantpur) is that bus services are usually point-to-point. There hasn’t been much effort in terms of developing interchanges, and the only good interchanges that make sense currently are Majestic, Market and Shivajinagar – all of which are in the center of the city. Given the geographic expansion of the city, it doesn’t really make sense to go to the center to change buses. We need interchanges everywhere.

And the lack of viable interchanges is what I think makes bus transport much less popular than it should be (yeah, we still need lots more buses than we have right now). For example, my office is on intermediate ring road, behind the Dell office. And there is not a single bus from my office to the center of the city (majestic/market/shivajinagar) because of which it is extremely tough for people who work in my complex to commute by work. There are buses on the road that our office is situated on, but none that connect properly to buses that go to the city center, which also makes interchange difficult.

Similarly at Hudson Circle (“corporation”). There are bus stops all around the place but the problem is they are so far away from each other and it takes so much crossing to get from one to the other that this junction is not as good an interchange as it used to be a few years back! Encourages inefficiency in terms of having to go to one of the bus stands for changing buses!

The current system of segmentation of buses (in terms of various classes of service) is commendable and I think the air-conditioned premium service is doing a lot of good in terms of taking cars off the road. However, in order to get more people to use the system, what we need is a network where it is possible to go from any stop to any other with the minimum amount of time being spent in terms of waiting. Traffic is already bad so it is bad enough that we spend so much time just commuting, and one of the main reasons people are put off from taking buses that added to this commute time is the waiting time!

And once this system of convenient interchanges and “structured liquidity” (if a market is illiquid, there is a set of buses which are each operating on liquid routes and which together through convenient interchanges serve this market) is put in place, then my grand idea of flooding the city’s roads with buses in order to crowd out cars can be implemented.