Reading Boards

Today was a landmark day in the life of the daughter. She looked at a bus this evening, and without any prompting, started trying to read the number on it.

Most of today hadn’t been that great for her. She’s been battling a throat infection for a few days now, and has been largely unable to eat for the last couple of days because of which she had developed high fever today. As a result, we took her to hospital today, and it was on the way back from there that the landmark event happened.

Having got on to the bus at the starting point, we had the choice of seat, and obviously chose the best seat in the house – the seat right above the driver (I’m going to miss double decker buses when we move out of London). She was excited to be in a bus – every day on the way to her nursery, we pass by many buses, prompting her to exclaim “red bus!!” and expressing a desire to ride them. The nursery is five minutes walk away from home, so no such opportunity arises.

I must also mention that we live at a busy intersection, close to the Ealing Broadway “town centre”. From our living room window we can see lots of buses, and the numbers are easily recognisable (it helps that London buses have electronic number boards). And sometimes when Berry refuses to eat, her mother takes her to the window where they watch buses come and go, with one spoonful for each bus. Along the way, the wife reads out the bus numbers aloud to Berry. So far, though, Berry had never tried to read a bus number from our house window.

But sitting in a bus herself this evening, she “broke through”. Ahead of us was bus 427, which she read as “four seven”. I asked her what was in between 4 and 7, and she had no answer. Maybe she didn’t understand “between”.

A short distance later, there was bus 483 coming from the other side. She started with the 3 and then read the 8. And then the bus passed. And then there was bus E1 in front of us. Berry read it as “E”. I hadn’t known that she can recognise E. I know she knows all numbers, and A to D. So this was news to me. Getting her to read the number next to that was a challenge. 1 is a challenge for her since it looks like I. After much prompting, there was nothing, and I told her it was E1. Five minutes later, we encountered 427 again. This time she read in full, except that she called it “seven two four”.

I grew up at a time when our lives were much less documented. The only solid memory I have of my childhood is this photo album, most of whose photos were taken by an uncle who had a camera, and whose camera had this feature to imprint the date on the photos. So I have a very clear idea about what I looked like at different ages, and what I did when, but the rest of my growing up years were a little fuzzy.

There is the odd memory, though. My grandfather’s younger brother, who lived next door, had a car (a Fiat 1100). I loved going on rides with him in that, and I used to sit between him and my grandfather. I don’t remember too many specific trips, but I know that my grandfather would make me read signboards from shops, and I would read them letter by letter.

My grandfather’s younger brother passed away when I was two years and seven months old. So I know that by the time I was that age, I was able to read letters from signboards.

It is only natural for us to benchmark our children’s growth to that of other people we know – ourselves, if possible, and if not, some cousins or friends’ children. Thus far, I had lacked a marker to know of whether Berry had “beaten me to it” at various life events. I know she started walking quicker than me, because my first year birthday photos show me trying to stand on my won. I know she spoke later than me because multiple people have told me I would speak sentences at the time of our housewarming (when I was a year and half old).

Thanks to the memory of going on rides with my grandfather’s brother, and reading signboards, I know that I would read them before I was two years seven months old (or maybe earlier, since I’m guessing I did it multiple times in his car else no one would’ve told me about it).

And today, at two years and two months, the daughter started reading numbers on surrounding buses. She doesn’t know the full alphabet yet, but this is a strong start!

I’m proud of her!

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!

London’s 7D

In classes 11 and 12 i had to travel every day from Jayanagar to indiranagar to get to school. There was a direct bus that took me from just behind my house to Just behind my school. This was 7D. But despite my mother’s insistence that I take that, I seldom did. For it took such a circuitous route that it would take ages.

I’m sure that someone has done a survey of bangalores most convoluted bus routes, and if so, 7D would fall close to the top there (the only bus that I imagine could beat 7D is 201).

So rather than take 7D I’d take one of the many buses bound to Shivajinagar and get off at Richmond circle, from where I’d get 138 to take me right behind school (or the double decker 131 to take me 10 mins walk away in the other direction). The changeover at Richmond circle was rather simple (no walking involved) and this process would help me save at least 15 minutes each way every day.

Now I’ve figured that the London Underground has its own 7D, except for the fact that the route is not circuitous – it’s simply slow. I live in Ealing and my office is near Victoria so the most direct way for me to travel is to take the district line. It takes 35 minutes and runs once every 10 minutes (the line splits in two places to frequency to Ealing is low).

On most days I don’t travel directly from home to work since I drop Berry to her Nursery on the way. So taking the district line straight from Home to work is never an option.

Yesterday I was ill and so my wife took Berry to her Nursery. So I travelled directly to work. And for the first time ever since I joined this office I took the district line on the way to Office.

I reached Ealing broadway at 8:02 and Just about caught the 8:03 train. The train rolled into Victoria at 8:40 and I was in Office at 8:45.

Today once again I was traveling directly from home to work, and reached Ealing broadway station a few seconds later than yesterday, just missing the train I’d caught yesterday. I had the option to wait 10 minutes for the next district line train or using what seemed like a convoluted route. I chose the latter.

I took a great western railway train to Paddington, where I walked for about 5-7 minutes to the bakerloo line and got it. I got off the bakerloo five stops later at oxford circus where I changed to the Victoria line, and got off two stops later at Victoria. The time was 8:35!

In other words I’d left later than I had yesterday, changed trains twice (one involving a long walk) and still reached five minutes earlier. And all the time traveling in trains far less crowded than an early morning district line train headed to the city!

I hereby christen the district line as London’s 7D. Except that the route isn’t anywhere circuitous!

Making bus lanes work

Bus Rapid Transport, which is mass transport based on lanes dedicated to buses, is something that has been proposed in India for a very long time but has never really worked.

Delhi abandoned its efforts a few months back under the current state government, after experimenting with it on one road for a few years. Pune has BRT and  bus lanes, but that is also ridden with problems (no pun intended). Ahmedabad supposedly has a well-functioning BRT but the share of commuters using buses in that city is far below other cities.

Source: http://www.livemint.com/Politics/tPT6767pB5DSEEdZnBYcgP/Why-Delhis-bus-service-is-more-expensive-than-that-of-Chenn.html 

There have been proposals to introduce BRT in Bangalore, and some flyovers on Outer Ring Road were designed with the express purpose of maintaining bus lanes. Nothing has come to fruition so far.

In most cases, the problem has been with selling the scheme to the people – a lane exclusively reserved for buses adversely affects people who use private transport. Even though the latter are not numerous (data from the census shows that a very small proportion of urban Indians use private cars for their daily commute), their voice and clout means that it is a hard sell.

In my opinion, the reason BRT has been a hard sell is because of the way it has been implemented and sold. One problem has been that it has been implemented on only a small number of roads, rather than enabling a dense network on which one can travel by bus quickly. The bigger problem  has been implementing it on roads with low bus density, where the demarcated bus lane mostly appears empty while other lanes are clogged, giving incentives for motorists to cheat.

Instead, bus lanes should be demarcated only after bus density on the road has reached a certain density. There are several roads in Bangalore, for example, where buses already contribute to the lion’s share of traffic congestion (Nrupatunga Road, inner ring road in BTM layout and Hosur Road between Wilson Garden and Madivala come to mind – but there needs to be a more scientific study to identify such).

If such roads, with already existing high bus density, are chosen to mark off bus lanes, the bus lanes can be sold as a method to restrict all buses to one lane so that cars can move about freely on the rest of the road. While there might still be protests (thanks to such “reservation”), the fact that the reservation will not have much of an impact will mean that it is an easier sell.

Think about it! Meanwhile, here is a picture from Barcelona, which shows that even in supposedly rule-breaking Spain, bus lanes can work.

Getting BRT to work

Dedicated bus lanes are neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for BRT

After significant success in Ahmedabad and spectacular failure in Delhi, Pune is the latest city in India to embark on a “Bus Rapid Transport” (BRT) project. As the name suggests, the point of a BRT is to provide fast and convenient transport to people on buses that ply on existing roads, with some sections of some roads being reserved for buses.

However, in popular imagination, BRT has become synonymous with bus lanes (a lane of road reserved for buses), and the whole controversy in Delhi (which caused the project to be shelved) was about a lane of an arterial road being reserved for buses. In fact, however, a dedicated bus lane is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for implementation of BRT.

The attraction of BRT is that it comes with low infrastructure cost – unlike a train or monorail (or even a tram) line, there is not much investment required in terms of physical infrastructure. The challenge with BRT, however, is that its buses are liable to get stuck in traffic (just like every other vehicle) which might prevent it from living up to its middle name.

For this reason, certain changes are made to traffic patterns so that BRT indeed remains rapid. For example, traffic signals on arterial bus routes might be designed to give priority to the directions where buses travel. You might have bus stops in the middle of the road for people to get on to buses. And you might reserve lanes on roads for buses. Once again note that the last named is not a necessary condition for BRT.

What BRT should deliver is a dense and reliable network of buses. On arterial and other key roads, frequency of buses should be extremely high. Our current model of point-to-point and hub-and-spoke based bus routes need to be given up in favour of a more dense network, where it might be quicker for people to change multiple buses to get to their destination. This also warrants a change in the ticketing system, using a zone-based ticket than the current point-to-point ticket, and moving ticketing offline.

 

The fashion so far in India (with Ahmedabad being a possible exception) is to announce arterial roads as “BRT corridors” and start off the BRT services by reserving lanes on these roads for buses, without bothering about linkages and networks at either end. The problem with this is that the losers of the road space “pay” immediately, but the benefits of BRT are not immediately forthcoming.

A better method of implementation would be to make reservation of bus lanes the last step in BRT. The first should be to increase the density of buses and creation of networks. The problem with this is that it requires investment and the expanded (and densified) network might run far below capacity for a while. Yet, as the network expands (even without dedicated lanes), people will begin to see the benefits and convenience offered, and demand for BRT will increase.

Two things will happen – firstly, the expanded and densified network of buses will start crowding out (literally) private vehicles on the road. Secondly, people will see the relative benefits of taking these buses and these buses will start filling up. As these two effects take place, there will come a point when lanes can be reserved for buses without slowing down any of the rest of the traffic.

What we need, in other words, is “system thinking“, and to look at BRT as a solution to move people to their destination in a more efficient manner. Once policymakers recognise that bus lanes are only a means to this end, we can expect BRT to implemented in a proper fashion.

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!

Bachelor notes: day zero

I’m writing this having just dropped the wife at the airport. I’m taking the bus back home. While it helps that this bus goes 200m from my house and i saw it leave just when I was ready to leave the airport, I realize that with the wife not at home there’s no incentive for me to get home asap. A little delay doesn’t hurt!

And to think that the last time I took the airport bus home was one week shy of five years ago, which was a month before I first met the lady who is now the wife!!

While I’m at it I’m suddenly reminded of the time eleven years ago, when I was at IIT and decided I wanted to “slow down the pace of life”! And my way of achieving that was by selling my cycle!

Something tells me I’ve written about this recently on the blog but I’m on the mobile and hence too lazy to check right now!!