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!

Car-free days, traffic jams and social capital

While most news nowadays is fairly hilarious, one piece was more hilarious than the others. This was about traffic jams in Gurgaon yesterday, a day that had been declared as a “Car Free Day”.

You might wonder why there might be traffic jams on days that are supposedly “Car Free”. I don’t know the precise effect this can be classified under, but it’s somewhere in a linear combination of Prisoner’s Dilemma and Tragedy of the Commons and correlation, all led by a lack of social capital.

There are no rules that declare the day to be car free. It’s just a “request” by the local government (traffic police in this case). While there were some nominal efforts to improve public transport for the day, etc, there was nothing else that was different yesterday from other days. So why did it lead to a traffic jam?

If you know it’s a car free day and you have a car, you’ll assume that other people are going to leave their cars at home, and that you are going to have a free ride in free-flowing non-traffic if you take out your car. And so you take out your car. Unfortunately, the number of people who think such is enough to cause a traffic jam.

The problem stems with a lack of social capital in Indian cities (based on anecdotal experience (my own data point from 2008-09), I would posit it is lower in Gurgaon than in other Indian cities). As a consequence, when people are trying to make the “great optimisation”, they allocate a greater weight than necessary to their own interests, and consequently a lesser than necessary weight to others’ interests. And thus you end up with outcomes like yesterday’s. More generally, “requests” to people to give up a private benefit for others’ benefits can at best turn out to be counterproductive.

While designing policies, it’s important to be realistic and keep in mind ease of implementation. So if the reality is low social capital, any policy that requires voluntary giving up by people is only going to have a marginal impact.

Coming back to traffic, I’m increasingly convinced (I’ve held this conviction since 2006, and it has only grown stronger over time) that the only way to make people switch to public transport is to lead with supply – flood the streets with buses, which among other things actually increase the cost of private transport. Once there is sufficient density of buses, these buses can be given their own lanes which further pushes up the cost of driving. Then we can look at further measures such as prohibitive parking costs and congestion pricing.

We can have these notional “no car days” and “bus days” and “no honking days” but it is unlikely that any of them will have anything more than a token effect.

Jakarta: General Notes

I’ve been in Jakarta for about two days now (not counting the weekend trip to Yogyakarta) and I’m not particularly impressed. My main problem with the city is that it is not walkable – roads are so wide and traffic so fast-moving that they are impossible to cross; there are absolutely no pavements to walk on (forcing you to take shelter from parked cars while walking) and there are no zebra crossings at all in some places!

A side effect of this unwalkable-ness is that it is impossible for you to explore – I haven’t seen any bus stops or buses nearby, too. So if I’ve to go somewhere it has to be by taxi, and with a purpose. This has led to my not going out anywhere at all, save for two malls that are close to my hotel and which can be reached without crossing any major roads (though you need to walk through a shady-looking alley to get there).

In some ways this city is like Gurgaon on steroids – massive roads, massive malls, massive traffic jams and massive freeways. To its credit the city is quite clean (much cleaner than any Indian city I’ve been to) and there is a functioning and efficient taxi system, so you can get around if there’s someplace you want to get around to.

But if you just want to spend some time here, “take in the city”, have a look around and so on, it is surely not the place.

The other day the wife and I were having a conversation on where we want to live, and one thing we agreed upon is that we want to live in a place where the commute doesn’t drive your life. Of course, rather ironically, the only time that has been true for me was in Gurgaon in 2008-09, when I had a commute which took less than 20 minutes at any point of time, because of which I didn’t have to base my schedule on when traffic would be smooth. A later visit to Gurgaon has shown that this is not true of Gurgaon any more (the same 20 minute commute from 2009 took 40 minutes on a rather empty Saturday morning in 2014).

I think I’m too much of a sucker for walking and public transport to be able to survive in a place like Jakarta.

Reforming Bangalore’s Public Transport Network

This is based on a twitter rant on the same subject a few weeks back.

Bangalore’s public transport network has traditionally followed a hub-and-spoke model, with three hubs – Kempegowda Bus Station (aka “Majestic”), KR Market and Shivajinagar. It can be modeled, however, as a two-hub system, for Majestic and Market are quite close to each other and thus quite well-connected. It was probably not originally meant to be that way – for bus number 1 (not sure it still exists) ran from Jayanagar 4th Block to Yeshwantpur – basically from the south to the north-west corner of the city. Of course, it passed through Market.

Over time, however, the bus system has moved to an increasingly hub-and-spoke model. The BMTC (Bangalore Metropolitan Transport Corporation) did one exercise a few years back, trying to rationalize routes (it was partly due to an effort led by Ashwin Mahesh of Mapunity). However, while adding useful additions such as the ring routes (the “big circle” and the “chikka (small) circle” routes) and one or two “trunk routes” (that run right across town), what this revised template does is to further increase the primacy of the hubs. For example, the much talked about Big 10 routes are essentially arterial routes running from a point in the middle of town to some place along one of the highways leading out of Bangalore (they are not strictly hub routes, though, since some of them stop a short distance from a major hub).

The increase in primacy of hubs combined with metro construction (the two metro lines will criss-cross each othe at – you guessed it – Majestic!) has completely overwhelmed the hubs. It is impossible (unless you sacrifice copious amounts of time) to change buses at Majestic now, for the amount of time it takes for a bus to get into majestic and for a bus to get out of majestic is too high a transaction cost.

Moreover, changing buses at a terminus is not efficient, given the waiting times involved and the extra transaction costs of getting out of the terminus. What works better is changing buses at an intermediate stop. To use an anecdote, for two years (1998-2000) I traveled to school in Indiranagar (east Bangalore) from my home in Jayanagar (south Bangalore). I would take a bus going to Shivajinagar (Jayanagar-Shivajinagar is well connected – being a hub route) and get off at Richmond circle, from where I would take a bus from Majestic to Indiranagar (again a hub route, so well served). I could change buses while standing at the same bus stop (made things easier), and the frequency of buses on the two hub routes meant I would get to school easily (again the traffic in the 1990s was nothing compared to what it is now). I had the option of changing buses at a hub, but eschewed it due to transaction costs.

Coming back, what we need in Bangalore is to reformat the bus network in a way that mimics the patterns in which people travel. Right now the assumption of the BMTC seems to be that they should connect every area to a major hub, and then let people take it from there. What they do not take into account is that 1. traffic has grown much worse and 2. People put a higher value on their time nowadays, because of which the transaction cost of the old hub-and-spoke model is way too high. What they need to do instead is to design the network based on people flows.

The first step of such reform is to understand the patterns in which Bangalore moves. One way to do this would be via smart ticketing. A few years back buses in Bangalore started introducing smart ticketing machines, and your ticket would be a printout. However, that didn’t take off. If that can be reintroduced (in all buses) and coupled with destination based ticketing rather than leg based ticketing (for example, if I’m going from Jayanagar to Indiranagar via Richmond Circle I get on to the bus in Jayanagar and buy a ticket to Indiranagar directly. The same ticket allows me to travel on any bus between Richmond Circle and Indiranagar. This introduces complexity but can be done). This will give the BMTC information in terms of the routes on which people actually travel. And once that happens, an effort can be made to reformat the bus network.

Expat Living

When you live in a city other than the one you’re comfortable living in, and if you have a lot of disposable income, you try to live like an expat. By that, I mean you will try and use your disposable income in order to insulate yourself from the parts of the city that you’re uncomfortable with. You basically try to take the city out of your lifestyle, and try and live in a way that wouldn’t be different from the way you’d live in any other city.

So for example, two years back I had to relocate to Gurgaon since my well-paying job took me there. And I knew that water supply, electricity supply, security and public transport were major issues there. So the first thing I did when I got there was to find myself a comfortable apartment with assured water supply and “100% power backup”, with round-the-clock security. I also transported my car to Gurgaon to hedge against the bad transport system there. All shopping was done in malls, so I could avoid the heat and dust, and the unreliability of the traditional markets there. As long as I wasn’t driving on those roads in my air-conditioned car, I could have been living just about anywhere else. I had tried my best to take Gurgaon out of my life.

You find people like this wherever you go, except perhaps Bombay (where the cost of living is so high that very few people have “disposable” income), but is perhaps more pronounced in Gurgaon where there are few natives with disposable income so most of the people you’ll meet turn out to be fellow-expats. So essentially a lot of your income goes in just hedging yourself against the city.

Like in Bangalore, you’ll find that “expats” always want to take a “Meru cab” wherever they’ve to go, while us native folks prefer to take the humble auto. I don’t blame the expats – they are yet to learn the skills required in finding an auto here that will take you where you want at a “fair” price, so instead of choosing to learn the system, they get around it by using their disposable income. “Expats” usually shop in malls, try and travel only to those places where they can easily take and park their cars, live in the outskirts where they can get big houses with “amenities” like the one I had in Gurgaon, send their kids to “international schools”, and the like.

So this tendency to live like an expat shows up the cost differential between living in your “own” city, and living in another where you would rather prefer to buy your way around the parts you don’t like rather than trying to blend into the city. And this tendency to live like an expat means that expats will always be expats, which is an accusation (not unjustifiably) thrown at the Koramangala types.

When I returned to Bangalore from Gurgaon about two years back, the thing that struck me was about how comfortable I suddenly was. So many of the worries that had been worries in Gurgaon ceased to be worries now. I was comfortable enough with the system to not bother about any of those. And as I ran across my road and jumped on to a moving bus to take me to the city centre, I realizeed I was back, where I belonged.

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.