Thursday, June 21, 2007

AC buses will make for cool riding in Bangalore

DECONGESTING ROADS AC buses will make for cool riding in Bangalore
BMTC operates 49 such buses on eight routes, half of them to Electronics City and Whitefield

M ahesh Rathod, a steel trader, used to travel from his house in Infantry Road, a tiny neighbourhood in Bangalore's heart, to S.P.Road, the crowded wholesale trading hub of the city, a mere 4 km away, by car. It used to take him nearly 45 minutes of driving through clogged streets to get there.

Since April, however, Rathod has abandoned the car in favour of a bus, an air-conditioned (AC) one. It still takes him 45 minutes to get to work, but he says he is no longer stressed from having to drive in bumper-to-bumper traffic, and that he prepares for the day ahead on the bus.

Rathod is part of a small but growing number of commuters in India's technology hub that has made the shift from driving or riding their cars and bikes to travelling on the AC buses, built by the Indian unit of Scandinavian auto maker Volvo AG, and run by the Bangalore Metropolitan Transport Corporation (BMTC), the state-run local bus operator.

A survey of 900 passengers in April conducted by BMTC found three out of four passengers on its AC buses had chosen the mode of transport over travelling in their own scooters, motorcycles, cars or using an auto-rickshaw. Fares on the AC buses range from Rs10 to Rs50 for a one-way trip.

BMTC began its AC experiment with a few business establishments in February 2006.

It now operates 49 buses on eight routes, half of them to Electronics City and Whitefield where firms such as Infosys Technologies Ltd, IBM Corporation, Dell Inc. and Tata Consultancy Services Ltd are located. "People are taking our luxury buses. It was our intent to make them leave their cars and two-wheelers at home and take our buses, it is happening," said Dastagir Sharieff chief traffic manager (operations) BMTC.

The corporation and many of Bangalore's residents see the buses as one solution to the city's traffic problems.

Bangalore has a population of 6.5 million people and three million vehicles. By some estimates, the vehicular population increases by 1,000 a day.

And over 4,500 buses on 1,400 routes transport 3.7 million passengers across the city's 800 sq. km area.

The average speed of vehicles in the city's centre, areas such as Krishna Rajendra market, Kempe Gowda Road and Mahatma Gandhi Road, is less than 10km per hour, according to the city traffic police. Of the city's population, 6.5 lakh people are directly employed in the technology sector.

Even as the city gets ready for a metro rail project, it has been trying to cope with increasing traffic through a system of one-way roads-by one estimate, more than half the important roads in Bangalore are one-way, or allow traffic to move in only one direction.

Some residents see the buses as temporary relief till the train service kicks in. M.N Srihari, chairman of Traffic Engineers and Safety Trainers, a non governmental organization that works in the area of traffic management, said the buses would attract passengers only till the metro begins service in 2011. "The service can target the elite users, but will the BMTC see viability in running these buses in Rajajinagar or Malleswaram?" asked Srihari, referring to two middle-class neighbourhoods and questioning the viability of the service in suburbs that do not have technology firms.

BMTC's success in Bangalore has prompted local transport corporations in Chennai and Pune to operate similar services in their cities and they have placed orders for 10 buses each, said Eric Leblanc, managing director Volvo India Pvt. Ltd. "Instead of a metro rail, the entire local transport system can be designed on Volvo buses and it would cost only 5% of the cost of a metro Rail," he added.

To do that BMTC will have to make the service profitable.

Each bus costs around Rs74 lakh, and BMTC loses around Rs3 per km (it costs Rs49 per km to run the bus and the corporation earns Rs46 per km, including revenue from ticket sales and ads on the bus).

"The losses are bound to happen in the initial days, this service is still small," said Sharieff. He added that increasing the number of buses and routes could help turn the service profitable.

In 2006-07, BMTC earned a Rs224 crore profit on revenue of Rs888 crore. Sharieff claims it is the only profitable public transport corporation in India.

The corporation has ordered for 20 more buses from Volvo.

In comparison, the 1,000 ordinary buses it plans to buy from bus makers such as Ashok Leyland Ltd and Tata Motors Ltd cost Rs12 lakh each.

Samuel Paul chairman of Public Affairs Centre, a nongovernment organization that works in the area of governance, and a former director of the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad, said that according to a survey done by his organization in 2003-04, Bangalore's citizens rated BMTC's services better than those of other local service providers such as the water board and the electricity board. It's among the few government-run bodies in Karnataka that seeks to be open and transparent, he adds. What of the AC buses? "They cater to those who can afford them," he says.


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