Small buses fail to provide the last mile connectivity

Mini buses or small buses, when launched in 2013 by Chief Minister Jayalalithaa, were hailed as a positive step to help thousands of residents housed in interior areas of the suburbs to reach the main areas. Today, the situation, however, looks bleak as collections are dropping drastically.

Small buses were meant to ply short distances and serve as inter-modal connectivity. In a city where all types of public transport facilities are available including the Metro, Mass Rapid Transit System (MRTS), suburban train services and buses, the lack of inter-modal connectivity has caused hardships to commuters who have to depend on share autos and autorickshaws.

The idea behind the small bus originated when Metropolitan Transport Corporation (MTC) officials realised that the population in the western suburbs had expanded and recognised their inability to serve people in these interior areas because of narrow roads and an insufficient fleet. They struck upon the idea of small buses to help bridge the last mile connectivity gap.

Initially, the small buses were a great hit in various suburbs of Pallavaram, Chromepet, Madipakkam, Velachery, Perungudi, Avadi, Maduravoyal, Mogappair, Moolakadai, and Korattur. The MTC authorities also increased the fleet strength in phases from 50 buses to 200 buses. But the present situation looks grim as the small bus operation is slowly losing steam and the MTC authorities, citing poor collection, higher wages and lack of patronage in many routes, have silently reduced the frequency of the services, even closing some routes. The fleet strength has come down from 200 to 180.

The buses were operated on more than 180 routes covering a large number of suburbs where big buses could not be operated. But today the small buses carry very few commuters with ‘unauthorised’ share autos firmly entrenched in providing the last mile connectivity. Share autos are dominant in providing transport facilities to commuters in areas such as Pallikaranai, Rajiv Gandhi Salai (OMR), ECR, Mount-Poonamallee Road, Pallavaram-Thoraipakkam Radial Road, Arcot Road, Mambalam, Medavakkam Main Road, Ambattur, Avadi and Kolathur.

In many areas, the small buses are losing patronage because the residents have a list of complaints — they are not dependable, poor frequency, circuitous routes and the cancellation of the concept to ‘get on and get off’ anywhere on the route. In comparison, share autos have gained the confidence of the public by having a flexible route system.

R. Sundaresan, a resident of Nanganallur, said the area lacked proper public transport for several years for the only reason that the roads were not wide. Though small buses were launched to Velachery, the service has not earned much patronage because of the long time taken to reach the destination. Several office-goers in the area preferred to take their own private vehicles or share autos.

Commuters complained that with the State government forming several new radial roads from Velachery to GST Road, Thoraipakkam to Pallavaram, Avadi Main Road and Kaliamman Koil Street on the outskirts of the city, the small buses could have provided the much-needed public transport links but have failed.

No public consultation

T. Narendran, a resident of Virugambakkam, blamed the MTC for not consulting the public to revamp the old routes, a majority of which were created based on the recommendations of the local councillors. He said the MTC should revisit the route allotment and do a scientific mapping to find the shortest and the fastest routes to reach the destinations. Only by having shorter routes, could the frequency of services be increased to improve the dependability factor.

V. Santhanam, social activist, said the frequency of small buses in their area had come down.

He said services like S2 (Chromepet to Medavakkam), S10 (Chromepet to Madambakkam), and S81 (Chromepet to Pozhichallur) were not being operated regularly. When asked through a Right to Information Act petition about the reduction in the frequency of services, the MTC denied any reduction though it was quite visible, he added.

Similarly, residents of Perungudi find it difficult to reach the Taramani railway station because of irregular operation of small buses. When the residents asked the branch manager of MTC for the lack of dependability of services, they were told drivers were not available.

‘M’ services

Commuters also recount the ‘M’ service of the MTC where the mantra was shorter routes and more services to link two important destinations or suburban railway stations.

Some of the ‘M’ services, which had good patronage, have now lost the dependability factor. The commuters want the ‘M’ service concept replicated to regain the patronage for small buses.

Aswathy Dilip of the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy said small buses could only play the role of short feeders taking citizens closer to their destinations where their success depended on their reliability — ability of the citizens to access them within a 10-minute wait time. But most of the small buses today ply longer routes, forcing citizens to wait longer for switching to other modes. With the MTC operating fewer number of small buses, short routes would be ideal to achieve higher frequency, she added.

A senior official of the State Transport Department said a number of factors were involved in the MTC not being able to increase the small bus fleet though there was a huge demand from the residents.

He said the operating cost of small buses had increased steeply due to factors such as the wage increase for the drivers and conductors of STCs.

Accepting the grievance of the commuters and transport specialists about the poor planning in identifying the shortest routes, he said steps would be taken to reorganise the routes in the coming weeks to improve the patronage and also make small buses a dependable transport option.

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