Is Bengaluru’s bus system an intelligence failure?

SMART TRANSPORT

Somewhat surprisingly, Bengaluru’s Intelligent Transport System (ITS) for buses — the first of its kind in India — has been shortlisted with four other cities worldwide in the sustainable transportation category by the C40 Cities Bloomberg Philanthropies Awards in New York for climate-related initiatives.

The city has been proverbially bogged down by traffic snarls and lack of public transport, including taxis and auto rickshaws, and there have been few visible signs of an improvement in the situation.

Nagendra, chief systems manager in the Bengaluru Metropolitan Transport Corporation (BMTC), said work on the project had started in 2015 and was officially launched in May 2016.

Shiva Subramaniam, a Directorate of Urban Land Transport (DULT) planner working on an ITS master plan with the Japanese International Cooperation Agency for Bengaluru and Mysore, disagrees. “Nothing officially has started as of now,” he told indiaclimatedialogue.net.

C40 is a network of the world’s megacities committed to addressing climate change. In all, 25 cities across the world are competing for the C40 awards for four other categories — building energy efficiency and clean energy; reducing waste; climate action plans; and adaptation plans and programmes.

The organisers stress the role of big cities with over 5 million people in tackling climate change. “Nearly half of the finalist projects are in American cities, and they will help ensure that the US reaches our Paris Agreement goal, no matter what happens in Washington,” UN Special Envoy for Cities and Climate Change and C40 Board President, Michael R. Bloomberg, the billionaire and philanthropist former Mayor of New York for 13 years, said in a statement. “Cities are leading the way on every continent, and the C40 Awards are a chance to highlight great ideas and help them spread.”

First initiative

For the Bengaluru ITS, the citation notes that as the first such initiative in India, it faced “a massive institutional change with no direct examples to point to required that the programme be clear, comprehensive, and targeted at a wide range of audiences. Gaining public approval was a central challenge for this programme, especially given that the BMTC (Bangalore Metropolitan Transport Corporation) is made up of 36,000 employees who are all directly impacted by the project.”

“A key intervention by cities is to make public transport more attractive and easier to use, thereby decreasing the number of times an individual chooses to travel by car,” Simon Kjaer Hansen, C40 Director of Regions in Copenhagen, told indiaclimatedialogue.net. “An ITS system which integrates buses and creates a more certain, streamlined service improves the incentives for citizens to use public transport.”

BMTC says that GPS-based Vehicle Tracking Units have been installed in 6,400 buses. This provides real-time tracking and monitoring of buses, collection of operational data and generation of Management Information System (MIS) reports and two-way voice communication between the bus and the control centre. The mobile app shows the estimated time of arrival for over 6,000 buses in real time, which encourages more people to use this energy-efficient mode of public transport.

Looks good in theory

In theory, this makes a world of difference to a bus service, since commuters know when a bus will arrive and how long it will take to reach its destination. Due to congestion on the roads caused by four- and two-wheelers, buses are delayed indefinitely, which prompts commuters to switch to Metros, taxi aggregators and auto-rickshaws, the last two of which only add to traffic jams and consume fossil fuels. Switching to buses will reduce emissions otherwise generated by cars, two-wheelers and rickshaws.

However, few are even aware that such an IT-enabled system exists in Bengaluru, which is known as India’s Silicon Valley. Many activists are highly critical of the project. Muralidhar Rao, who blogs on praja.in, said: “It has been launched eight times and is not functioning after having spent so much money.”

“There is no accountability on how the INR 700 million (USD 10.7 million) budget has been spent,” Sridhar Pabbisetty, CEO of Namma Bengaluru Foundation, a local non-profit, told indiaclimatedialogue.net. “If you go to the (Google) Play store, you will find three or four BMTC apps for tracking the movement of buses.”

“With Application Programming Interface (API) technology, BMTC is in a position to share data like the location of a bus online and enable a commuter to adopt this technology. This isn’t proprietary data but is not being made public, so ITS remains an enigma,” Pabbisetty said. “As someone in touch with citizens’ movements and a public transport user, I have tried to install the app, which takes 10 minutes, and is an ‘almost there, never there’ technology.”

Many challenges

Ekroop Caur, former Managing Director of BMTC who has since been transferred, confirmed that ITS had faced a lot of challenges not just externally but also internally. She cited that the project had met a “lot of resistance from within the organisation.”

ITS relies on electronic data and is widely used in the developed world. Bengaluru is an obvious choice because it is home to thousands of techies. There are three major components: a Vehicle Tracking System, a Passenger Information System, and an Electronic Ticketing System. The BMTC has distributed over 10,000 electronic ticketing machines, fixed 6,400+ vehicle tracking units, and installed a new Command and Control Centre.

“The bus system is more predictable, user-friendly, and streamlined,” says the C40 citation. “Moving toward CO2 reduction, the BMTC is looking to transition to a fleet of entirely electric buses…it has a fleet of around 6,400 buses clocking 858,000 miles every day. At this capacity, the system reduces total CO2 emissions by 154.8 tonnes per day and annual emissions associated with the fleet by 56,670 tonnes.”

The organisers believe that the ITS can be replicated elsewhere in India. It reduces fuel costs even as ridership increases. By making buses more easily accessible, the BMTC “has the potential to change the culture of public transportation in Bangalore,” the citation says.

Fixing poor connectivity

However, Rao holds BMTC’s technical advisers, who include foreign and Indian companies and agencies, responsible for the non-functioning of Bengaluru’s ITS. When S.M. Krishna was Chief Minister of Karnataka, he drafted Rao as co-chair of a Commuter Comfort Task Force. “Comfort wasn’t the issue, poor connectivity was,” he told indiaclimatedialgue.net. “There are 3,000 routes which can be reduced to 33 —north, south, east, west and diagonally. It was only partially adopted.”

In 2007, he helped BMTC start the YI (Kannada for Yelli Iddira, or Where are you?) service, which would send a text message for the location of a bus, but it proved short-lived. Before the launch of the ITS last May, he blogged: “BMTC, now on the threshold of launching its ITS, could have perfected the same model for its buses 10 years ago. It discontinued a similar, but SMS-based, bus-tracking service called YI.”

“The service would have cost BMTC a few lakhs of rupees. Years after YI was dumped, a tie-up was in the offing for a similar project, but at an estimated cost of INR 69 crore (INR 690 million). This too did not materialise. The ITS project now being prepared for a launch costs even more. Couldn’t this cost escalation have been avoided had the transport corporation continued and upgraded YI?”

Subsequently, the Karnataka State Road Transport Corporation, deciding that YI was not good enough, spent something like INR 150 million to put together its ITS in Mysore. It hasn’t been talked about as a model to follow even by BMTC, which tied up with Trimax IT Infrastructure & Services Ltd in Mumbai for the deal worth INR 690 million. The cost has gone up to INR 790 million over five years and Rao says, “We don’t know where it’ll end ultimately, if it’ll end at all.”

Nuanced view

However, Ashwin Mahesh, CEO of Mapunity, a social technology company and close informal advisor to BMTC, takes a more nuanced view “almost as an insider”. “ITS wasn’t conceived of very strongly till some four years ago. It very much depends on people at the helm, who get transferred,” he told indiaclimatedialogue.net. “What ITS has achieved is to track each bus and traveller by destination and what each passenger is doing. Once ITS is digitised, it makes it harder for operators to cheat. It has forced departments to go digital and this can tell the undertaking which routes to ply on. It has forced compliance and depot staff is incentivised with a share of revenue for efficiency.” He believes that ITS will not benefit people as much as a reform of the bus system.

More than ITS, the Bus Rapid Transit System (BRTS), or reserved lanes for buses on arterial roads, could prove that buses are the cheapest and most energy-efficient mode of urban transport. Before the ill-fated first such system was introduced in Delhi in 2009, its mentors in the Indian Institute of Technology Delhi (IIT-D) reported that an estimated 60% of motorised commuting trips were made by mass transit, the majority being by bus. But buses represented less than 1% of the total motorised vehicles and cars and two-wheelers represented 90%. According to the UN Environment Programme, a Metro costs INR 1.5 billion to build each km, a BRTS costs only INR 100 million a km.

With the current emphasis on smart cities, the demand for ITS is expected to grow. A Google search reveals 2.8 million entries. There have been several reports on its application in India by multilateral, foreign and Indian agencies and institutions like IITs. Global giants like IBM and CISCO are the main players for smart cities, with many other agencies in tow.

The article was first published by India Climate Dialogue and has been republished here under the Creative Commons 2.0 license. The original article can be read here.

About Darryl D'Monte 1 Article

Darryl D’Monte is Chairman Emeritus of the Forum of Environmental Journalists in India (FEJI) and Founder President of the International Federation of Environmental Journalists (IFEJ).

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