How can commute in Chennai reinvent itself in 2021?

How can travel within the city be made easier and more sustainable? As public transport begins to open up in the post-lockdown era, we mull over a few critical points.

All through the lockdown imposed to avert the spread of COVID-19, Chennai was without public transport and even now, services have just begun to operate in a limited manner. While there have been signs of a cycling revival, there are also reports of an increase in the sales of personal motor vehicles. But, as colleges and offices begin to reopen, it raises various questions about what commute in the city will be like in the coming year.

Even before the pandemic, and in fact, for several years now, there has been a call to rethink how transportation works in Chennai. Transportation is closely linked to public health, vehicular emissions being one of the principal causes of pollution in the city. That is perhaps one of the reasons that the city’s air was cleaner during the lockdown, as established by many reports.

Creating transportation systems that are accessible and sustainable is the challenge that lies ahead. Such a system should be tailored for people with disabilities, the elderly, the young, women and anybody who wants to use public transport.

A few weeks ago, Citizen Matters brought together a panel of experts to discuss the challenges that lie ahead for Chennai in the coming year in the mobility space. Sumana Narayanan, Senior Researcher at Citizen consumer and civic Action Group; Felix John, the Bicycle Mayor of Chennai; A V Venugopal, Senior Research Associate, ITDP and Rama Rao V, Convenor, Traffic and Transportation Forum shared their views on the problems that exist and solutions for smoother commute in the city.

Key points to consider

Accessibility of public transport

Accessibility is a key issue with all forms of public transport in Chennai, whether you consider buses, suburban trains or even the newer metro rail service. 

There is very little information on any of the services available. Information is not available on timings, routes, fares and other key factors. There needs to be measures such as route rationalisation so that those who need these services the most are able to avail them.

High cost of services such as in the case of the metro rail also make it difficult for citizens to use the service, thereby causing them have poor patronage.  The city’s poor have been all but excluded from using the metro due to high fares.

A hike in fares of buses in 2018 also resulted in a drop in ridership as many commuters were priced out. The average income of the city’s residents must be taken into account before deciding on fares for such taxpayer funded services.

“There has also been a long-standing demand to rationalise fares across all modes of public transport. As the economic fallout from COVID-19 is set to drag on, subsidising fares further or even offering free public transport could help ease the burden on the common man”, said Sumana on the ideas that can be explored to nudge more people towards public transport. “A flat charge or nominal charge could help revive the use of public transport and prevent more people from opting for private vehicle use.”

Lack of infrastructure for cycling

Chennai ranks very high in terms of road fatalities and accidents, highlighting the need for better safety measures and proper infrastructure, especially for cycling and walking. Having proper infrastructure for vulnerable groups will encourage sustainable transportation in the city. 

One of the key issues holding back cyclists is that of safety. The lack of dedicated cycling lanes across all major roads puts cyclists in danger from other vehicles. This discourages cycling, which is seen as a huge risk. 

“The progress in response to demands for better infrastructure is slow and too much time passes between ideation and implementation. If better infrastructure such as cycling lanes are in place, more groups of citizens, school children for example, could be encouraged to cycle safely, thereby reducing dependence on personal vehicles,” said Felix John, Bicycle Mayor of Chennai.

Lack of integration of various transport systems

There has been a continuing conversation over many years on the need for a unified transport system as the city’s commuters suffer from a lack of integration. The Chennai Unified Metropolitan Transport Authority (CUMTA) has been in the works for a decade, but is yet to materialise. 

“Integration of various modes of transport would allow commuters to easily get from one point to another using the suburban rails, metro and the buses. Not only would this create a huge incentive to embrace public transport, it would also help the transport bodies increase ridership across the board”, said Rama Rao.

At present, each transport network operates largely in a silo, with many commuters facing difficulties switching between various modes as routes are not adequately planned for this purpose. Unification of the systems would help commuters with last mile connectivity and simplify the process of switching from one more of public transport to another. This in turn would reduce the volume of vehicles on the road and lead to a positive ripple effect. 

Lack of adequate number of buses

Chennai used to have one of the better bus services in the country. For those growing up in Chennai, it was easy to commute within the city as the buses were always frequent but now the number of buses have come down, as has the frequency. Chennai has 3600 odd buses, which is woefully inadequate for the city. The likes of Bengaluru have twice the number of buses.

The city needs at least 50 buses per lakh population.The Government of India recommendation is 60, but the reality is very different. Chennai’s buses not only serve the city but also the peripheral areas. The issue arises when transport agencies do not have a sound operational or financial plan.

Whenever the issue of inadequate buses has been raised as part of the grievance redressal mechanism, the MTC’s response has been that certain routes are not viable economically and that they cannot operate them as they are in the red. But to address this MTC must draw up a long term plan and a short term plan, along with deliberations on how to generate non-ticketing revenue.

“The MTC must do some planning to understand the number of buses needed, based on data it collects regularly over a period of time. But there is very little information in the public domain on if or how such plans are drawn up. We must also remember that the point of public transport is public service and not profit,” said Sumana.

The introduction of the Bus Rapid Transit System could also help revive the falling ridership as buses will ply at higher speed and cover more ground across the city felt Rama Rao.

“Speed and reliability of service would make it an attractive option for commuters. The stopping of small bus service is also a huge blow as they used to provide better connectivity. The small bus service must be resumed,” said Rama Rao.

Interventions geared towards Non Motorised Transport (NMT)

The creation of the Pedestrian Plaza in T.Nagar and projects such as Mega Streets that prioritise pedestrians over motor vehicles has shown promising signs for Chennai. While these projects have been undertaken in a few places, there is the question of how all 200 wards in the city can have their own pedestrian plazas.

The answer to this could be found in a technique called tactical urbanism, said Venugopal. “Efforts such as Car-free Sunday in Besant Nagar can be replicated across the city in pockets. These are quick and low cost ideas that can encourage behavioural change towards a preference for walking and cycling.”

Roping in active citizens and resident associations is important, for such efforts to become long-lasting movements. As more and more neighbourhoods take up such initiatives, the lessons from each area on how to plan for walking and cycling can be used to implement bigger public projects such as the pedestrian plaza.

Planners and authorities can also embrace ideas emerging from platforms such as the Streets for People and Cycles for Change Challenge for an effective NMT strategy for the city..

The way forward for solving complex issues around transportation must include greater participation by the people in planning, cheaper fares, more nudges towards public transport and the creation of safe infrastructure for walking and cycling.

While taking into account the public health challenges posed by commuting as a result of COVID-19, the other persistent issues with the city’s transportation network must also be addressed in tandem.

[ The article has been based on inputs shared by mobility experts at a panel discussion organised by Citizen Matters Chennai, titled “Commuting in Chennai post COVID: Challenges and Opportunities ]

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