No jam tomorrow

Written by Isher Judge Ahluwalia | Updated: Aug 31 2011, 05:38am hrs
Until recently, Bhopal was like any other Indian city with little evidence of public transport and a fast-growing private vehicle ownership, with its implications for high petrol consumption and air pollution. The only public transport available were mini-buses, tempos and auto-rickshaws run by private operators. These were naturally restricted to economically viable routes.

An egregious example of this market-driven transportation system was the fact that over 500 permits were issued for mini-buses to run on a 1.5 km stretch between the Nadara bus stand and the Grand Hotel. By contrast, there were very few mini-buses running in the newly-developed Misrod area, and between Bhopal and its surrounding areas such as Piplani and Khajoori.

Bhopal seems to be getting its act together! For a city with population close to 18 lakh and a floating population close to 2 lakh because of the development activity in the surrounding region, e.g., Kolar (an adjacent town in Bhopal district) and Mandideep (another town in Raisen district which is only 20 km away from southern Bhopal) with a concentration of industrial activity, planning for connectivity is crucial through development of road infrastructure and public transport. Because public transport has not been given due importance in city planning in India, Bhopals commendable efforts deserve recognition.

A serious effort is being made to design an urban road infrastructure which can promote an efficient public transport system, on the one hand, and upgrade and expand the existing fleet of buses and other vehicles for public transport on the other hand. A distinguishing feature of this exercise is that the Bhopal Municipal Corporation is operating at multiple levels within an integrated approach. By its very nature, this is a time-consuming exercise, but there is evidence of movement on several fronts. For the longer run, plans are also afoot to prepare a Comprehensive Mobility Plan for the city. Tenders have already been issued and the award is awaiting approval from Mayor-in-Council.

The Corporation is on the job in improving and expanding urban roads with a major emphasis on the Bus Rapid Transport System (BRTS) which goes through the heart of the city with a pilot corridor between Misrod and Bairagarh. Bus routes have been rationalised, based on a study of routes and multi-modal integration conducted by the Corporation. Plans are afoot for developing physical infrastructure with modern bus stops, bus terminals and electrification works, although these are still to be implemented. A modern Intelligent Transport System (ITS) with the appropriate software and hardware is already in use for integrated fare collection and effective service monitoring of the city bus services. A central control room tracks the location, speed and timings of the buses through GPS, while an LED monitor displays the scheduled time and expected time of arrival of the next bus through use of the Passenger Information System (PIS).

BRTS is a gift of JNNURM to Bhopal. About 16 km of the pilot corridor (24 km length and 30-60 m width) is ready with structural works and widening of minor bridges, culverts, etc, but electrification, road furniture and railing works are still in progress. The remaining 7 km was the more challenging stretch in the heart of the city where two temples have already been relocated for widening the road, and efforts are on for relocating another major religious structure near Kamla Park. True to its green city character, the Corporation has transplanted 300 or so huge trees which came in the ROW of the corridor and planted another 6,000 trees. Buses are already plying on the newly-built roads.

Bhopal City Link Ltd (BCLL) was set up as a city transport Special Purpose Vehicle in 2006 with Collector, Bhopal, as its Executive Director.

In 2008, the Bhopal Municipal Corporation took over the management control of BCLL and started exploring the possibilities of public private partnership in city bus service provision. Unlike Indore where a number of contractors were awarded the contract for running the buses, in Bhopal, presumably because of the smaller market, all bus operations are outsourced to a single private operator under net cost contract.

The private contractor bears 30% of the cost of buses and pays an agreed premium to the Bhopal Municipal Corporation after a waiver for the first 4 months. This has enabled the Bhopal Municipal Corporation to fund its share (30%) towards the cost of buying new modern buses under JNNURM. So far, 105 standard buses have been purchased and have started running as of November 1, 2010. Another 100 low-floor buses and 25 low-floor air-conditioned buses are in the pipeline. From the current operations, the Bhopal Municipal Corporation has started receiving a monthly premium of R1.30 lakh per month from the private operator.

While net cost contract is a common practice for public private partnership in bus services in India (the exceptions being Ahmedabad and now Delhi), over the medium run it is better to go for gross cost contract so that the private party has the incentive to develop the market. In Bhopal, the net cost contract with the current operator is for a period of 5 years.

The Bhopal Municipal Corporation provides crucial infrastructure such as secure depots with sufficient parking, and capacity for proper repair and maintenance of the buses.

Rationalising the routes by classifying them in 5 categories and assigning different modes to the routes was crucial to eliminate the inter-modal conflict and avoid chaos resulting from vehicles of different speed capacity plying on the same roads. Thus, modern buses run by BCLL ply on trunk routes and standard routes, private mini-buses ply on 17 complimentary routes, and 4-wheeler tempos (Tata Magic) on feeder routes.

In an innovative practice where learning from one department has translated into savings for another, the Corporation started installing GPS devices in 50 of its vehicles for solid waste management. Later, this was extended to all 300 solid waste management vehicles, water tankers and vehicles used for fire-fighting. An optimised route plan has also been prepared for the Corporation vehicles for more effective and timely delivery. The result of the Vehicular Tracking Management System is a net saving of 1,000-1,500 litres of diesel per day. This amounts to a saving of R1.45 crore in a year in petrol consumption by the Corporation.

Putting public transport at the centre of urban planning is a good takeaway for other fast-growing cities aspiring for better living conditions for their citizens.

The author is Chairperson, ICRIER, and also former Chairperson of the High Powered Expert Committee on Urban Infrastructure Services, which submitted its report to MoUD in March 2011