Q&A with Madhav Pai, Part 2: Lessons Learned
Indore's groundbreaking public-private partnership to improve transit is a model for rapidly growing Indian cities. Photo by EMBARQ.

Indore's groundbreaking public-private partnership to improve transit is a model for rapidly growing Indian cities. Photo by EMBARQ.

This interview is part of a bi-weekly series of Q&As with sustainable transportation advocates, planners, engineers, journalists, sociologists and other experts working to shed light on best practices and solutions from across the globe. We welcome your suggestions for future Q&As.

In Part 2 of this interview, Madhav Pai, the director of the India program of EMBARQ (the producer of this blog), discusses the challenges, lessons learned and key recommendations for successful bus reforms in Indian cities. This post is a follow-up to Part 1 of the interview, discussing the release of “Bus Karo: A Guidebook on Bus Planning & Operations.” The publication provides information on global case studies, recommendations and specific methodologies that serve as a helpful reference for cities and states in India as they “set up new transit agencies, operate buses [and] monitor their performance.”

TCF: What have been the key challenges in reforming bus systems in India? How you think this guidebook will help experts and politicians adopt international best practices?

The major problem is that city and state governments are yet to fully buy-in to the notion that bus-based systems can play a significant role in alleviating the mobility problems of urban areas. Most of the investments in urban transport infrastructure have been to expand the road network in order to serve the rapidly increasing motor vehicle population, without any commensurate investments in bus-based public transport. Secondly, when investments in public transport do occur, decision makers tend to be attracted to “glamour” projects, such as metros and monorails. While such expensive investments are not in themselves bad (and certainly they are better than investing in more highways,) it is not the best use of the limited resources available. The fragmented nature of authority across multiple ministries and agencies also serves as a brake on implementing reforms.

We believe this guidebook will help both cities that do and don’t currently operate public bus services. In cities where bus systems do exist, the guidebook highlights international examples of places where local politicians have acknowledged the important role that bus systems have to play in urban mobility and how they have reformed these systems to improve the quality of life of residents. In cities where bus systems do not currently operate, this guidebook highlights their importance as an integral part of the urban transport system and serves as a “how to” guide for developing and launching bus-based public transport systems.

TCF: What are the key lessons learned on successful bus system reforms in regions like Latin America that you can apply to cities in Africa and Asia?

There are two key lessons. The first is that strong political will is a prerequisite for successfully reforming city-wide bus systems. Strong leadership is required both to push through planned reforms, which, although required, may be unpopular in the short term, as well as to help develop consensus around project plans and bring opposed parties to the negotiating table. Secondly, the presence of a strong local planning institution, which can blend the latest transport planning practices with knowledge of local conditions and peculiarities, is a factor that all successful bus system reforms have in common. The role played by the Center for Environmental Planning and Technology (CEPT) University in the Ahmedabad BRT project, Janmarg, is a good example of this in the Indian context.

TCF: Are most people willing to use smart cards and other similar technologies on public transit in India?

The international case studies analyzed in “Bus Karo” show that the extensive use of technology – smartcards, on-board GPS devices, and so on – has been a major factor in improving the performance and quality of bus services. It is clear that similar technological investments can also play a transformative role in urban public transport in India. All of the attempted reforms and planned future reforms in bus systems in India have identified the use of technology as a key component of high quality bus services.

However, there have been very few examples of comprehensive technology solutions actually being implemented. This is true both of smart cards and other potential technologies, such as GPS. There seems little doubt that Indian bus users will welcome the introduction of smart cards and other technologies. The important question is how these systems are implemented and whether they improve the end-user experience. We will need to continue documenting Indian experiments in rolling out these technologies in order to learn from the experiences and in order to capture the lessons learned and mistakes made.

TCF: What kind of stakeholders typically slow or hinder the process of bus system reform?

Implementing successful bus system reforms requires buy-in across various authorities at the city level. Until there is a strong belief in these authorities that bus-based systems can be a solution to urban mobility needs, implementing such reforms will be difficult. There are several examples of this.

In Sao Paolo, for example, the process of bus system reform was initiated during the mayoral term of Marta Suplicy, who was a strong proponent of improving bus transport. Most of the reform and investment proposals were developed and began implementation during this time. After Mayor Suplicy left office, however, the level of interest and support for bus system reform reduced considerably. Many of the plans and programs that had been approved under Mayor Suplicy were scrapped or proceeded at a very slow pace.

A similar story unfolded in London. In the early 2000s, under then Mayor Ken Livingstone, London bus services received a major boost, with the expansion of bus-only lanes and fare freezes to promote bus usage. Under the next mayor, the bus service has been viewed as less of a priority. Many bus lanes, for example, are now open to use by private motorbikes. Thus, we see that even in cities that have been exemplars of bus system reform, shifting political priorities can alter the importance and attention given to improving the performance and quality of bus services.

TCF: The guidebook emphasizes local leadership and the role of NGOs in providing technical support. How might a city develop an effective bus system in the absence of strong political leadership?

We firmly believe that cities need to have technically strong local planning agencies in order to develop, plan and implement innovative and effective projects in public transport. At present, however, many cities in India (and indeed the developing world, more generally) lack such technical capacity at the local level. While such capacity is built and local planning institutions grow and mature, NGOs will have an important role to play. Through the success of projects in Ahmedabad and Indore, for example, organizations like EMBARQ have shown that they can play an effective and important role in helping cities operate public bus services. It is also likely that such organizations will have to continue playing this role in the near future. In the long run, however, there can be no substitute for strong local planning agencies.

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