Mumbai: In all great metropolises, unique and iconic things are embedded in the everyday lived experience. Something distinctive to Mumbai over the generations is the city’s double decker bus — red-coloured, lumbering and beloved of Mumbaikars. However, over the years, the presence of these buses on the roads has greatly dwindled.
Now, with the Brihanmumbai Electric Supply and Transport (BEST) Undertaking, which runs the city’s public bus service, deciding to introduce electric buses in a big way, a bonanza awaits lovers of the double deckers. Along with the plan to add 2,100 electric buses by 2023, BEST is also in process of acquiring 900 double decker air-conditioned electric buses.
BEST plans to acquire a full fleet of electric buses by 2027. One of the reasons behind going big on electric buses of all types is to arrest the steady fall in commuters for BEST buses over recent years.
After the Mumbai suburban rail network, BEST is the second choice of citizens in their travels across the city. BEST buses operate on nearly 400 routes, and currently have a daily ridership of 28 lakh passengers.
“During the Covid waves, when many taxis, trains and autorickshaws were not functioning, it was the BEST bus that helped ferry commuters across the length and breadth of the city,” said Manoj Varade, public relations officer, BEST.
With the move to get electric buses, the public transport provider is hopeful of attracting more commuters. Recently, in its budget, the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC), which funds BEST, kept aside Rs 800 crore for it.
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From glory days to dropping commuter numbers
BEST is a part of Mumbai’s history. Its original parent is the Bombay Tramway Ltd, which was formed as a private entity in 1873.
In 1926, the first BEST single decker bus was introduced, and in 1937, the double decker bus was introduced. The double deckers gained immense popularity over the decades, and BEST’s double decker fleet grew to nearly 900 in the 1990s.
Yet, from that very decade, more ageing double deckers were de-commissioned every year, and were not replaced by new ones. There was a steep fall in absolute numbers, and currently, there are only 48 double decker buses, which run on some specific routes across the city.
Varade said the high maintenance involved in running the buses and increasingly limited space resulted in reduction of the fleet.
Instead, over the last decade, BEST has stressed upon increasing its midi and mini fleet. Currently, it has a fleet of 3,460 buses.
Up until a decade ago, BEST buses used to ferry nearly 45 lakh commuters every day, but with the growing number of cars and app-based taxis, shared taxis and autorickshaws taking to the streets, the number of passengers started going down, Varade said with regret.
By the pre-Covid period, the number of passengers had dropped to 32 lakhs, Varade said. “Because of Covid, we have restricted the number of passengers, and hence, it is at 28 lakh, but it is growing,” he said.
Asked why BEST buses have been steadily losing commuters, Varade said growing traffic in Mumbai and lower frequency of the buses are the major issues.
In its annual budget for 2022-23, presented in January, BEST reported a deficit of Rs 2,236.48 crore, of which Rs 2,110.47 crore was from its transport wing. Since 2015, the BMC has been financially helping the BEST.
Dedicated bus lanes
Ashok Datar, a public transport expert who has studied Mumbai’s systems, agreed with Parade. Datar, however, expressed disappointment that not more has been done for BEST buses, and that they are not being used to their full capacity.
“The real thing that the BEST can do is have a bus lane. They had a spectacular performance during a pilot run,” he said. According to him, Mumbai is a convenient city to have bus lanes.
BEST’s Varade supported the view. “We don’t have a dedicated lane. Our longstanding demand for a dedicated lane for BEST buses is not yet fulfilled, so the wait time for buses is more,” he said.
For example, said Varade, to cover a distance between National Sports Club of India and Haji Ali, a bus would normally take over half an hour during peak time. “But when we did a pilot project with a dedicated lane, this distance was covered within 10 minutes,” he informed.
The future is electric
Currently, out of BEST’s current fleet of 3,460 buses, 386 are electric. BEST has also announced that gradually, by 2027, it will convert its entire fleet to environment friendly and noiseless electric buses.
To begin with, environment minister and Mumbai suburban guardian minister Aaditya Thackeray announced that BEST would introduce 900 electric double deckers in the coming months, starting this year. By March this year, about 200 such buses would be introduced, by 2023, all 900 would be procured.
A double decker has a capacity to seat 78 passengers, as against a single decker that can seat 45 passengers. Ultimately, the plan is to get 10,000 electric buses of all types in the BEST fleet.
‘Chalo’ app, social media outreach
Varade said that the introduction of the ‘Chalo’ app has helped commuters to get exact details of buses, including wait time and expected time of arrival, which helped the BEST attract commuters. Also, route rationalisation has helped increase frequency of buses. BEST is also taking to social media to attract more passengers.
But Datar, the expert who advocates bus lanes, is not exactly convinced. “Just by introducing electric buses, nothing will change drastically. Unless the frequency of the buses is increased and the wait time goes down, people will not turn towards buses as a mode of transport,” he said.
With dedicated lanes, he said, there would be a bus every minute, with 25 per cent increased speed. Even in trains, Datar pointed out, there is a three-minute waiting time. With higher and constant speeds, there will be better fuel management too, he further stated.
“Electric buses might be a correct solution, but they really need to fix the poor image that BEST buses have due to poor frequency and slow speed. They don’t have vision and understanding and they are letting down Mumbai,” he said.
(Edited by Saikat Niyogi)
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