BEST revs up to start new journey, get better buses, mobile app

From better buses, mobile app for real-time updates to dedicated bus lanes – the Brihanmumbai Electric Supply and Transport Undertaking (BEST) buses are all set to get a makeover by the end of the year, Dr Surendra Bagde, general manager of the undertaking, announced at a roundtable of all stakeholders organised by Hindustan Times as part of its BEST Bachao campaign.

In its campaign from August 1-4, HT highlighted the need to transform the city’s second largest public transport system, once regarded among the best in Asia.

At the roundtable, Dr Sanjay Mukherjee, additional municipal commissioner (projects), BMC; Dr Bagde; Shashank Rao, union leader of the BEST Workers’ Union; Kedar Hombalkar, ex- BEST committee member and a BEST expert, transport experts Ashok Datar and AV Shenoy discussed the problems plaguing the city’s public bus service and key measures to be taken to save the organisation.

Dr Bagde promised reforms such as market surveys and research to understand the needs of new-age commuters, rationalising of routes and better operational efficiency.

Mukherjee said just as a father cannot let his son drown, the BMC, the parent body of BEST, will not allow the city’s bus services to sink. “We will do everything possible to keep the city’s bus service going. We all agree that public transport is important and needs to be prioritised,” he said.

(From left) Trabsport expert AV Shenoy, labour union leader Shashank Rao, Dr Sanjay Mukherjee, additional municipal commissioner (projects), BMC; Dr Surendra Bagde, general manager of the undertaking; transport expert Ashok Datar and ex-member of BEST committee Kedar Hombalkar at the roundtable. (Satyabrata Tripathy/HT Photo)

Talking about the four big reforms on cards by the end of this year, Bagde said, “Flexibility in the size of bus fleet, mobile applications to give commuters estimated time of arrival, re-starting dedicated bus routes, including at BKC and from Haji Ali to Worli naka, and wet leasing of bus services are on the cards.’’

He said the BEST will issue a tender next week to get information technology support, including global positioning system, for bus services. “Commuters will prefer BEST buses if they know how long the bus will take to arrive. We have the mechanism in place. We will launch the mobile application within six months,” said Bagde.

The authorities also plan to start the long-pending dedicated bus lanes by coming up with a policy in consultation with Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority (MMRDA), Mumbai police and BMC. They plan to commission four bus lanes giving right of way or special passage for buses from Haji Ali to Worli naka by the end of the year.

Bagde said they plan to alter the routes to suit passengers’ needs, which they aren’t currently unaware of, and offer quick services. “We will introduce smaller buses, which will reduce the waiting time for passengers,” he said.

The BEST authorities are also looking at the possibility of introducing smaller AC buses on shorter routes and wet leasing of buses, allowing the vehicles to be hired along with the staff.

The BEST and BMC has also changed its agreement in its Escrow account to make Rs50crore-Rs65 crore available to the bus authority for 21 days. Earlier, BEST had to deposit the money in the account in the first 10 days, but with changed rules, it can deposit the money by the end of month.

The BMC’s help, however, will not come unconditionally. Mukherjee pointed out BEST will have to deliver on drafting and implementing capital investment and business development plan. “The civic body will provide capital expenditure and will fully support the organisation. However, we want to see the investment and the channel through which the expenditure will be used,” he said.

A minimal fare hike on longer BEST routes can be expected with Mukherjee calling for some sacrifices from all stakeholders, including commuters.

‘Enough of slow and steady, time to get fast and furious’

A revamp in keeping with the changing times is a must for the Brihanmumbai Electricity Supply and Transport Undertaking (BEST) buses to stay relevant.

Transport experts and union leader of the Brihanmumbai Electricity Supply and Transport Undertaking (BEST), who were part of a stakeholders’ roundtable organised by the Hindustan Times as part of its BEST Bachao campaign, called for sweeping and immediate changes to the functioning and organisation of the city’s trademark red buses.

While the experts raised concerns over BEST management’s failure to understand the market situation and commuters’ demand, they highlighted how the lack of overall policy and vision for the company had stunted its growth. From weeding out political interference, introducing dedicated bus lanes to an effective IT system – several suggestions were made at the roundtable.

Underscoring the lack of expertise, Kedar Hombalkar, ex-BEST committee member, pointed out how corporators on the committee focus more on pleasing their constituency, instead of making BEST more efficient. The result, according to Hombalkar, is arbitrary bus routes introduced without market research. “The BEST committee needs to include transport experts, environmentalists and automobile experts to get a better understanding of the market,” said Hombalkar.

Transport expert Ashok Datar said even though at least 10 people die falling off local trains daily, people still prefer railways over BEST. (File)

Transport expert Ashok Datar said even though at least 10 people die falling off local trains daily, people still prefer railways over BEST.

“Unlike the railways, BEST buses don’t have a defined right of way. They also don’t have our mindspace. In a city where space is at a premium, BEST buses occupy less than 2% of our road space. Unless, buses get speed,

commuters will not opt for them. People prefer trains despite congestion because they are fast and reliable,” said Datar.

Datar said dedicated bus lanes, with buses operating every 30 seconds, could prove to be most efficient on busy arterial routes.

AV Shenoy, transport expert, said scrapping the transport deficit loss revenue (TDLR) led to sinking of the transport wing of BEST.

“The transport wing was functional and working fine until island customers were paying TDLR. Once TDLR was scrapped, the BMC should have taken immediate responsibility for BEST, which it didn’t,” he said, adding, “The drop in speed of buses – which takes more two hours to reach the destination at times – has made the service unviable.”

Utilising bus depots for better revenue and giving it for private purposes like railways could help BEST tap into its own resources, he said.

“We need dedicated BEST lanes to get away from congestion. The rules should be strict and offenders should be charged hefty fines. This will help in smooth movement of buses, and, in turn, boost the ridership,” said Shashank Rao, leader of the BEST Workers’ Union, agreeing with experts on the need to give right of way to buses.

He said there was a need for a three-member high-powered committee of experts from finance, transport

and IT to advise BEST on implications of their policy decisions, and a drive against illegal buses operating in the city.

He emphasised the need to look at BEST as an essential service on the lines of education and health, instead of “through a prism of profit and loss”.