#BengaluruMoving: Revathy Ashok, CEO,BPAC on Sustainable Mobility &; Safer Public Transport

#BengaluruMoving is a campaign to grow public will and support for fast, accessible and efficient public transport in the city.  Bengaluru has seen a large number of citizen led and citizen driven campaigns around sustainable mobility, the notable one being the Bus Day Campaign spearheaded by members of Praja RAAG. Subsequently several initiatives and volunteer groups have been campaigning for an effective, efficient and reliable public transport. The BMTC has also launched several initiatives, to promote the use of public transport – Pink Buses, Vayu Vajra Volvo, G8 Buses to name a few. In this series, we are profiling individuals, organisations and groups, who have been championing #sustainablemobility

In this episode of #BengaluruMoving, Pinky Chandran and Beula Anthoy, speak to BPAC’s CEO, Revathy Ashok on BPAC’s BMobile Program, previous surveys and projects undertaken and recommendations for the future. 

Radio Active: Can you tell us a bit about B.PAC and its mission?

Revathy: B.PAC was formed as a non-partisan citizen’s group that aims to improve the governance of Bengaluru. It seeks to become a platform for various citizens to engage in a very structured way with the political leadership, the bureaucracy, and relevant stakeholders in a 360 degree way on matters that concern the city and that deal with the quality of life of every Bangalorean. 

We are an advocacy group. We work on advocacy on all levels right from the corporator- MLA – MP- Ministers  and the Chief Minister. We also run a civic leadership incubator program which is a flagship program where we have trained 360 civic leaders to date who are passionate citizens who want to do good for the city. They all volunteer on various civic issues and this becomes a platform for them to engage with various stakeholders in a very systematic way.  

Radio Active: What is B.PAC’s, Be mobile initiative all about. You’ve identified five focus areas within the initiative, what are they and why have you chosen them? 

Revathy: We believe that the right to mobility is a very basic right that every citizen needs to have because the right to mobility also has its roots in providing economic security to people. Just like housing is important, food is important, mobility is a very important aspect of every citizen’s economic aspiration. Mobility and economic aspirations are interlinked. It is with this objective that we we included mobility as our key area for advocacy. 

An important fact  is that Bangalore has one of the lowest public mobility percentages in the country, amongst major cities. We are at 48% whereas there are cities like Mumbai are closer to 80%. So, you realize, for such a large city, what distance it has to traverse before it can achieve the goal of sustainable mobility. Currently, the major form of transport is private transport and no city can sustain itself on private transport. And therefore, sustainable mobility, shared mobility to support sustainable public mobility, non-motorized transport, para-transit including planning and infrastructure is needed for all of this to happen in a seamless way, including integrated first and last mile  connectivity. 

These are the issues in mobility that we wanted to deal with and that is why this we created the BMobile program to engage with citizens, government, bureaucracy and political leadership, to campaign for judicious allocation of funds and resources to enable an equitas service provided by the city. 

Radio Active: So, in July 2019, B.PAC, conducted a panel discussion titled, “Bengaluru Forward: Mobility and infrastructure”. What were the key discussions, points and takeaways from that panel discussion?   

Revathy: We had this discussion as soon as the new government took over. The idea was to ensure that we communicate to the new government all the advocacy work and demands that citizens have made in the past, so there is a repository of information that the government has in terms of the citizen expectations with respect to mobility for the city. The panel discussion retraced the infrastructure and  mobility needs for the city as a whole and a range of issues were discussed. 

The panel saw participation of Hon’ble Deputy Chief Minister of Karnataka Dr. C N Ashwathnarayan; Kiran Mazumdar Shaw, President, B.PAC; Ajay Seth, MD, BMRCL; B H Anil Kumar, Commissioner, BBMP; Bhaskar Rao, Commissioner of Police, Bengaluru city; Swati Ramanathan, Co-Founder, Janagraaha; R K Misra, Member, B.PAC and Santwana  Bhattacharya , Resident Editor, TNIE. 

The discussion centred around the civic infrastructure of the city, future planning, policy and reforms required to govern and administer Bengaluru city in providing a better quality of life for citizens. 

Radio Active: In November- December 2019, BPAC conducted an online survey on the First and Last Mile Connectivity to Public Transport in Bengaluru. What were the key findings, both from the users  and non-users of public transport? What were the key recommendations?

Revathy: We did a survey of approximately 1200 people and we wanted to understand why the usage of public transport was not as high as it should be in a city of this magnitude. The survey was divided into segments –1. Users of public transport and their first and last mile connectivity to public transport 2. Non users of public transport and their alternate mode of transport 

An unanimous response was the lack of first-mile and last-mile connectivity making use of public transport challenging. The second was related to the availability of information about  various modes of transport in order  for a person to plan his journey in a seamless manner. For instance, for a person who travels from home to either the bus-stop or to the metro station and then at the alighting point, takes another mode of transport to go to their place of work, place of study etc. Unless the city has a more progressive outlook towards connecting first and last-mile, and works on making it easy for citizens to use multiple modes at the same time, people will continue using their own vehicles.  We have also  found that, that  use of two-wheelers has been extremely high as people find it convenient.

We also need integrated ticketing,  integrated route-planning, integrated information system. These are critical and in a technology city like this if we can’t do it which other city can do it? 

The other critical issue is  the city has never allowed para-transit mechanisms, for example, we’ve had services like Zip-Go in the past which ran an on-demand AC bus service providing reserved seating to customers. Unfortunately that was not permitted as per the State Carriage Act, even though there is a provision for it to accommodate this.  The city has always viewed such service as competition to itself and our goal is to change that narrative and say that this cannot be viewed as competition. There are certain spaces where BMTC will not be able to offer its own service because their buses are larger and these smaller buses, more nimble which will move here and there go to the last mile, that is so critical. An important finding was also the need for the  government and other agencies like BMTC , BMRCL  to show more flexibility, in allowing some of these service providers to  operate and actually augment their own public transport services.

Link to the Survey: https://bpac.in/wp-content/uploads/2020/02/First-and-Last-Mile-Connectivity-Survey-Report.pdf

Radio Active: In March 2020, BPAC and Uber released the Sustainable Mobility for Bengaluru Report. The report highlighted strategic insights that could be implemented through joint action for maximum impacts. Briefly share the workings of the nine month long research and consultations. How do you envisage public-private partnership to improve transport infrastructure in Bengaluru? And what kind of policy changes are required to improve mobility services?

Revathy: So, let’s look at the few aspects that we considered.Regulatory Ecosystem: There are multiple regulatory challenges that prevent new mobility service providers to offer sustainable mobility solutions in Bengaluru. Therefore, there is a need to understand the existing regulatory bottlenecks specific to the state of Karnataka and work towards creating a conducive regulatory ecosystem for shared mobility services.

For instance there is a requirement in Karnataka to allow for dynamic pricing by aggregators based on time, distance and fuel costs. The current ceiling doesn’t incentivise the driver to take the vehicle out, when it is needed most like during peak time, or when it is raining heaviliy. 

You must remember that during peak times, the speed is so low that, the fuel consumed is much more, the time that the driver is on the road is much more and with the low price cap this disincentivises the driver from taking the vehicle out. The driver would then chose to make up for the lost money during non peak hours. There is an urgent need to logic and base pricing on time, distance and cost. An unless that is taken into account, customers and drivers both will continue to be at a disadvantage. 

Yes, earlier customers did complain about usurious pricing. And that’s why these new rules came in place. And this is turn dropped the services levels significantly. Bangalore has one of the lowest service ratios in the country because of this lack of dynamic pricing or at least a better pricing mechanism which factors in time distance and cost.  That was one major requirement that came out as part of this study.

Shared Mobility: The other as I have already mentioned is promoting shared mobility services across different modes of transport. This can be achieved by authorizing private players to run shuttle, bike and auto-sharing, as well as carpooling services in the state. At present, many are operating under various shades of grey. Car pooling is another important ares of  consideration

We believe that it is important to look at the hierarchy of needs- The city must declare non-motarised transport at the highest level, followed by public transport, shared transport and lastly private transport. 

It is equally important to make it fiscally difficult for people using own vehicles to transition adoption of public or shared mobility. This is possiblethrough a system of incentives and disincentives, where we incentivize this kind of shift in behavior, and that has to be core to the entire policy-making exercise.  

Secondly public transport cannot be viewed as means to make profit, but consider it a provision of public good, just like education and health. I would equate providing good mobility to providing equal access to economic opportunities to everybody. What we also don’t do is quantify health costs for private vehicles. We often take pollution for granted. We look at public transport in a very linear way. Our recommendation is to  increase the fleet size of BMTC buses to 50,000 by 2022. In the last three years, BMTC has not increased its bus fleet at all, whereas the population of the city has been growing significantly. The bus capacity has barely gone up. It’s been stagnant, for the last three year. Bus route optimization is needed to provide better utilization.Smaller capacity busses for transit in around stations of BMRCL, suburban rail as well as bus stops would be things that allow greater public interest in public transportation and mobility. 

Thirdly, first and last-mile connectivity including transit stations to industrial corridors and company campuses,  public spaces like shopping malls, large hospitals, educational institutes, is very important. Alll  these are crowded spaces where the patterns are pretty well-known and therefore by marking those patterns and providing transportation at the appropriate points, from origin to destination and then back is crucial.  Shuttle services, and a minimum 1 km footpath around transit stations of various kinds, must be well-maintained so that people can walk. The city is blessed with good weather and we must make good use of this but unfortunately our footpaths are in a dire state.

The last but not the least is  sustainable green transport for Bengaluru, which really boils down to usage of electric vehicle. While Bangalore was one of the first cities in the country to announce an EV policy actually it did very little after that, because it just became an announcement and after that the city did not take any further steps or  have a clear roadmap, to actualise the  goals under EV which is achieving fifty percent of total transport through EV by 2030. It’s been a few years since the policy was announced and we have not seen any efforts towards migration towards EV at all. We need a  clear EV policy which gives fiscal incentives; green miles, encourages manufacturers in the state for EV, encourageEV for first and last-mile connectivity, encourage autos to convert to EVs. These kind of milestones will go a long way in reducing the carbon footprint as well as in improving sustainable mobility opportunities for the city. 

Radio Active: In your report, the report also mentions that economically weaker sections of society, disproportionately bear the brunt of inefficient public transport and in the past in Bengaluru there were a lot of campaigns which were around inclusivity in public transport. For instance, you know, the very first campaign in 2013 was End Sexual Harassment on buses, then we saw the which was to roll back on bus fares. Then we had in 2015 a 50 paisa campaign for people-centric bus fare in Bangalore following that we had, towards the end of 2014 we had a campaign which talked about the challenges faced by senior citizens and persons with disability in using the buses. Your recommendations to the Draft Parking Policy for Bangalore also had a special reference to persons with disabilities. So, what are the ways in which we can build inclusivity in public transport?

Revathy: I think inclusivity in public transport can be weaved in the moment you provide access to everybody. So, our view of public transport should almost be like the way we view the provision for water all, provision of energy for all. We must view mobility as mobility for all. So, in order to have mobility for all, you must have mobility available at multiple price points because there are different people for whom criteria for using public mobility is very different. In addition, hygiene and safety, I think are non-negotiable. 

Radio Active: In May 2020, during the lockdown,BPAC conducted a survey to map commuter perception on safety in public transport. Tell us more about the survey and the findings. I did see on Twitter, a set of recommendations put out by BPAC. In your opinion, how can the shift from private to public be built in and incentivsed in a postlockdown scenario.10. Lastly, everyone is talking about re-imagining public transport, what are your visions and how do you think it can be actualised?

Revathy: I think a lot has changed. We did this survey in the early days of COVID. In May, we found that more than fifty percent of the people said they would not travel within the next three months because of the  associated risk of catching the disease. 

But we  wanted to find out what would make people come back and we wanted to listen to the voice of the customer. And what they were looking for essentially, apart from the things that I have already said earlier. There are newer set of concerns- need for more data about safety and cleanliness, in the sense how often have the buses been sanitized, if there could be data which could be put out there, so that people know as they are boarding the buses, that they have been sanitized properly. The ability for people to enter from  one side and exit from the other so that people don’t have to criss cross each other and move seamlessly. Contactless ticketing, for a  contactless journey and of course ensuring that the bus is not crowded, compulsory  wearing  of masks. These were some of the requirements that came out of this study; and we did provide this to BMTC. Contactless ticketing is something that they have already started off. I think there are other challenge that  have come up. 

But one thing that has been revealed is that buses are a very flexible means of transport. It can adapt itself to any crisis or situation and therefore it is always going to be the backbone of transit while there will be other supporting ones like the Metro, suburban rail etc. The importance of bus can never be taken away as it gives you the ability to respond in very short time. Therefore, the focus has to be on building greater trust with the commuter and making them feel that it is safe and it is easier to maintain physical  distancing within the buses, making it easy and a reality. Rearranging the bus routes to ensure that it caters to the new demand pattern which is to link out the most vulnerable sections/areas of the city to the places of economic activity.  I think the government seriously needs to invest in increasing public bus infrastructure. 

Radio Active: So, the last question on everyone’s mind is reimagining public transport. What’s your take on it?

Revathy: I think this situation provides a unique opportunity for the government to rise up to the occasion and push sustainable mobility in a very big way. Cities around the world have been taking advantage of this situation. And they are putting together biking lanes so that people start getting used to biking given that traffic is so much more less intimidating. This is the time to create  and invest in non-motorized corridors that can facilitate behavior change. 

Secondly,our  bus priority lanes, was another significant achievement. We have piloted it in one corridor and now the government is working on the many more corridors. This will make a very big difference, because the moment bus becomes more attractive in terms of travel times, a lot of people who today take out cars, saying car is faster, will suddenly be more tempted to look at the bus! The kind of incentive we need to provide for people to change behaviors, I think at this stage trying to change through adequate fiscal incentives and disincentives is the right way to go. 

Radio Active: Thank you so much for taking time and sharing the work of B.PAC and your views on sustainable mobility!

Listen in to the interview

Disclaimer: 1. The views expressed here are those of the interviewee and do not reflect the position of Radio Active. 2. This interview is part of the Bengaluru Moving series, where we are tracing past back campaigns and initiatives  around Sustainable Mobility for BMTC 3. The transcription contains minimum edits for language consistency.

Transcribed by Divina Ann Philipose, Christ University   | Audio Editing Beula Anthony | Creative Design: Pallavi Baasri, Purpose

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