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By making travel free for women on public buses, Tamil Nadu joined the league of several global cities that offer free public transport to a socially targeted group. After a prolonged phase of dropping bus ridership in a growing economy, when younger passengers shifted to two-wheelers, there is anecdotal evidence of a boom in bus use by women now in Chennai and the rest of the State. Chief Minister M.K. Stalin has called it a revolution.

Transport Minister S. Sivasankar is reported to have put the subsidy due to the scheme, that is given to the State Transport Corporations including the Chennai Metropolitan Transport Corporation (MTC), at Rs.1,600 crore, and the number of ‘beneficiaries’ at 132 crore in one year since 2021. While the subsidy quantum is a firm figure, the quantum of beneficiaries should be read as the number of rides availed. Women are able to ride free on about 1,600 buses out of an effective fleet of 3,300 buses in Chennai. However, many of these free ‘pink’ buses are old, rickety and hostile to older women who find it difficult to board multiple steps.

The welfare move of the DMK government has obvious benefits for women who were already using bus transport, notably those riding to educational institutions, workplaces and hospitals, besides those travelling for social purposes. If international trends are any indication, fare-free transport shifts at least some individuals who used personal transport to the public mode. The effect is pronounced in the case of cyclists and pedestrians.

Since the Supreme Court and Prime Minister Narendra Modi have provoked a discussion on the desirability of “freebies”, Tamil Nadu finds itself under pressure to justify the positive social outcomes of a welfare measure such as free bus travel for women along with other schemes.

The welfare move of the DMK government has obvious benefits for women who were already using bus transport, notably those riding to educational institutions, workplaces and hospitals, besides those travelling for social purposes

Finance Minister PTR Palanivel Thiagarajan last week struck a blow in favour of public transport in his comments on a TV channel. He said a past (AIADMK) government scheme that provided Rs.25,000 for a two-wheeler for the beneficiary was arguably the most wasteful in its impact, and was “anti-public transport”. That scheme of subsidised scooters for working women in the AIADMK regime was inaugurated, ironically, by none other than Modi in 2018 in the presence of the then Chief Minister Edappadi Palaniswamy and his deputy O.Paneerselvam.

No disaggregated data?
While there are many more women bus riders today thanks to the fare-free system, the transport corporations, including Chennai MTC, are not likely to get fine-grained data on the mobility patterns. They only know how many women were issued a free ticket.

The fare-free system works without a hitch, mostly, since the transaction with the woman rider is restricted to wordlessly issuing a “women’s” ticket. No stage information is recorded, on where the rider boarded the bus or where she alights. This is elegant, as it avoids any loss of time or patience all around, but it does not produce a map of usage, including the areas frequented, the peak demand for service in a particular area and so on.

Ideally, using a machine-readable ticket — even combining it with a Chennai Metro travel card — would help the transport utilities map this data, and come to a conclusion on how much actual fare is being subsidised. The system need not collect the details of the individual when she taps the card on boarding, in order to address privacy concerns, and use only anonymised card information to map the trip. A less accurate method would be to use a paper survey approach, and get randomised information on the length and pattern of travel. The current “women ticket” system maps single journeys by bus, but the same passenger may be performing multiple journeys by different buses on the same trip, since all are free.

Tapping ridership data and analysing it against the economic performance on metrics such as tax collection and consumption of goods and services — for the city as a whole and for specific commercial and business districts within it — could provide some indication of whether fare-free public transport is having a multiplier effect. This would serve to address the criticism that “freebies” are wasteful. Even pedestrianisation has a proven effect on higher consumption of goods and services.

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It is also essential to quantify the subsidies given to those using cars and two-wheelers, in terms of free street parking (thousands park vehicles on streets outside their houses and business establishments), costs due to congestion and pollution, death and disability due to accidents and other losses.

Include in STU modernisation
is now in the process of modernisation, using funding from a German development banking agency, Smart City programmes, and government grants, to upgrade buses, including electric buses, introduce better passenger information systems and modernise bus shelters. This transition provides the Tamil Nadu government an opportunity to move to intelligent transport systems to capture rider information.

Recently, the DMK government made two other changes: announced a plan to shift bus transport to a gross cost contract model where private entities would provide the capital and the operational resources; second, it amended the Tamil Nadu Motor Vehicles Rules to bring accountability among bus crews, by prohibiting questioning of women passengers on their travel destination, and by mandating a complaint book for passengers to be provided by the conductor when demanded.

Media reports have recorded friction between bus crews and women passengers following the free rides regime. MTC conductors have always frowned upon prepaid passes, since they fear the impact on fare box collections and fall in their monetary “incentive” that depends on the collection. Passengers have suffered abuse from conductors for travelling with passes. Now that women have been given full fare-free travel, such prejudices may be strengthened.

The current “women ticket” system maps single journeys by bus, but the same passenger may be performing multiple journeys by different buses on the same trip, since all are free

End supply side deficit
The dynamics of bus transport in Tamil Nadu show that while the system may be much more professionally-run compared to other States, there is a severe shortage buses. Chennai’s buses were of outmoded design and packed to capacity in the period of early economic growth from the 1980s to 2000s, when the hire-purchase two-wheeler boom led to a mass migration of passengers including women. And another substantial group of commuters in the city shifted to unregulated but on-demand share autorickshaws. Now, with fare-free travel, women’s mobility patterns have changed and the “pink” buses, which are among the oldest and most rickety, are reviving memories of the 1980s crowding because of a shortage. A tipping point could reverse the gains of free travel for many and send them back to personal modes.

Government data even for a recent period show that registered motorcycles in Chennai city grew steadily from 2008-09, when it was 1.40 lakh, to 1.93 lakh in 2018-19, before dipping to 1.26 lakh during the COVID-19 year of 2020. Expensive fuel and road congestion now make buses look attractive.

Investments in bus systems, urban rail and regulated feeder transport can relieve the pressure from high cost of fuel, growing congestion, pollution and lack of safety. Fare-free travel for women in Tamil Nadu has had a big welcome, but it can scale up only with better data available to policy makers on how the beneficiaries are using it, where they originate and travel to, and the economic gains everyone is making. This can help it grow and cover other beneficiary groups.

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