Lessons From the Better Bus Challenge in India
With rising populations and the associated transportation demand, the need for better public transport services is becoming increasingly apparent. Photo by Benoit Colin/WRI

Public transport systems are vital to the functioning of cities the world over. They connect people to economic opportunities, education and health care; they can improve road safety and reduce traffic congestion and pollution. However, public transport in many cities has been unable to keep up with the convenience of new technologies like ride-hailing – even as congestion and other consequences from ride-hailing are taking their tolls. In Indian cities, many commuters have moved from public transport to private modes and ride-hailing services – a trend that COVID-19 only exacerbated, as people avoided shared spaces. Three of India’s largest cities are among the top 10 worst rated for traffic congestion in the world.

But the benefits of new transport technologies need not be exclusive to the likes of Uber, Tesla and Bird, all of which recently entered the Indian market. To uncover the potential impact, drivers and barriers to integrating new technologies and private services with public bus services, WRI India, supported by FedEx, launched the Better Bus Challenge in 2018. The Challenge attracted over 75 solutions from five countries that focused on improving the operations, management, commuter experience, technology adoption and service models offered by public bus systems in Indian cities. Three of the best solutions were selected as winners of the challenge and awarded a grant of $50,000 to pilot their solutions for one year in three cities.

These pilots demonstrated that public transit agencies can adopt innovative technologies and service models offered by private enterprises that in turn can improve operational efficiencies, which contributes to the long-term growth of public and shared bus-based transport. These relationships can help financially strained bus agencies reduce costs, adapt to the evolving customer demands, optimize existing operations, and provide service to more people – all while complying with government guidelines on shifting to newer and cleaner technologies.

Shifting from Private Cars, Electrifying, Reducing Emissions

The first pilot expanded service offered by Cityflo, a private, amenity-rich bus service catered to office-goers in Mumbai. In Mumbai, traffic and crowding are serious issues. Cityflo offered riders guaranteed seats without fighting traffic. The pilot showed that while around 70% of their commuter base owned at least one vehicle, they preferred to use Cityflo’s service for the comfort, convenience and ease of access. Additionally, a survey of users highlighted that 52% of their commuters stopped using lower-occupancy vehicles because of Cityflo’s service. Overall, the company achieved a reduction of 101 metric tons of CO2 throughout the pilot period based on riders’ previous travel modes.

“We’ve generated a lot of interest from other cities beyond our target city of Mumbai,” Rushabh Shah, co-founder of Cityflo, told WRI. “There are many potential projects in the pipeline that are a direct continuation of conversations that were initiated during the Better Bus Challenge.”

In Bangalore, Cell Propulsion developed an electric bus retrofit kit for intra-city public buses. Over 700 km of testing showed that the retrofitted buses had a mileage of 0.7 km/kWh, comparable with many new e-buses on the market, and a financial analysis showed that, because acquisition costs could be avoided, the total cost of ownership was 45% lower than a newly procured e-bus and 39% lower than the cost of an air-conditioned diesel bus. The pilot highlighted that this retrofit technology has the potential to help public transit agencies electrify their fleet at a much lower cost than purchasing new buses, which could be a game-changer for public bus agencies shifting to cleaner vehicles, particularly those with constrained budgets. “This is a very nascent and upcoming technology with immense potential over the next decade,” said Nakul Kukar, CEO of Cell Propulsion.

The final pilot, implemented by Small Spark Concepts in partnership with Karnataka State Road Transport Corporation, focused on regional and intra-city bus services and aimed to increase fuel efficiency to reduce tail-pipe emissions. Ten buses were retrofitted with a synthetic air filter, which operated for over eight months and helped achieve a 2% increase in fuel efficiency compared to pre-pilot levels, equating to savings of around $1,000 per bus in fuel costs and 12.47 metric tons of CO2 over the eight-month period.

Challenges & Opportunities

The meteoric rise of new mobility services has come with confusion over their classification and role, leading to difficulties in regulation and significant challenges in integrating these services with public bus operations. In India, for example, public agencies can purchase goods or hire private services only through a bidding or tendering process, which requires participating bidders to meet eligibility criteria such as minimum company turnover, minimum experience, and submission of security deposits. This can be difficult for young start-ups with smaller teams and limited resources. In 2016, the national government relaxed the eligibility criteria for small-scale enterprises, but their inclusion in government projects continues to be slow and limited.

Financial challenges also plague start-ups and public bus agencies alike, but on extremely different scales. While many bus agencies in India are straddled with severe debt and financial losses approximating to almost $2 billion, start-ups in the country are receiving millions of dollars in private funding. But start-ups have extraordinary deadlines and deliverables to meet, and since they’re not at liberty to invest in projects that do not confirm a positive return, it has proven difficult to work with public agencies. The lack of funds within public bus agencies also saps them of the number of skilled technical personnel needed to integrate well with new technologies and services.

Tackling these challenges will involve regulatory reform and dedicated funding to incentivize the identification and testing of innovative technologies for public bus services. A dedicated institutional structure responsible for identifying solutions relevant to public transport, coupled with incentives for the adoption of innovative technology, could build the coordination needed throughout levels of government and help give the sector more answers.

Policymakers should leave room for bottom-up innovation through a light regulatory touch to avoid a one-size-fits-all approach.  This approach has been successful elsewhere in the transit industry, but the most widespread change has been limited to moving from closed to open datasets. As the Better Bus Challenge exemplified, we need to move further with an open approach that allows for peer-to-peer learning that not only lets public bus agencies learn from mistakes but also sensitizes them to the types of solutions being developed by others in the ecosystem.

Concluding Thoughts

With rising populations and the associated transportation demand, the need for better public transport services is becoming increasingly apparent. Private shared mobility services have demonstrated that there is more potential to use technology to offer higher quality transport services, but without similar investments in public services the benefits will be uneven, while exacerbating transportation problems such as congestion and pollution.

There is great need for public transport services to leverage technological advancements to improve the efficiency of operations and quality of service. As demonstrated by the Better Bus Challenge, innovation intermediaries, such as think tanks, research organizations, industry leaders and academics can play a key role in helping agencies approach new technologies and services that have been developed. However, real sustained change will also require governments to establish dedicated institutional structures that tolerate risk to support and encourage innovation by making space and resources available for experimentation in public transit. Programs like the Better Bus Challenge should not be special – they should be a normal part of how we innovate for the public good.

The Mobility and Accessibility Lab is a project to improve mass transport systems around the world through local capacity building and action. WRI offices work in their countries to develop programs that improve the quality, accessibility and usefulness of mass transit. The scope of each project varies, but they are united in pushing the boundaries of what is possible under local governance to improve quality of life and environmental sustainability through transit. These projects are funded in part by a generous grant from FedEx.

Krithi Venkat is a Senior Program Associate for Transport at WRI India.

Ravi Ponnapureddy was Head of Sustainable Transportation at WRI India.

Adam Davidson is an Urban Mobility Associate at WRI Ross Center for Sustainable Cities.

Ravi Ponnapureddy provided leadership to public transport planning at WRI India. He was passionate about public transport and had a deep and abiding passion for justice and equity, particularly in underserved Indian cities. Ravi passed away on the 31st of May 2021 from complications due to COVID-19.

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