7 Steps to Better Transit in Chennai

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Waiting at the bus stop for my daily commute has resigned me to a certain fate,  I always get bored, restlessly shuffling from one leg to the other in a rather quizzical imitation of some below- average bhangra. There’s never the right bus when I need it and after an infuriatingly long period of waiting, suddenly, in an almost evil twist of fate, there’s not just one, but two, no wait, THREE buses screeching to a halt, one after the other!

As someone who surrenders a good three hours to bus travel every day, I have more than my fair share of qualms to pick with the city’s transit network. Yet, I will grudgingly admit to the fact that Chennai is actually home to one of the most extensive bus transit systems, with the highest occupancy ratio in the country. [1]

In short, while the Bus transit network seems to work in terms of numbers, it is nowhere near attracting new users into its fold. Designers at Hashtag Urbanism try to crack this paradox, with a time-based-design proposal in seven simple steps.

1. Whats the bottomline?

Chennai’s transit system is way out of balance. The hierarchy in our public transit system in terms of capacity and extent was intended to begin with the railway network, followed by the bus network, and motorized feeder systems like share autos for providing connectivity to inner roads. But the suburban rail networks and the MRTS didn’t succeed as expected, mainly due to operational isolation from other modes of transport. What has ensued is a wasteful overlap of individual transit lines with buses and trains both running parallel along the same routes.

Overloaded bus trasni
Graphic showing the over-saturation of the Bus Transit Network.

The imbalance in the overall transit network, the qualitative defects in the existing bus service, and the external pressure due to the increasing vehicular population with limited road space in the city has created a huge strain on the bus system. Existing operational issues and incompetency in service has fueled the preference for private transport by cars and motorbikes that have grown tenfold.

Graphic showing the reasons for the Strain on the Bus Network

Bottomline: Conventional solutions that aim at increasing infrastructure like additional flyovers, road widths, bus fleets might, just might, increase its efficiency a bit. But in the long run, public transit still continues to repel people. What we need is a change in outlook- one that rethinks efficiency.

 2. Rethink efficiency- Time as experience :

We measure efficiency of a system through two factors – money and time. A transit system that gets you where you want in the shortest time without burning a hole in your pocket is, by default, efficient. Time as a tangible section of transit has a significant part in achieving efficiency. However, the intangible value it holds with the user experience and interaction is of much greater significance. Every commuter, dependant on a public transport has more than one segment involved in the journey. Is TIME the key to changing the perception of people towards public transport? How do you break down transit time?

Graphic showing the three time zones: Walking Time, Waiting Time, Travelling Time.

Simply put, time spent is experienced gained. Enriching the quality of experience in individual segments of time transforms the overall bus experience, thus changing the perception of people towards bus transit.

3. Decode the Context :

Chennai, as a city of diverse contexts, demands for a unique response for every scenario. Every time segment that contributes to travel has a different face at different points in the city. An experiential analysis of time is crucial in identifying the qualitative defects of the system and in designing for the needs of the people at every level. [Sample Graphic below]

Phto analysis
Photo analysis showing how the contextual issues could be understood

 4. Design for TIME – The three Zones:

Concentrating design efforts solely in improving user experience in three time zones gives a more streamlined design that achieves the end objective of attracting more users.

Design Zones
Graphic showing how design could be concentrated in these three Zones
Walking Time:

The inefficiency in connectivity and lack of excitement in user’s interaction are the thrust areas of design. Share autos should be recognised as valid feeder systems, occupying equivalent share of the road space, a source for last mile connectivity.  Pedestrian friendly streets, along with a public cycle sharing network can bridge the gap between the transit point and destination.

Waiting Time:

Bus shelters have the potential to become important social nodes within their neighborhoods, responding to the character of each context. Placemaking as a design methodology should be applied to every bus shelter to transform them into focal points of a community, with active street edges catering to diverse users.

Travelling Time:

‘Right of way’ for buses, improving user interface and reliability by the provision of a more interactive and informative system using route maps, sign boards. These conveniences can transform a mere bus experience into an overall city experience for users, irrespective of one’s familiarity with the city.

Sketches showing Design Interventions for three Time Zones

5. BE BOLD. BE VISIBLE – Identity through Hierarchy:

Transit Stops need to attract people. Bus Shelters need a strong identity; a visual ‘shoutout’, if you will, that marks its place in the urban context, and instinctively pulls people towards it.

Architectural design could be the tool to giving an inseparable identity to the bus system within the overall transit network. By just looking at the shelter, one should be able to comprehend the services it offers and buses that service the route.

Bus stop grades 2.gif
Graphic showing the Standards that would be provided at each Grade of Bus Shelter

The bus system should be revamped by introducing three different grades of bus shelters – Grade A,B,C, each defined by a hierarchical set of standards and infrastructure. Parameters like Volumes of the bus station, Catchment area, Contextual importance, Intermodal Connectivity, Frequency of buses, and Importance of route would determine the order of hierarchy.

Grade map.jpg
Map showing the possible locations of different grades of Bus Stops

Grade A: Major transit nodes in the city and Depots – Guindy, Koyambedu, Broadway, Tambaram, Ambattur,etc.
Grade B: Important bus stops within the city – Mylapore, Vadapalani, Gemini Signal, Gandhi Mandapam Stop, etc.
Grade C: Neighborhood stops – Adayar Signal, MRC Nagar, Blue star.

6. Design of the Shelter:

Creativity + Cost efficiency + Immunity. The bus station is the interface between the people and the system and its architecture is the medium that makes the intangible tangible. A careful selection of parameters that govern its design and unique architectural identity, to stand out within the overpowering urban fabric is paramount to its success.

They need to to be ‘jaw-dropping-awesome’, and yet be economical enough to break the bureaucratic chains that bind urban design in our country. Not to mention the constant threat of vandalism and political/movie posters that mar all urban infrastructure in our cities.

 In other words, creativity + cost efficiency + immunity

Guindy shelter breakdown
Details of Bus Shelter Design.

7. Embrace the Smartphone revolution:

Smart(phone) Urban Transit. The most important urban transport innovation is the Smartphone. We step out of our houses only after consulting Google maps and the likes for the best travel route, remaining glued to it till the end of the journey [More on that here]. Success of cab companies like Ola and Uber is largely based on the advantage that you solve your travel needs just by pushing few buttons on your smartphone. Public transit needs to enter into the foray of smartphone navigation, to boost its ridership.

Valuable data on where people want to go, how they travel, what’s slowing them down, and how the network is operating can be deciphered from user-generated data, courtesy the smartphone. A unified mobility app has enormous potential to eliminate barriers between modes, use existing infrastructure more efficiently, and bring the entire transport network to the smartphone. [1]

Finding real-time Bus routes made easy on m-Indicator

The need of the hour is a mobile app like Mumbai’s ‘m-Indicator’, with which we can look up real-time transit information and options instantly, wherever we are, track the exact location of the next bus or train and plan our journey accordingly.

In Conclusion, a time-based design would transform the overall bus experience and people’s perception towards public transit, slowing becoming the preferred choice of travel. Time spent in transit is then no longer a burden. It’s a gift.



  1. The Most Important Transportation Innovation of the Decade Is the Smartphone

[This article is the compilation of the joint research and design by Sanjana John, Bala Nagendran M, Chandrasekaran S and Preetika Balasubramanian for University of Westminster Trophy, NASA 2014]


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