Saturday, May 21, 2011

Public Transport – I’m sold.

Of all the cities in India that I have lived in, Delhi by far has had the best public transport infrastructure. I was a regular user of the city buses during summer vacations in class 8th and 9th when I had joined a computer programming course out of my personal interest. Following this the next major phase of my life when I used city buses came in class 11th and 12th. I would take a bus to travel from school to my coaching classes and also back home. Back then, I had no choice. There was a car at home, but I neither had a license nor did I know how to drive. Also at that time, most buses were Bluelines. These buses never ran with a motive of serving the public. Money making was the only motive. Given the helpless circumstances back then, I was definitely not fond of the buses or the public transport.

Things changed as I joined college. I regularly travelled along the Delhi-Chandigarh route on buses and trains. At the same time, I learned to drive and got myself a driving license. I did drive around the city for sometime, but soon Metro operations expanded in Delhi. From the day Metro connected Dwarka to other parts of Delhi, I realised the convenience of driving only up till the closest Metro Station. Following my graduation, I moved to Mysore and Bangalore. I had no personal vehicle. Autos in Bangalore (and Mysore) are a nuisance. As a result I always favoured the buses and often had to fight the reluctance of my friends in order to take the buses. And now that I am back in Delhi, I have been making the most of the public transport over the past four months.

Over this time I have had a change of mindset and my attitude towards public transport has changed a lot. I no longer perceive it as the cheap, painful and poor-man's mode of transport. At the same time, I am far from considering myself as a socially responsible citizen who takes public transport to help save fuel, lower pollution, lessen traffic on the roads. While I do support these causes, they are totally unrelated to my ever-growing fondness of the public transport.

One of my reasons for preferring public transport is that carrying around your own personal vehicle is slowly turning painful. Traffic is too slow too often. Parking has always been a problem (at least since the day I started driving). Petrol is burning bigger holes in your pocket. And then there are these occasional unpleasant cases of breakdown (I recently had a flat tyre). All these add to the pain.

The primary reason for my attraction is the experience in itself. This tweet by Rungta sums it up: “Never a dull moment on the public transport crush— err, systems of India.”

Truely, there is never a dull moment. Unlike the monotony of driving your vehicle through slow traffic, switching gears between 1 and 2, and finally searching for that non-existent parking spot; there is some spark in almost every ride on the public transport. The joy of boarding an empty bus, the competition for a seat in a jam-packed bus, the funny comments in the air, the sigh of relief at the end of the journey. In addition, the noticeable (as well as subtle) traits of individuals coming from diverse backgrounds (regional, cultural, economic etc) add to the exuberance; imagine a Haryanvi letting out his frustration in a crowded bus. Somehow these tiny highs and lows makes the entire experience worth it. And when I think back, and recall all these experiences there is a sense of achievement and satisfaction.

This post is a consequence of the same feeling, and I decided to share some of those moments. Even if they don't convince you about the beauty of the experience, at least they would humour you.

  • One of the important difference between the buses in Delhi and Bangalore is the ease with which people start a conversation. Maybe because language is a lesser divide among the people in Delhi as compared to people in Bangalore. For some reason there is a “general assumption” that the people around are eager to talk to you. So don't be surprised if the guy next to you strikes up a random conversation with you. The topic can be, well, anything depending on the day, the mood, the person, the co-passengers, the weather, the cricket match; as I said, it can be anything. Some of the topics I have come across in the recent past: overcrowded state of public transport; the Government not functioning well; the distressing traffic situation; lack of trees; the performance of the bus driver; the insignificance of the Metro Airport Express Line; or a one-sided monologue where a random “enlightened” guy decides to spread some gyaan.
  • While there are no shortage of frustrating moments, more often than not you will find some humour being born out of those situations. For example in a bus, every now and then you will discover newer (and funnier) ways of stealing seats. If your happen to be the unlucky victim who gets beaten in the contest, you can either humour others by letting out your rage, or simply learn from it and outsmart your fellow co-passengers the next ride onwards. Sometime back two of us took a metro from HUDA City Centre. Since the train originates at this station, people usually scamper for a seat the moment the metro door opens. We did not participate in the scamper as we were making a very short trip. Just as someone was taking the seat right next to where we were standing, a guy runs in and manages to force his potli onto the seat (under the other guy's half-seated posture), which obviously gets crushed by the butts. What followed was this huge argument - one claiming that he sat first, while the other claimed that his potli was kept on the seat before the other guy sat. The argument concluded with both adjusting themselves on the seat.
  • On another occasion I was travelling in a jam-packed metro from Rajiv Chowk towards Dwarka wearing a backpack. Having no control on my movements due to the rush, I happened to accidentally give an old man a slight nudge with my bag. Incidentally the old man was travelling with an elderly companion, and both happened to be in a drunk state. The nudge made this old man start talking (actually, more like announcing) to his friend “Ek to duniya mein samasya yeh hai ki logon ko apna basta sambhalna nahi aaya”. A third aged co-passenger (no, this guy was not drunk) participated in the conversation and blamed the Government for not doing anything about the helplessness of the passengers. The conversation took wild turns as more people got interested. For quite some time the three old men kept talking and conversation nearly turned into a meaningless argument. After a little while the sober old man got off at this destination. Following that the drunk old man decided to address his co-passengers “Aap kahin bhi jaoge aapke aas paas zyadatar log murkh milenge aur bohut kum samajhdar milenge. Hum sub mein bhi zyadatar murkh hi honge. Bus ye batana mushkil hai ki kaun murkh hai aur kaun samajhdar.” The pravachan continued as everyone listened to the old-man-on-a-high with a smile on their faces. When it comes to carrying bags in public transport, I now have a golden rule – “keep it below the belly”. From that day onwards I converted my backpack into a sling-bag.
  • The roof of the bus stop near my house was blown away by strong winds quite sometime back. Only a small piece of the roof still remains stuck. On a peak summer afternoon as I waited for a bus, two persons came in from different directions and sat alongside me. They realised that the sun was too strong, and so decided to look for a shade. Eventually both ended up cramming themselves under the little shade provided by the broken piece of roof. And this initiated another fun conversation, and as expected they pulled me into their conversation. They went on to criticise the DTC, the Government and even the MCD for not planting trees on that side of the road.
  • Most of the new buses procured by DTC are an engineering marvel. These busses run on CNG. Have the engines at the back of the bus. They are low floor. Automatic doors. Automatic gears. The manufactures did almost everything right except that the engines generate very low power. You can distinctly hear these buses scream with pain as they try to pickup from a dead stop or climb up a flyover. The situation worsens in an AC bus, when the AC is turned on. Often the bus drivers turn the AC off when the buses need more power for pickup. And almost immediately you can hear a comment or two from the crowd – “AC chala do. Paise to hum poore dete hain, AC chalane mein aapka kya jaata hai.”
  • Even though the bus route I usually take has a very good service frequency, there have been times when I have had to wait a lot, specially at the Nehru Place Terminal. About a week back I was at the terminal at about quarter past seven in the evening to catch an AC Bus plying on the same route. There is no fixed platform at the terminal from where the bus might originate. If you need a seat, you have to be attentive and look out in all directions. Whenever a bus moves, or starts, or shows any other signs of departure the crowd would rush towards it. The key to get seats is very simple; win the race. If you are lucky, the bus would be plying on the route you're looking for. On that day we had been running around without luck for about half an hour. After some more time, as we all started our sprint towards another bus, someone among us shouted aloud “Itne mein to Dilli Police ka physical clear ho jata.” Even that bus turned out to be on a different route.

Public transport rides are a mixed-bag of emotions – fun, frustration, humour, exercise, excitement, anxiety and more. Most importantly it is a break from monotony. The person facing the music enjoys as much as the person observing these moments. While there are many more incidents worth sharing, I'd rather not make a long blogpost even longer. Instead let me point you to some tweets by me and my friends:

https://twitter.com/rungta/status/68676611809091585
https://twitter.com/rungta/status/64377491216801792
https://twitter.com/rungta/status/55524957639282688
https://twitter.com/rungta/status/51287585775034368
https://twitter.com/rungta/status/36997949665837056
https://twitter.com/souvikdg/status/55888370190127106
https://twitter.com/rungta/status/53472583194116096
https://twitter.com/lokallobaat/status/71820202173673472
https://twitter.com/souvikdg/status/71823844670840833

As pointed before, hopefully these anecdotes have at least humoured you, if not convince you about the beauty of using the public transport.