Bangalore: In his 23rd year of service, Anantha Padmanabha, a technical consultant with Wipro Ltd in Bangalore, opted for a daily ride in a Bangalore Metropolitan Transport Corporation (BMTC) bus over company-provided transport to go to work.

He doesn’t have to wait for the company bus and can hop into a public bus early, at 6am, to avoid the chaotic traffic from his Hosakerehalli residence in south Bangalore to reach Wipro’s Electronic City campus office and leaves for home after 4.30pm, at his discretion.

Earlier, the 15km ride meant crawling in bumper-to-bumper traffic through bustling commercial and residential areas. The commute would sometimes take one-and-a-half hours.

“Now it takes me less than an hour in the morning to reach office and though it’s not an air-conditioned bus, the journey is quite comfortable," said Padmanabha. “I am also home before the traffic hits the roads in the evening."

Padmanabha is one of the 5,000 people at Wipro, out of the 18,000-strong employee base at the firm’s E-City campus, who chose BMTC’s unlimited ride scheme for Rs1,350 a month, largely due to the flexible timings, reasonable fares and frequency of bus trips.

Smooth ride: (top) Bangalore Metropolitan Transport Corporation MD Syed Zameer Pasha, who himself takes the bus once in a while anonymously; Kempegowda Bus Station in Bangalore. Photographs by Hemant Mishra/Mint

On the first Bus Day in February, nearly 500 fewer private vehicles were parked at the Infosys campus as some 600 more employees than usual used public buses. Employees who came to work in their own vehicles were fined—they had to adopt a potted plant and maintain it either at home or work, an Infosys spokesperson said in an email.

In the last six months, the Bus Day has seen a 10% jump in BMTC’s daily ridership of 4.2 million people.

“It’s not so much about increasing ridership as it is about creating awareness to cut vehicle congestion and pollution," said BMTC managing director (MD) Syed Zameer Pasha, who has played a pivotal role for the past 26 months. “We have to first modernize our fleet, create new routes and then tell people that they should take a bus."

Pasha himself takes the bus once in a while anonymously. On 4 August, a Bus Day, he hopped into one of BMTC’s air-conditioned Volvo buses from his office at Shanthinagar to the Bangalore International Airport some 35km away, and tipped the crew to be more polite to passengers.

Pasha’s campaign has to succeed if Bangalore is to be saved from choking on its traffic. The formerly sleepy city, with a long past reputation as a haven for retirees, has bulked up into a metropolis over just a decade, almost as if on steroids.

It’s still much smaller than Mumbai or Delhi but has 3.7 million vehicles on its roads, 82% of which are two-wheelers, and nearly 1,100 new vehicles are being added every day. No wonder then that the average vehicle speed on some roads in Bangalore’s central area is slower than 15kmph at peak time, according to information on the Bangalore traffic police’s website.

Still, Bangalore doesn’t have any other organized mass transit system to compare with the Metro Rail in Kolkata and Delhi or Mumbai’s suburban rail network—leaving most of its people to depend on their own vehicles or the pesky autorickshaws for commuting.

The Karnataka government’s plan to build a bus rapid transit system (BRTS) in Bangalore with dedicated bus corridors for quick movement is still on paper, although a pilot is being done on a 35km stretch on the Outer Ring Road. 

The city’s most awaited transport system is perhaps the Bangalore Metro. The first phase of the rail network will stretch over two of Bangalore’s busiest and oldest corridors, covering 42km and capable of carrying 1.02 million people daily, but will not reach the two IT hubs for now. The Metro is scheduled for an early 2011 launch.

“The wait (for Metro) has been long, but I think it will be worth it once it arrives," said Shankar Govind, a 31-year-old computer hardware professional who recently went to experience a demo Metro rail coach on MG Road, near his office.

At least on routes to Electronic City, BMTC’s initiatives have evoked a sense of relief. The agency, for instance, has increased the frequency of trips on these routes and someone like Padmanabha wouldn’t need to wait more than five minutes for a ride.

At Wipro, the management’s on an informal internal drive to make its employees use public transport. “We encourage even senior management employees such as vice-presidents to take the bus even beyond the Bus Day and to use them to travel to Wipro’s other campuses," said Ram Ramakrishnan, vice-president, facilities management group, Wipro.

BMTC makes 200-odd trips every day to Wipro’s campus at E-City.

The organization, with a fleet of 6,150 buses and 22,000 employees, is among the most profitable urban bus systems in the country. It is also considered by transport experts as one of the most modern public transport systems in India.

“BMTC easily tops the bus network system in India because unlike any other, it is constantly innovating ways to reach out to more people and by providing modern infrastructure management," said Prashant Kakade, faculty head at the Pune-based Central Institute of Road Transport (CIRT), which conducts training and research in public transport.

Still, he said, people in Bangalore and Pune are likely the most reluctant to uses buses as the cities do not have a multi-option, well-networked system of mass transport. Agencies such as BMTC and Bangalore Metro, after launch, should have a uniform fare structure and promise less travel time and high frequency, he added.

Following its success in the two IT hubs, BMTC plans to spread its “Bus Day" service to seven corridors to make the concept more popular. BMTC has taken on new initiatives such as constructing a slew of “traffic and transit management centres" with “park and ride" facilities where commuters can park their vehicles and take a bus to office along with providing first and last mile connectivity from the pick-up and drop points. It recently invested Rs600 crore, its highest so far, to create these “park and ride" facilities.

The Metro might eat into BMTC’s profits once it starts running. “But it’s ultimately good for the public and we are trying to work closely with the Metro Railway authorities," said Pasha.