Improving BEST: Why none of the routes of Mumbai’s public transporter is profitable–Part5
The BrihanMumbai Electric Supply & Transport (BEST) operates in two specific roles. Firstly, it is required to provide last mile connectivity to people travelling on local trains - which is the feeder role of BEST. Secondly, BEST also must provide an alternative to the local trains in serving the long-distance routes - the trunk-transportation role. In this fifth article of my series, I will look at ways to improve route planning, so that it balances the need for connectivity and profitability for Mumbai's bus operator.
Feeder Routes
BEST act as feeder transporter supporting suburban (local) trains and trunk routes journeys. This is evident from the fact that 45% of all BEST journeys are under 3kms. Thus, BEST is responsible to provide last mile connectivity for passengers travelling on trains, including passenger movement between western, central and harbour lines in non-junction stations (i.e. except Dadar and Kurla). A correlated responsibility is to serve the people moving within the feeder area. Both shuttle (between two specific points) and circle (along specific circular route) can be used to serve these requirements.
In its feeder role, BEST needs to have many routes with frequent buses with lots of pick-up points covering the feeder area at regular interval. Thus, these passengers should be required to wait 3 minutes or less before boarding. These passengers will have lesser time for ticketing and their journey times may be shorter. They also do not want to pay high fares. They are balancing cost and convenience vis-a-vis bikes and shared auto-rickshaws or taxis.
Therefore, feeder routes needs higher number of smaller capacity buses allocated to the feeder area. The higher number will ensure that there is a bus available every 3 minutes. Lower capacity will allow faster access through crowded roads. Now, lower capacity buses have higher cost per passenger kms (cpkm) therefore tickets will be priced higher on per km basis. Another challenge will be time for ticketing will be low. Hence, such buses are ideally suited for a prepaid electronic card system with one fare system. Go anywhere you will pay one fare on this route - say Rs10. 
Trunk Transport Routes
BEST needs to provide a substitute for cars to allow for decongestion and reducing pollution. BEST must thus operate along trunk routes and also connect different business districts during business times. This role needs larger capacity buses at specific time departures. Thus, in the morning, these buses may leave at frequency of 15 minutes and then between peak periods this frequency can drop to 1 hour. Inter-business district operations can be shuttle-service.
There are two types of people on these routes - low cost and higher cost category. In the first, BEST is required to operate a low-cost alternative along trunk routes. It requires standard large capacity buses. 
The second type needs BEST to operate higher-speed trunk routes in comfort. Here BEST is competing with private cars or private taxis (Uber, Ola and hired cars), which are more comfortable, higher priced but convenient option. BEST may address this market through luxury AC buses and convert them into productive workplaces giving high-speed Wi-Fi, charging stations and folding tablet-ops. This functionality is not feasible in all high-end cars. 
Future Route Planning
The route planning strategies discussed above are classical. However, for the future, BEST needs to have modern route planning strategies. Thus, it is possible to use algorithms and apps to create pre-committed routes that users have paid in advance. Today, school bus operators use algorithms to optimise their pick-up and drops. The same principle can be used for long-haul trunk routes with pre-booked capacity. Thus, passengers on the app can indicate they want to travel between the two points at certain frequency at certain time of their choosing and the algorithm can try to assign a bus to them. Once such a bus is allotted, then the passengers pre-book this special bus for a month and pay monthly. These special routes will never make a loss. We can also operationalise the route once break even capacity is reached. We will discuss in details some ideas like efficient route strategies such as pre-committed routes and flex-capacity deployment across routes in subsequent articles. 
Flexible capacity deployment
The ideal bus-level capacity utilisation in any route is about 70% and peak utilisation should be 90%. Ideally, there is some buffer capacity always available. The bus capacity and demand determines the frequency. Generally, frequency is higher at peak times and low at lean times. Thus, the fleet is idle in the lean time. To improve fleet utilisation between lean times, BEST can look at alternatives and deploy the buses for new routes, which only operate at lean times. The route to be chosen depends on people movement in volumes. For example, at lunch times there is a movement from offices to restaurant complexes. In effect, the bus-on-road to idle-buses ratio has to be brought down intelligently.
At present BEST does not give data with respect to capacity utilisation of various routes. Still, with better route planning we can improve BEST service utilisation and facilitate return to profitability. In the next article, we look at how fleet design ties in with these and how that can further create efficiencies.
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(Rahul Prakash Deodhar is a lawyer, investor and author with experience spanning manufacturing, consulting, investment banking firms. He has advised a wide range of clients including Fortune 500 companies, public and private sector banks, hedge funds and private equity funds among others. He has developed econometric models for demand forecasting in real estate, metals, airlines, and shipping. He designed MIS and planning and budgeting systems, sales networks, and operations for large corporates. He has worked with Aditya Birla Group, CRISIL and Morgan Stanley. He is author of two books – Subverting Capitalism and Democracy and Understanding Firms. He can be reached at [email protected] or at his website
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