How do you move 3 million people a day in one of the densest cities in the world (26 million inhabitants, ~5000 square kilometres, 3 million cars)? BEST, the iconic Mumbai-based transit bus service, does just that – providing efficient, low-cost transportation to India’s commercial hub. It goes through massive modernization, the centerpiece of which is a move towards zero-emission electric vehicles (EVs).
BEST has a historical heritage. It started services as the Bombay Tramway Company in 1873 with horse-drawn carriages, changing to electric trams driven by its captive power-generating units. The year 1926 saw the launch of the first bus service.
BEST originally stood for Bombay Electric Supply and Tramways Company and became Bombay Electric Supply and Transport when India gained independence in 1947. With the renaming of Bombay to Mumbai in 1995, BEST today stands for Brihanmumbai Electric Supply and Transportation. Apart from bus services, BEST has provided and continues to provide part of Mumbai’s power supply. It is owned and operated by the Mumbai Municipal Corporation, a public sector entity. Bus services are a lifeline for millions of commuters and provide access to employment, education, medical care and social opportunities at heavily subsidized costs (the average fare for a 5 km is 5 Indian Rupees (₹) or ~7 cents). Currently, the total fleet size is 3,500 buses (of which 10% are zero-emission electric vehicles) which travel around 600,000 km/day and serve 3 million people.
With the expected demographic growth, BEST aims to triple the size of its fleet and its routes over the next five years (traffic is expected to increase from 3 to 5 million commuters/day). Mr. Lokesh Chandra is the Managing Director of BEST. He is an IAS (Indian Administrative Services) officer with previous roles that have revolutionized public transport in small towns in India. Mumbai is, of course, a bigger challenge, which he is tackling with urgency. Mr. Chandra outlines BEST’s mission: “to provide reliable, efficient, affordable and passenger-friendly mobility”. As services expand, the challenges of cost containment, air pollution and noise increase. Mr. Chandra is a passionate believer in the role of electric vehicles in the future. From a strictly economic standpoint, it currently takes ₹150 ($2) in operating cost/km for a diesel-powered bus against a revenue inflow of ₹45 (60 cents). The use of electric vehicles reduces operating costs by 50%. In addition, electric vehicles reduce noise and air pollution and require significantly reduced maintenance and downtime. The buses are built locally by Tata Motors (a global automotive supplier that also owns Jaguar and Landrover) and maintained by third-party contractors. By 2027, a fleet of 10,000 buses will be made up of zero-emission electric vehicles.
Mr Chandra is focused on passenger friendliness – making it easier for commuters to access point-to-point routes with shorter waiting times (the target is a frequency of 15 minutes for each route, with double-decker buses deployed during peak hours). Additionally, ride-sharing apps provide customers with arrival times and occupancy for each bus and route to make planning easier and more efficient. E-ticketing reduces stress for passengers and transit staff related to handling cash and provides efficiency in back-office accounting and financial operations. Safety is a major concern, with cameras providing 360° situational awareness facing the road and inside the cabin and passenger monitoring. Global Positioning Systems (GPS) and person detection sensors track location, estimated times of arrival, and capacity through wireless cloud services.
It’s not all about work. In November 2021, BEST launched entertainment and tourism services (besides being a commercial and financial center, Mumbai is also a major international tourist attraction). The Heritage Bus is an open-top, double-decker bus that cruises through illuminated historic landmarks at night. The Ho Ho service is a hop-on hop-off service that runs in downtown Mumbai at all hours of the day. Fares for these services are higher than normal commuter fares (~₹150-400 or $2-5). Apart from the entertainment value, these services are also expected to generate significantly higher quality revenue in the future.
BEST is an important innovator for urban transport in the developing world. Serving megacities like Mumbai with limited budgets and amidst dense population centers is a challenge. BEST has always lived up to the challenge over the past century. Going forward, Mr. Chandra summarizes his vision for BEST: “We are passionate about shared, clean and connected mobility and encourage more commuters to use BEST’s services. Increased use of this resource will reduce traffic congestion and air pollution in the city of Mumbai. We work hard to provide comfortable, affordable, emission-free and green energy-focused travel experiences for Mumbaikars and visitors. These innovative approaches will make BEST self-sufficient in the near future”.
Looking beyond 2027 and electric vehicles, it is interesting to predict whether mass transit in general and BEST in particular will adopt some of the ongoing developments in autonomy and ADAS (Advanced Driver Assistance Systems) for trucks and automobiles. Companies like Aurora, General Motors, and Waymo along with trucking automation players like Tu Simple, Kodiak, and Gatik are working to deliver smart sensor stacks and software to make driverless transportation practical in parts of America. from the North and Europe. Similar efforts are underway in China. These efforts are motivated by economic reasons (transport and delivery cars) or by the shortage of human drivers (long-distance trucking). These technologies are unlikely to transition to mass transit – the safety, liability and politics of replacing human drivers are too high to justify the economic gains. However, ADAS and Conditional Autonomy which have been recently developed by Mercedes Benz for luxury cars are likely to be integrated into public transport to reduce driver stress and improve safety. These technology transfers will occur first in North America and Europe, likely around 2025. As technology matures and becomes affordable, customization for cities like Mumbai is likely to occur from 2030 Hopefully BEST will continue to innovate and become a pioneer in the deployment of ADAS technologies in public transport.