The Leapfrogging City

I have mixed feelings about the news I read in this morning’s paper. Apparently, Chennai’s Metropolitan Transport Corporation is planning to provide arrival times from the 550 GPS-enabled city buses online to enable passengers with internet access or with GPRS enabled mobile phones to avoid waiting times at the busstop.

I am all for developing countries using new technologies to leapfrog over the longer path that developed countries took to bring public transport systems to their current quality levels. But in this case, I have to say that some of the intervening steps might be pretty important ones. For example, the MTC does not even have a public bus route map. As in — there is no publicly available map that shows all buses, their routes in the city, and marks where they stop.

Taking the bus to a new location is an exercise in crowdsourcing — and a very effective one in my experience. You walk to the nearest bus shelter and ask people how to get to the place you want to go. They’ll name a bus number and the closest bus stop. I have never been misled, although sometimes my questions have led to long debates between people about the best route. Bus stops sometimes list the bus numbers that come there, but there is no list of stops or timings. People just learn through experience, and pass on the knowledge.

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