The Delhi government's plan to launch an app-based scheme to introduce premium bus services in the city – similar to the model followed by companies such as Ola and Uber – has been dogged by controversy and allegations of corruption. Similar services in Mumbai, Gurgaon and Bengaluru have faced run-ins with authorities and crackdowns by Regional Transport Offices in the absence of clear regulations. In short, plans to introduce such services in a streamlined manner have failed to get off the road.

This is unfortunate, because Delhi – and most Indian cities – urgently need more frequent, reliable and convenient mobility options.

Though bus aggregators such as Ola shuttle, Shuttl and ZipGo have been keenly awaiting the Delhi government's scheme, concerns of legality, unfair competition, access and liability have plagued such services everywhere.

Behind these apprehensions is a central question of how our cities will deal with an inevitable blurring of the line between traditional public transit systems and new technology players focused on delivering demand-responsive and real-time mobility services.

The next step

Progression of the aggregator model from taxis to shared taxis to buses was to be expected. But how does a such a model work, exactly?

A bus aggregator, also called an app-based bus or van-pool, is a technology platform that matches groups of commuters to appropriate routes. An app allows commuters to track the bus, book an assured seat, and pay online. As in the taxi space, bus aggregators do not own or operate any vehicles themselves. Instead, these companies define themselves as technology intermediaries.

However, bus aggregators in India are being charged with flouting the intent of the contract carriage permit that most of the vehicles on their platform operate under. Then, there are questions about safety, liability and the dynamic (discounted or surge) pricing system.

Most importantly, there is concern that such players will operate on routes that are most profitable for existing bus agencies, reducing the city’s ability to cross-subsidise unprofitable routes that bus companies must operate for the public good.

Bus aggregators, on their part, maintain they are within the law but that the regulatory framework needs to change to best make use of real-time technology, big data, and data analytics. The argument is that without this, transport systems will continue to underutilise their assets and have high inefficiencies.

Another bus on the road. So what?

Indian cities urgently need to reverse the tide of people moving away from public transport and towards the use of personal vehicles for any scope of improvement in air quality and easing of traffic woes.

Bus aggregators like Shuttl in Delhi claim to have served over 1.5 million rides in the last year and find that up to 35% of their clientele previously made the same trip by car.

They argue that this trend could significantly reduce single-occupancy cars on roads, especially during peak hours.

An online survey by research organisation WRI India found that 50% of the respondents in Mumbai and 62% in Bengaluru were willing to try bus aggregator services. In addition, by organising highly fragmented mini-bus operators that already flourish outside many work and transit hubs, aggregators could also help formalise clandestine services by offering transparent booking, pricing, and driver ratings.

The advantages of this for commuters are several. Apart from offering the assured seat in an air-conditioned and possibly, Wi-Fi-enabled vehicle, these services are perceived as reliable, demand responsive and trackable. Plus, many of these services give them the choice of requesting routes.

The way forward

For it to truly work, a government looking at regulating the bus-aggregator model must work hand-in-hand with existing public transport. It must look at international case studies on how to engineer a seamless mobility experience – one in which existing transport options and those offered by private players can complement each other, instead of eating into each other’s shares – by integrating physical infrastructure, time tables, data and payments.

In his budget speech this year, Finance Minister Arun Jaitley said that private players would be allowed to ply buses and talked about the need for a new legal framework for this, in what could give a fillip to entrepreneurs in this space, end the stand-off between Regional Transport Offices and bus aggregators and transform the mass transit landscape of the country.

Public transport plays a crucial role in making our cities fulfilling and equitable places to live and work in. The bus-aggregator module provides an opportunity to broker partnerships that merge conventional public transport’s service-for-all model with the private sector’s ability to harness technology to its fullest.

Jyot Chadha heads the Urban Innovation practice at WRI India, a research organisation that looks at the nexus of environment, economic opportunity and human well-being and looks for solutions to problems of sustainable growth and building liveable cities.