How do you move 3 million people a day in one of the world’s most dense cities (26 million population, ~5000 square kilometers, 3 million cars)? BEST, the iconic Mumbai-based public transit bus service does exactly this – by providing low-cost, efficient transportation to the commercial nerve center of India. It is going through massive modernization, the centerpiece of which is a move towards zero emission electric vehicles (EVs).
BEST has a storied legacy. It initiated services as the Bombay Tramway Company in 1873 with horse-drawn carriages, transitioning to electric trams driven through its captive power generation units. The year 1926 saw the launch of the first bus service.
BEST originally stood for Bombay Electric Supply and Tramways Company and transitioned to 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 Transport. Apart from bus services, BEST has and continues to provide a portion of the electric power supply to Mumbai. It is owned and operated by the Mumbai Municipal Corporation, a public sector entity. The bus services are a lifeline for millions of commuters and make possible access to employment, education, medical care and social opportunities at highly subsidized costs (the average fare for a 5 km ride is 5 Indian Rupees (₹) or ~ 7 cents). Currently, the total fleet size is 3500 buses (10% are zero emission EVs) that travel ~600,000 km/day serving 3 million people.
With projected population growth, BEST aims to grow its fleet size and routes by 3X over the next five years (ridership is projected to grow from 3 million to 5 million commuters/day). Mr. Lokesh Chandra is the General Manager of BEST. He is an officer in the IAS (Indian Administrative Services) with prior roles that revolutionized public transit in smaller cities in India. Mumbai is, of course, a bigger challenge, one that he is addressing with urgency. Mr. Chandra highlights the mission of BEST: “providing reliable, efficient, affordable and passenger friendly mobility”. As services expand, challenges of cost control, air and noise pollution and amplify. Mr. Chandra believes passionately in the role of EVs going forward. From a strictly economic viewpoint, it currently takes ₹150 ($2) in operating cost/km for a diesel-operated bus vs a revenue intake of ₹45 (60 cents). Using EVs reduces operating costs by 50%. Additionally, EVs reduce noise and air pollution and require dramatically lower maintenance and downtime. The buses are built locally by Tata Motors (a global automotive OEM which also owns Jaguar and Landrover) and serviced by third-party contractors. By 2027, a fleet of 10,000 buses will be composed of zero-emission EVs.
Mr. Chandra is focused on passenger friendliness – making it easy for commuters to access point-to-point routes with shorter wait times (the target is a 15-minute frequency for every route, with double-decker buses deployed during peak hours). Additionally, ride-hailing type apps provide customers with arrival times and occupancy on every bus and route to make planning easier and more efficient. Electronic ticketing reduces the stress on passengers and transit personnel of handling cash and provides efficiency in back-office accounting and financial operations. Safety is an important concern, with cameras providing 360° road-facing and inside-cabin situational awareness and passenger monitoring. GPS (Global Positioning Systems) and people detection sensors help track position, estimated arrival times and capacity through wireless-based cloud services.
It’s not all about work. In November 2021, BEST launched entertainment and tourist services (apart from being a commercial and financial center, Mumbai is also a major international tourist draw). The Heritage bus is an open-air double-decker that strolls through brightly illuminated historic monuments at night. The Ho Ho service is a Hop-on, Hop-off service that runs in Mumbai’s downtown 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 revenues going forward.
BEST is a significant innovator for urban transport in the developing world. Serving mega-cities like Mumbai on limited budgets and amid dense population centers is challenging. BEST has consistently delivered over the past century. Going forward, Mr. Chandra summarizes his vision of BEST: “We are passionate about shared, clean and connected mobility and encourage more commuters to use BEST’s services. Higher usage of this resource will reduce traffic jams and air pollution in Mumbai City. We are working hard to provide comfortable, affordable, zero-emission and green energy-driven travel experiences to Mumbaikars and visitors. These innovative approaches will make BEST self-reliant in the near future”.
Beyond 2027 and EVs, it is interesting to project whether public transit in general and BEST, in particular, will adopt some of the autonomy and ADAS (Advanced Driver Assistance Systems) developments underway for trucks and automobiles. Companies like Aurora, General Motors and Waymo as well as trucking automation players like Tu Simple, Kodiak and Gatik are working on providing intelligent sensor stacks and software to make driverless transportation practical in selected areas in North America and Europe. Similar efforts are underway in China. These efforts are driven by economics (ride-hailing and delivery trucks) or the shortage of human drivers (long-distance trucking). It is unlikely that such technologies would transition to public transit – the safety, liability and politics of replacing human drivers are too high to justify the economic gains. However, ADAS and conditional autonomy that has recently been developed by Mercedes Benz for luxury cars are likely to be integrated into public transit to reduce driver stress and improve safety. These technology transfers will occur first in North America and Europe, probably in the 2025 time frame. As the technology matures and becomes affordable, customization for cities like Mumbai is likely to occur starting in 2030. Hopefully, BEST will continue to innovate and become a trailblazer in the deployment of ADAS technologies in public transit.