Home Forums Traffic Management, Road Safety and Infrastructure Ultra-modernising bus service in Mauritius…

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    Mauritius, as a country, is getting wealthier and the purchasing power of Mauritians is on the rise, too. This, along with the widening variety of credit facilities, means that more and more people can now afford to buy a car and are indeed doing so. Driving and (riding of two-wheelers) is also being more and more democratised, in the sense that there are more and more female drivers and riders – which is only a good thing. As for the population, while it is seen to be stagnating for a while now, surely this is not going to be the case forever. The Road Decongestion Programme, in place under previous governments, the current one as well future ones, involves, other than changes to existing road infrastructure (for instance, the introduction of grade-separated junctions at Phoenix), the expansion of the existing road network – the M3 motorway, the forthcoming A1-M1 link, the numerous village bypasses in rural regions, the still-in-the-pipeline phases 2 and 3 of the Ring Road.

    However, whilst the number of vehicles on our roads is resolutely increasing and the population will be sooner or later be increasing too, the one thing that is not and never will increase is the size of the island. The previous government always used to take Singapore as a model of economic success and always looked into emulating them in various ways. But is that really what we want for ourselves? Do we want to become a cramped and polluted “concrete jungle”? Do we want to just carry on clearing out the magnificent luxuriant vegetation on our island, whether natural or agricultural, for the sake of roads? Who has a love for roads, anyway?

    We can carry on building roads forever or, alternatively, we can permanently alleviate the pressure on our road infrastructure, which brings me to my proposal – a complete modernisation of bus transport.

    The present government has itself said that it “has embarked on a public transport modernisation programme in order to encourage our citizens to shift from private cars to public transport” and is doing this mainly, if not solely, through the Bus Replacement Mechanism, introduced by the previous government, and involving the replacement of high-floor buses (the ubiquitous clunky metallic buses we all know) by semi-low-floor buses.

    However, the Road Traffic (Construction and Use of vehicles) Regulations 2010, the piece of legislation which lists the requirements for semi-low-floor buses, is not going nearly far enough. For buses to gain sufficient appeal for people to leave their cars at home, or delay or cancel their plans to own a car, in favour of public transport, buses would need to be considerably more comfortable and pleasant to travel in. First off, the buses would need to all be air-conditioned, as we all agree that it is uncomfortably hot in Mauritius – in summer and “winter” alike. Seats need to have high backs, adjustable headrests and stowable armrests (ideally with a soft surface). The windows should mandatorily be made of smart glass, which increases in opacity as exterior luminous intensity increases. The benefits of that are that (i) sunrays would cause much less discomfort to passengers, (ii) the blocked-out radiation would have a much lower impact in counteracting the cooling down of the cabin (by the air conditioners) thereby reducing the fuel consumption of the air conditioning system, and (iii) fading and any other degradation of the seats materials by sunlight would be reduced. Note that even at its most opaque, the smart glass would still allow for a clear vision of the exterior.

    In other words, a coach experience, but in a bus. Many of these characteristics are already borne by the buses on the Blue Line service of the NTC. So, these suggestions are not by any means fantastical.

    Also, the buses would have to have an LCD/LED display which would show the progression of the journey. This should be accompanied by a voice-over when approaching stops announcing the name of the stops.

    Let me now come to the second, and not any less important, part of my proposal – the extensive incorporation of technology in the bus service infrastructure. This is going involve the use of GPS (and GLONASS), multi-band Wi-Fi, LTE-Advanced and RFID.

    I have noticed that many bus shelters are being replaced across the island in favour of a modern-looking glass-and-metallic one. They are all accompanied at the front by some sort of thick two-sided glass advertisement panel, the purpose of which (other than mere advertising, that is) I am really not sure. Both the shelters and the panels seem to be powered, though. I mention this because it demonstrates that connecting bus stops to the power grid as well as to the Internet is not impossible, nor even prohibitive.

    The buses need to be outfitted with a module, the components of which would be (i) an LTE-Advanced antenna, (ii) a multi-band Wi-Fi access point, (iii) a GPS (and GLONASS) antenna, and (iv) an RFID transmitter.

    All bus stop signs across the country would need to be replaced. They would still be standalone posts but they would be modern-looking and most importantly, technology-filled. They will need to have on the one and same post (i) at the top, a sign with a pictogram of a bus and/or “BUS STOP” written, (ii) a sign with the stop’s name, (iii) an LCD/LED display and small speakers in a sturdy water-tight enclosure (iv) a multi-band Wi-Fi access point, (v) an RFID transmitter, and (vi) a contactless card reader. These bus stop signs would necessarily be present in all bus terminuses, as well.

    Please note that I am not talking about the replacement of bus shelters but solely of bus stop signs, although many shelters across the country do need replacing.

    The signs would be permanently powered and connected to the Internet through Mauritius Telecom’s optic fibre cable network. The displays can be programmed to go off during night-time. When they operate during the day, they should neatly display (i) the time in HH:MM:SS format, (ii) the next arrivals, in order of estimated time of arrival (ETA). For each arrival, should be specified: (i) the route number, (ii) the destination, and (iii) the localities through which the bus on that route will travel. The location of all en-route buses would always be monitored by a central system operated by the NTA, or any other relevant authority. So, at all times, the central system would know whether an en-route bus is ahead of time, on time, or behind time. The ETA on the bus stops’ displays would be updated accordingly. The display would also indicate whether the bus is “on time”, “arriving early”, or “arriving late”. When the bus is, say, 200 metres away from the bus stop (determined from its GPS localisation and the precise location of the stop as recorded in the system), the stop would chime to alert travellers of its imminent arrival. At this point, please note that the speakers need to be downward-facing so that the rainwater does not infiltrate the grille and thus damage the electronic parts. Also, the one side of the enclosure which would have the display needs to be hydrophobic so that all rainwater drops neatly glide and drip off it.

    When a bus arrives, the stop’s RFID transmitter will receive the bus’s identify and log its arrival time for the authority to monitor the bus operator’s punctuality, and the bus’s RFID transmitter will receive the stop’s “identity”/ID.

    Cash payments will need to be to be phased out. Contactless cards, like Oyster cards in London, should be sold. These should be able to be credited in shops, post offices, bus terminuses as well as online and through a smartphone app. Crediting cards online or through an app would require the passenger to create an online account.

    The card can be overdrawn up to a limit (say 50 rupees or 100 rupees). This would enable passengers to settle the fare even if they have less credit left on their card than the amount of the fare.

    A lost or stolen card can be replaced at a post office or bus terminuses, subject to a fee. A card replacement can be registered to one’s online account using the card’s unique number. Cards should be able to be promptly declared as lost or stolen through a hotline and through the online account, which would immediately deactivate them. This would deter theft of cards. Also, a card should only be able to be used by one passenger at a time. That is, two passengers on the same journey cannot pay with the same card. This would also deter theft in that it would prevent the rapid depletion of the credit on a stolen card. The credit should also able to be not be exchanged for money.

    Contactless card readers will be at every entrance of a bus. There should ideally be two readers per entrance, rather than just one, so that two persons can touch in at the same time and thus enable rapid boarding of the buses, especially at peak times. The reader will beep and a green light will turn on to indicate that the passenger has successfully touched in. Touching in would be optional as there will still be a bus conductor, who will collect fares using a portable card reader and to whom the destination would have to be specified. The passenger would be charged according to the fare specified. Upon alighting at the destination, the passenger can again optionally touch out on the stop’s card reader. On their online account, passengers would be able to obtain detailed logs of their journeys and would be able to download them in the format of a statement in a PDF file. One particularly helpful use of this would when claiming travel expenses’ refund from employers’. When the passenger has touched in and out and the bus conductor’s origin and destination inputs do not match, the former inputs will always prevail. This is for two reasons – firstly, the system will be less fallible and prone to error than any human conductor and thus, there would be greater trust in the logs by any parties that make use of, or rely upon, them. Secondly, whilst the conductor would only input the locality of the origin and destination, touching and out would enable logging of the exact boarding and alighting stop. Thus, touching in and out are always to be encouraged. Retaining the conductor serves two purposes: (i) appeasing the concerns of individual operators as to the inevitable redundancies which would be caused by the deployment of a one-man operator system (whereby the driver collects the fares), and (ii) avoiding fare evasion which is always commonplace in buses with 2+ doors, as are all semi-low-floor buses.

    It is perhaps already evident – the bus stops and the buses will have to offer Internet connection through Wi-Fi. When near the bus stop, or aboard the bus, a sign-in page will pop-up, requiring the passenger’s card number (yes, Internet access will only be for cardholders) and a session will be initiated and a data allowance granted (say, of 250MB). Two sessions cannot run simultaneously using the same card. Sessions are to expire at midnight on that day. When the allowance is used up, the passenger will have the option to buy more using credit on their card. Connecting to the network and buying data allowances would be especially seamless using the app, as the latter can send push notifications when in range and as an allowance nears depletion. Allowance, complimentary or purchased, is forfeited at the expiry of the session, that is, it cannot be carried forward to a next session, the next morning.

    Also, the stops and buses would use the same SSID and the Wi-Fi connection would not be interrupted upon boarding of a bus. In a day, no matter how many stops a passenger waits at and how many buses they take, all their Wi-Fi use that day would be in the same session. The technology exists for that.

    The displays in the buses and on the stops can be used for brief advertisements to recoup the investment cost. The deposit for new cards, fees for lost cards, and forfeited purchased data packs will also help with that.

    Students and pensioners will continue to enjoy free travel. Whilst students will continue to obtain a non-loadable student photocard through their institutions, they will need to get an ordinarily-loadable ‘youth’ card, at the previously-mentioned sale points, for travel on non-school days. The ‘youth’ card will obviously be subject to age restrictions and its issue to individuals subject to appropriate age verifications.

    Students’ and pensioners’ journeys will be recorded accordingly in the buses’ log and the owners/operators will be refunded by the Ministry of Education and Ministry of Social Security, as the case may be, commensurately to the number of students and pensioners carried. This will once and for all resolve the long-standing issue of buses, especially of individual operators, deliberately failing to pick up these two categories of travellers. Other long-standing issues which would be resolved by the roll-out of journey-logging and online passenger accounts include failures in respecting timetables, skipping stops through the undue use of shortcuts, and, especially, imposed bus-switching, whereby passengers are made to alight a bus to board another, having a similar itinerary, to complete their journey, often at the expense of a seat. Passengers would also be able to a report any problem with a journey by selecting the journey from their online account and providing the details.

    Furthermore, the large volumes of data gathered such as how many people are boarding where and alighting where and when would greatly help in improving the bus service. Analysis of the data would reliably guide the authorities in tweaking timetables to optimise frequencies and departure and arrival times to the needs of the travelling public.

    The same contactless card should also be able to be used on the forthcoming light rail network and the journeys thereon should be recorded in the same log.

    The departure and arrival times of buses, as well as of light rail trains, having been pre-scheduled by the authority, the website of the authority ought to feature a journey planner tool in which one would enter the origin and destination and either the departure time or arrival time. The planner would then provide travel options detailing, in each option, what bus stop to go to begin the journey, which bus route to take, where to alight, what second bus (and third bus) or train to catch, at what time, etc. Basically, the same as the TfL journey planner.

    Further to such a vast public transport modernisation effort, people will definitely opt to commute by public transport rather than their own cars. In fact, they might even opt for public transport for their recreational travelling too. Public transport does not only spare one of the fatigue from driving on congested roads, it is more financially-economical. With comfortable seats and air conditioning in buses, travelling by car would practically not have any edge left over public transport.

    Besides, such a large-scale deployment of technology would inevitably create more than a few jobs for the graduates with IT-related degrees, although the initial development of the system, due to its scale and advanced requirements, would most probably require an international call for bids.

    P.S.: With such a modern bus infrastructure, it would only be fitting that individual buses and their drivers and conductors be liveried.

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