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Startups help make public transport safer for the commuter post Covid

A passenger and bus conductor using Chalo’s ‘Sound QR’, an ultrasonic sound technology for verification of mobile tickets
Cab and private cars aren’t for everyone, and in most cities public transport such as buses and trains is the go-to means. With Covid-19 disrupting state of affairs and causing health-anxiety, several tech-enabled solutions have spurt up to make public travel safer.

From contactless payments to voice-enabled ticketing and bus crowding reports, start-ups are helping commuters return to public commutation.

For instance, Bhopal City Link, a bus operator in the city, is using Chalo’s ‘Sound QR’, an ultrasonic sound technology for verification of mobile tickets. Previously some buses would have passengers scan a physical QR code on phones to buy a ticket, but aligning the QR code screen with the camera in a moving bus is difficult and it may require two or three attempts to validate a ticket, said Dhruv Chopra, co-founder, Chalo, a bus transport technology company.

“Using Chalo app, passenger just have to hold their phone near the conductor’s Electronic Ticket Issuing Machine (ETIM) and their ticket will get validated instantly via Sound QR,” said Chopra. “Further, verification time has come down from 10 seconds to under two seconds.”

Chalo, which is heavily used in Madhya Pradesh, is now getting interest from southern states like Kerala, Tamil Nadu, and Karnataka, not only for sound QR but also for some other Covid-specific innovations. Chalo app, the consumer facing product, also lets commuters see real-time location of buses and also a heat-map of sorts, which shows crowding in the said bus. “This helps them plan better if they want to wait at the bus stand longer or change their route or mode of transport,” said Chopra.

With the Covid-19 pandemic, Chopra says that they saw a significant increase in demand for technology and digitisation in buses. Historically, city buses have not adopted technology the way other modes of transport have. This is purely because of the inability of operators to invest in it, and also due to the highly fragmented nature of the industry (most bus operators own just 1-3 buses and run them like sole proprietors).

“But with Covid-19, there is heightened awareness and demand for contactless digital travel. As of Feb 2021, we are present in 31 cities and live track 15,000 buses. We have more than 5,000 buses signed up to be ‘Chalo Buses’ now, as compared to approx. 2,000 in Feb 2020 before the lockdown. We have added more buses in the six months after the lockdown ended, than in the 12 months prior to the lockdown,” said Chopra

Pre-Covid, Chalo had 9.4 million sessions on the Chalo App (Feb 2020). As ridership is returning to buses, in some cities they now see even higher daily app downloads than pre-Covid levels.

Chalo is not the only player. In Delhi-NCR, Chartr, a start-up incubated in Indraprastha Institute of Information Technology Delhi (IIIT-D), is trying to make public transport as easy as checking into a restaurant. “Our vision is that the product would automatically recognize the bus you’ve boarded, the stop you boarded from, and where you will get off based on your travelling pattern, and respond with notification ‘buy ticket?’” said associate professor Pravesh Biyani, who is helming the project.

Students and faculty-run Chartr was formed two years ago and has received grants from Omidyar Network, among others. At present, it offers QR-code based ticketing and bus running information for 6,700 DTC cluster buses in Delhi. The larger goal of the company is to open up bus-running information for customers, who can access it through the various meta-search engines similar to how it happens for airlines.

“We work with transport departments all over the country to open up their transit data. So, at some point, anybody like Paytm or Ixigo or Makemytrip could show public buses data and even offer customers facility to book tickets,” said Biyani. He said about 65,000 tickets a day are being processed through Chartr, which is much higher than estimated 10,000 tickets through DMRC card, which was enabled for DTC busses in 2018.

Given that internet could be patchy in some locations, another solution, yet, is using near-field communication technology for ticketing. National Common Mobility Card, an interoperable transit card project, was launched by the Indian government last year. Using the framework, Mumbai-based CitiCash offers an NFC-based smart card that can be used to transact in an offline mode in transit and retail, through a ‘tap-n-pay’ experience for consumers. “Transit can play a pivotal role as it can drive very fast consumer acquisition and habit change from Cash to Tap and Pay," said Vineet Toshniwal, founder, CityCash.

Adoption of technology in transportation has mostly been the forte of VC-backed companies like Ola, Uber or Shuttl and little adoption has happened in public transportation networks. With Covid-19, that is likely to change said people mentioned above.

A 2017 KPMG report noted that in India approximately 70 million by trips are made on busses every day. According to Chalo, the total spend on shared commutes is $83 billion, which includes buses, auto, trains, cabs, and other modes of transport. Out of this, buses are the single largest mode with the total daily commute spending of approximately $20 billion.

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