Public road transport (bus) system is relatively better organized in South Indian States (Karnataka, Kerala, Tamil Nadu and erstwhile Andhra Pradesh) than it is in other parts of India. It is a sweeping statement to make, especially when I don’t have data to back my claim. It is said, and I have no concrete proof, that South Indian buses are more women friendly (gender equal) than North Indian buses. If that statement is true, then one could say that South Indian city buses are better model systems to understand passenger behaviour (choices) since extraneous factors are minimal. I wish to describe how Indian men and women organize themselves (spatially) while travelling in state-owned (government) city buses. Given that seats are generally reserved for women (not men), I will focus on the behaviour of female passengers. We will not discuss the merits of reserving seats now. We will take it on face value and accept that there is a need for reservation. In this case reservation is quite simple since there are only two categories and both are equally probable. Therefore, one can also take the view that seats that are not reserved for women are implicitly reserved for men.
I develop my arguments based on my observations in buses from four capital cities of South Indian states namely, Bengaluru (Karnataka), Hyderabad (AP/Telangana), Chennai (Tamil Nadu) and Thiruvananthapuram (Kerala). I have also travelled by bus in smaller towns of all four South Indian states and also in Mumbai, Kolkata and Delhi (outside South India). Therefore, my assessments are entirely based on personal observations, which may or may not be reflective of the actual situation.
Let us start with features that are common among buses from all four South Indian capital cities. In theory, all public city buses have nearly 50% of their seats reserved for female passengers. Another common feature is to have seats reserved for the elderly and for passengers who are physically challenged. Such seats (around 4 out of 50) are normally next to the door which makes a lot of sense. They are open to both men and women. It is also rare to see men seated in seats reserved for women (and vice versa) except in cases where the bus is running empty. If a person occupies a seat not reserved for them, and if they are not elderly or physically challenged, then they are expected to make way for the opposite gender if necessary. In most cases they do (I am not going to discuss individual cases here).
Now some general observations on how women travel in the metropolitan buses in the capital cities of South Indian states. Assumption: All buses have two doors. One at the front end and one closer to the rare end.
- Bengaluru: Women usually board the bus from the front door (near the driver) and they exit from the same door. If the bus has a wider middle entry (common with modern buses), then women may board the bus using both front and middle doors. However, they tend to group (without exceptions) together in the front-end of the bus. It is rare to find women seated in unreserved seats. Men would not travel in the front-end of the bus, unless they are travelling on the door steps (less common now since most buses have automatic doors). The city also runs women-only buses during rush hour. Women passengers are always closer to one of the doors and can easily disembark from a crowded bus. Male passengers at the back end of a bus (with middle doors) have to push their way through.
- Chennai: Women usually enter and exit from the front door. There are instances where women could be seated in unreserved seats and no questions are asked of them. There are also instances of men sitting in reserved seats (even during rush hour). However, men do make way for women if demanded. Women choose and are allowed to enter the bus from the rare door if needed, while men don’t enter the bus from the front door. The city also runs women-only buses during rush hour.
- Hyderabad: Buses are different from the two previous cases in that the bus has a physical barrier right in the middle (half way from both ends of the bus). The iron grill cuts the bus into two equal halves. This grilled barrier has a door, which is used by conductors (both male and female). However, both men and women board the bus using both front and back doors during lean hours (not during rush hours). Women make their way through the partition door to the front-end of the bus while men (if they boarded the bus from the front door), make their way to the back-end of the bus. The city runs women-only buses during rush hour.
- Thiruvananthapuram: There are (apparently) seats reserved for female passengers and it is in a vertical fashion (i.e., rows behind the driver are for women). However, male and female distribution on seats is more unpredictable than in buses from other cities. Since there are no (apparent) restrictions on who sits where, passengers travelling together can sit together even if they belong to opposite genders. However, you will see that women sit together and it is rare to find men seated next to women. Upon closer observation, invariably it is seen that women tend to cluster around the rare end of the bus, while men are more evenly distributed. This goes against the trend that women tend to get their reserved seats at the front end of the bus and always travel in the front end of the bus. The city also runs women-only buses during rush hour.
No doubt that a simple 50-50 distribution of seats could be achieved in many different ways. It is intriguing that all four capital city buses have evolved similar patterns although not identical. For reasons unknown, seats in the front-end of the bus are reserved for female passengers and women tend to travel at the front-end of the bus (except in Thiruvananthapuram). The only difference between front end and back-end of the bus is that the front-end is relatively less bumpy compared to the back-end of a bus (unlike motor boats where the back end is more stable). While men and women are equally capable of handling bumps on the road, I do not understand how and why such a pattern became functional with no exception. It could be that the authorities wanted to accommodate the probability that some women (1 in a 1000?) could be pregnant and pregnant women feel more secure at the front end of the bus. But, the argument is not convincing. Let us consider another possibility. No one questions that the human male (on average) is heavier than a human female. Therefore, if you randomly pick 50 males and 50 females from a population the cumulative weight of males is likely higher than that of females. Given that all buses have 4 wheels at the back (as against 2 front wheels), the back-end of the bus can withstand more weight per unit area. (If I can recollect reading some numbers on the wheel-mudguard on BMTC and KSRTC buses, they show 6.8 kg/cm2 (back) and 5.4 kg/cm2 (front), don’t they?).
The reason why female passengers in Thiruvananthapuram city buses prefer to travel at the bumpy end of the bus is possibly something else. Like most other city buses, Thiruvananthapuram buses have two doors. One closer to the front end and the other closer to the back. However, here all passengers, irrespective of whether male or female must enter the bus via the rare door as the conductor who is seated next to the rare door, is expected to issue tickets when they enter. But, this is rarely seen. The conductor moves around issuing tickets since stopping to issue tickets will lead to lengthy delays that nobody likes. The front door is mostly used for disembarking (often cannot be opened from outside) although students make an exception, as most of them carry bus pass and don’t have to buy tickets. After boarding the bus, if the seats are not empty, women tend to cluster around the rare entrance (especially near the walkway leading to the back seat). They remain close to the rare entrance and use the same door to disembark irrespective of the distance they have to travel. If the back end is full (of women), new female passengers have no choice but to make their way to the front end of bus. In such cases, women tend to pass through the middle of the bus and stay close to the front door (technically the disembarking door). So, in Thiruvananthapuram, female passengers (if not seated) tend to cluster and stay as close to one of the two doors as possible.
From these four observational case studies of South Indian city buses, we can infer that (a) women passengers wish to place themselves as close to the door as possible and can get off the bus more easily than men can, (b) women generally are treated to a relatively better travelling experience at the front-end of the bus and (c) women prefer to sit next to other women even if they have an option of sitting anywhere they want. What does this say about South Indian buses, freedom of choice and gender equity? I leave those things to your imagination.