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How best is Mumbai's 'BEST'?: The Public Transport Tale of India's Richest City

Brihan Mumbai Electric Supply & Transport Undertaking is the company which not only supplies 24/7 power supply to the 'treasure box' of India, but also pumps blood in the arteries of the 'wealthy lady' in the form of city buses. Mumbai, the largest urban agglomeration of the Maharashtra State, largest metropolitan city and the most densely populated city in India reserves the status of 'economic hub' of the nation. For years, Mumbai has been the place of interest and 'a day dream fantasy' for many, including Indians and non-Indians. Mumbai is the economic capital of India and got this fame due to its strategic location as an important port destination of international trade in the past. 



(Top: The Marine Drive; Bottom (left) Hotel Taj and Gateway of India: (Right) RBI and BSE building)

The Glorious History of Mumbai & Transport

It was in the period from 1820 to 1857 that Mumbai took its first strides towards becoming a 'modern' city and emerged as India's economic and industrial hub. Mumbai is also a witness to India's changing transport system. The country's first rail system started in 1853 connected Mumbai and Thane (a nearby area) which was then extended to Calcutta and Madras (other important ports). With the opening of the Suez Canal in 1870, England was only fifteen days away from Mumbai, by sea. This had much to do with the growth of Mumbai. It gave the Mumbai port an important place on the map of the world's sea routes. 

At the beginning of the 19thcentury the usual means of Image
conveyance in the city had been what were called the shigram (horse-drawn), the rekla (bullock-drawn) and the palkhi (palanquin). Then the 'gharry'- a horse-drawn vehicle, joined them. A modified version of it, called the 'Victoria', was put on the roads in 1882. There were some 30 stands for vehicles in the city. Bullock carts carried all the heavier goods. There were no hand-carts yet. Tram-cars started plying towards the end of the 19th century. However, were made earlier to provide some kind of a stage-transport system. The first motor car appeared on Mumbai roads in 1901. Today the city has over 0.6 million vehicles, which include motor cars, buses, trucks, scooters, bicycles. Mumbai's roads are 'always busy' Imageunder this wheeled traffic, but the very magnitude of the traffic is an index of the city's stupendous growth. Another year that stands out in the history of the city is 1872: the year of the establishment of the Municipal Corporation for the city. With the city growing at such a pace, a well-organized road transport system became a necessity.

The Tram to Bus Transition

1865 - An american company operated horse-drawn tramway in the city but due to American civil war, there was a financial crisis which affected Mumbai too and ended the tram service.

1871, Bombay Omnibus Co. was established to operate buses for the convenience of Europeans residing on Malabar and Fort Hills but the service ended in just 15 days due to unsatisfactory response. 

1873, Bombay Tramway Co. Ltd. came up, which Imageoperated the horse-drawn tramway, and the novelty of it provided quite a thrill. It was the time when 'paper tickets' were first introduced in Mumbai's transport system and fares were also reduced. During its thirty-one years tenure, the old Tramway Co. had served the city well with its network of tramway routes. The Company started with a fleet of 20 cars and 200 horses. When it closed down in 1905, it had as many as 1,360 horses. On the first day (9th May 1874) of its service the number of passengers carried was 451 and the takings amounted to Rs.85. On the last day (1st August 1905) the number of passengers was 71,947 and the takings amounted to Rs. 4,260. These figures should give a fair idea of how the service had expanded during the years.

1899, the Company applied to the Municipality for permission to run its tram-cars on electricity.  But municipality took over the company and a newly formed concern bought the Bombay Tramway Company.

On 27th June, 1905, the Bombay Electric Supply and Tramways Company Ltd. was established and granted the monopoly for electric supply in the city and operating electric tram service. The fares charged by BEST were lowest in the world during this time and the costs of transport service operations were recovered from the profit of the electricity supply. The B.E.S.T. Company won repute as a model organization. It served the city well, by efficiently supplying two very real needs of its people.

1907 - The first electric tramcar started in February. ImageThe 2nd day of the service start saw 'the first motorized vehicular accident' of Mumbai.  In 1910, the tram service started facing 'the rush hour traffic' problem. Trailers were attached to the trams. The passing years aggravated the problem of rush-hour traffic. In 1920, double-decker tramcar appeared on Mumbai's roads in September. 

In 1925, a trolley bus service route was experimented and closed down soon due to financial aspects disagreement. During this time, consideration was given to the feasibility of a motor-bus service. The two main objections against this service were: (1) it would be expensive (2) The accident rate will go up. The idea was well received because of favoring points such as 'it is not tied to rails like tramcars', 'vehicles can be quickly moved to points wherever and whenever required', 'can operate on narrow roads' – this flexibility of operations had higher assurance of being well accepted.  The Great Debate started in 1913: the trolley bus or the motor bus? And it went on cheerfully till 1926. Finally, 10th February 1926, the Company plumped for the motor bus. It was to run, as an experiment, on three routes.  Mumbai saw its first motor Imagebus run on 15th July 1926. The initial frequency was kept for 'every 10 minute' It received a hearty welcome from the people, just as the electric tram had. The Bombay Tramway Company's new omnibus service commenced with fleet of 4 buses. The public patronage appeared to be encouraging due to the quickness with which the distance was covered, the short intervals at which the buses were available and the regularity of the service,  the cheapness of the fares compared with a taxi. The buses were disinfected everyday and kept neat and tidy.

The bus service did better and better, and within a year it started expanding. From January 1927, the Company started hiring out buses for private use. For the first time in the country, the city had a bus running on diesel oil, a double decker bus and an eight-foot wide bus. In its first year - that is, by 31st December 1926 - about six lakhs passengers used the service; for 1927, the figure was about 38 lakhs. The Company started its operations with 24 buses. In 1927, the fleet had expanded to 49. 

In 1930, Fare Concessions were introduced on short journeys. ImageThis worked immediately, sending up the number of passengers. Company extended it service in 1934 to northern Mumbai and The number of passengers carried by the buses kept steadily increasing, and so did the income.  In 1935, an experiment of 'whole day ticket' was done during Christmas holidays in which once can travel anywhere in the city on the day with a single ticket. In 1936, 'Best House' India's first high quality-modern administrative office was set up and the 'Electric House' accommodated the traffic department. The entire building was air conditioned.  In 1937, Double-decker buses were introduced with increased passenger carrying capacity in order to cope better with the growing traffic. A proposal to replace full fleet of trams and motorbuses with trolley buses was made, but was not implemented.

1939, the 2nd world war badly affected the emerging transport systems stability – too many passengers and few buses. It was for the first time when, 'friction between passengers and bus authorities' started in India as buses were not stopping for longer times at stops due to heavy demand.  1940 - Limited Bus Service were introduced for the first time in Mumbai, and probably the first in the country as well.

On 7th August 1947, the Municipal Corporation took over the Company. During the twenty-one years in between, the fleet had swollen to 242 vehicles. The company was dissolved and BEST Undertaking came into existence which was 'first public enterprise' in the country under municipal corporation which took charge of the bus and tram transport in the city. 

The end of Tram Car

When the bus arrived, the tram-car ceased to be modern; it became quite important as the poor man's transport'. But the people wanted faster transport, tramcar was not able to cope with fast-changing environment and it continued to rumble up and down. When the B. E.S. T. took over the tramway in 1947 it was quite decrepit. By the beginning of 1948, only 186 of the total fleet of 258 tramcars were fit to ply. The losses kept on mounting year after year. Abolishing the transfer ticket of tramcar was tried where not more than 2 transfers were allowed. The concession was withdrawn from 2nd January 1951. In 1952 a survey of tram traffic was conducted. In 1953, it started closing down the uneconomic routes one by one and replaced by bus-routes. The last tram route was finally closed forever on march 1964 and the tram and bus workshops were merged. At the time the Municipality took over the B.E.S.T. Company, double decker buses constituted 65 to 70 per cent of the fleet, the rest were single deckers. Economically, this was a sound proportion. 

Other Initiatives by BEST Undertaking through the years

Transport in the city of Mumbai is handled by the two railways (Central & Western) and the B. E. S. T. Undertaking. The Undertaking carries more passengers than the two railways put together and yet, it must be admitted; there is considerable scope for improvement in its bus service. The B. E. S. T. Undertaking has always thought towards providing other modes to improve cities transport conditions.

Aerial Ropeway - The scheme was thought of in 1953 connecting chowpaty and Malabar hill but was not materialized.

Underground Railway - This was first thought in 1924 and the proposal was submitted to state government for approval. In 1956 the scheme came up, once again, with much impetus this time. Geological surveys were done for the selected route by a Japanese firm but the state government once again disapproved the proposal. The next time the scheme moved was in 1962.  However for want of huge capital investment it could not be implemented.

Overhead Railway (monorail) having examined the underground mass rapid transit system, BEST also gave thought to overhead rapid transit which principally comprises of electric rolling stock with pneumatic tyres running on a single wide flanged concrete rail instead of the two conventional narrow steel rails and supported on elevated pylons.

Water Bus - The idea rolled out in 1958. In 1959, the Corporation submitted the proposal to BEST for consideration. The Government too was interested. In March 1969 the Director of Transport suggested that a water bus service be run on two routes. BEST however pleaded its inability to work such a scheme for lack of funds. In 1969 a committee was appointed in the undertaking to examine the feasibility.

A  New Beginning - City Expanded, Challenges Grew

There was a big spurt in the number of new industries; refugees poured in, innumerable housing colonies had sprung up, all over the suburbs around Mumbai. Cities population in 1941 was about 14 lakhs; in the next ten years it shot up to 28 lakhs; the next ten years took it to 41 lakhs, and in 1970 it was 56 lakhs. This population explosion, as far as the city was concerned, was most unexpected. Oblong in shape, Mumbai has most of its Government, professional and commercial centres of work concentrated in its southern part. This sets a peculiar traffic pattern: The rush is north-south in the mornings, and in the reverse direction in the evenings. The BEST undertaking took various steps to cope up the growing demand. Available buses were re-allocated amongst the various routes, the seating arrangement in the buses was altered to squeeze in a few more passengers, the procedure for repairing the buses was streamlined. Undertaking also gave a thought to long-term measures like getting a scientific survey of the bus-routes made with the help of a computer, or getting experts to study the possibilities of using alternative means of transport like underground railway, mono rail, water-bus or mini-bus.

Employee Incentives: In 1951, drivers and conductors used to get efficiency bonus at every quarter for punctuality in attendance. A special bonus scheme had been instituted for this period to dissuade them from going on leave. A unique initiative to recruit women bus conductors was also considered to bring improvement in attendance. The suburban buses had flat fares until 1951. The disparity in the fares for the city and the suburbs was brought to an end in October 1955. The conductors used to issue tickets by special designed ticket printing machine. Sunday Excursion – special bus encouraging city tourists was started connecting 'places of tourist interest' in the city. In 1961, 'Travel as you like' ticket was introduced only to be used during Sundays and holidays wherein one can travel in any part of the city and suburbs. This ticket system was abolished in 1967 due to misuse.


The Undertaking's buses were in a grave state at this period. The fleet utilization was 81 per cent. Until the B.E.S.T. Company was taken over by the Municipality, only 1 Depot was available for the maintenance of buses and minor repairs. As the fleet grew, the need for more depots was felt. In 1961 the fleet comprised 1045 buses in all. Six new depots were constructed for their maintenance. The Wadala Depot was equipped for the maintenance of 300 buses. At this time it was the largest depot in Asia.

Fleet Increase: Every year new vehicles added. In 1947, 242 vehicles were on the roads which increased to 582 by 1957.

1962, the tram cars were replaced by importing 12 trolley buses. The service however didn't went well and were withdrawn in 1971 in favor of ordinary buses.

1966, a coach service was tried out with 8 luxurious coaches. Once the novelty of riding in a luxury coach wore out, the higher fares tended to discourage passengers from using it, unless they had no time to wait for the regular service bus. The service lasted for hardly a year. With more 'limited' services introduced, the coach service was patronized even less. The income from the service started dwindling, while the operating costs kept rising. Finally, in June 1967, it was discontinued.

1967, 10 articulated buses were introduced. The Undertaking was the first transport organization in the country to use such a bus. The vehicle was of entirely Indian make.

1967 the "all standee" bus concept was introduced for short routes which had only a few seats, the rest of the space for strap hanging passengers with a hope to reduce the period of waiting in the queue for the passengers. The buses were withdrawn by 1970. The standardization of bus construction was initiated before which manufacturers built varying bus bodies which induced difficulties in maintenance. Special designs were prepared by the Transportation Engineering Department of the BEST Undertaking.

1969, the undertaking started thinking over having 'mini buses' for short runs, especially connecting distant suburbs and operating on unpaved roads in which the driver acted as a conductor. These buses would stop upon passenger request anywhere and not only at bus stops.  The undertaking had also taken over the 'Bandra Bus Company' which used to operate buses in western suburbs of Mumbai. 1981, the undertaking also commenced a ferry service.

But, the problems never end!

Other means of conveyance kept increasing. For instance, in 1951, the number of vehicles was 45,000. In 1961 it was 85,000, and in 1971 it reached 1, 80,000. Today there are over 8 lakh vehicles on Mumbai roads. The number continues to grow; but over the years the roads have been the same, except for a few additions, and some widening here and there. In such a situation, the vehicles have to move slower and slower. The average speed of BEST buses has been falling down. At present it is 12 to 15 km. per hour. In the congested localities it is as low as 6km. per hour. Streets of Mumbai are getting chocked with regular traffic jams and increasing vehicle numbers. Some streets have worst conditions during peak hours due to unmanaged on street vehicular parking which is free. Today, BEST buses are able to serve 21% of cities population with public transport,  yet the undertaking is facing issues for its sustainenace. Performance assessment of BEST undertaking was done from analysis of its decadal data of operations and financial statistics which is mentioned below. 

Average Annual Statistics (for the period 2002-2012)

Fleet Held


Fleet Operated


Fleet Utilization


Fleet Age (years)




Fuel Efficiency

3.07 kms./litre of HSD

Passenger Trips

4.3 million per day



Fatal  Accidents

43 (5% of total accidents)


3020 million rupees


Although average annual Image
accidents of buses have been more than 800, BEST management has been able to control the fatal accidents which have not gone beyond 5% of the total accidents as an annual average (the maximum fatal accidents recorded were in the period 2004-05 accounting to 7% of the total accidents). There is an accident at every 23rd bus operated. While the accidents were higher in 2006-07, yet fatality was at a lower rate.

Fleet Operations

The graph of average fleet held v/s that actually operated by BEST undertaking doesn't seem much distracted Imageuntil 2010-11 where the line of actual operated buses is dropping down. The continuous proximity of both the lines from 2002 to 2008 indicates an efficient management demonstration. The average fleet utilization of 89% is remarkable achievement among Indian city bus undertakings. The bigger the gap between the two lines, lesser the supply of public transport to citizens resulting into increased congestion on streets due to more personal vehicle usage. The graph of average buses operated monthly versus passengers carried shows that there has been no significant increase in passenger ridership even though bus fleet and the supply increased after 2007-08, the ridership lines are steady and constant, infact descending after 2008-09. BEST undertaking increased the fleet after 2007-08 with an aim to provide better public transport service in Mumbai, as well as cater more passenger ridership, but it didn't end up into reality.  The passenger kms. offered started decreasing until 2008 after which it rose till 2011 and again dropped. While the passenger kms. performed increased until 2010 thereby having a drop. More the gap in the offered v/s performed more the lack of supply in public transport. The minimum distance between offered and performed indicates best maintenance activities carried out which improves the performance of the system. 










While seeing the statistics of average fleet held v/s staff , the fleet increased after 2008, the staff number is seen going down continuously from 2002 to 2010 and then increasing. There has to be a minimum ratio of 'staff to bus' maintained order to ensure that buses are attended on time, system performance is achieved as desired. The second graph below shows that the staff to bus ratio has been constant decreasing from 2002 to 2011 and then rising while fleet held has been continuously increasing.



Financial Performance

As seen from the annual deficit graph below, Imagethe loss constantly rose from 2002 to 2008 after which it saw a decrease followed by a sudden increase which was the highest of the decade (>500 crores) which then started decreasing. 2008-2011 was the period when BEST added more than 1200 buses in its fleet. The graph of staff costs v/s costs towards fuel and lubricants seems distorted somewhat. The fuel/lubricants costs do not have much annual variation whereas staff costs have ups and downs. But overall, staff costs are on higher side than expenses towards fuel and lubricants. The pie chart below shows division of various expense heads on annual average incurred by BEST undertaking towards managing bus operations.  More than 50% of the expenses are towards staff costs whereas fuel and lubricants account for only 1/5th of the total expenses. The graph of total income-expenditure against buses operated shows that while there hasn't been much increase in the number of buses operated annually, the costs and income have been increasing. The graph of average vehicle efficiency shows a drastic reduction in the vehicles fuel efficiency.












Mumbai, the Imagenever sleeping city of India, from the above statistics, leaves with a big question: will the city come to 'a sudden hault' in near future due to increased vehicles on the streets and fewer public transport buses? Although, BEST has been performing very well in terms of management of fleet, trying to maintain fuel efficiency, controlling accidents and making efforts towards reducing annual deficit, still the public transport demand of the city remains unserved to a large extent. The BEST fleet has had variety of buses including 'double deckers' but yet the passenger ridership patronage requires an increase in near future to protect the city streets getting chocked with personal vehicles make Mumbai a 'smokeless city'. 

Picture credits: various blog posts, articles, BEST webpage, content available publicly on internet