How to ride a bus in Chennai

Transportation in Chennai is quite varied: cars, bikes, auto rickshaws, bicycles, buses and trains populate the grid. We’re getting the Metro Rail soon, which I’m sure will transform how the city looks. Many people have complained to me about how moving from one place to another is a real pain here, but I beg to differ otherwise. It’s smooth sailing if you know how to navigate the streets of Chennai. And there are some basic tips that will help out everyone in this regard.

First of all, buses are arguably the most widely used mode of public transportation, and the rules that apply to buses do apply to trains as well. One must understand that riding a MTC bus is akin to playing chess: there are strategies one needs to use in order to have a good ride. First and foremost is the time during which you should travel in a bus. If you are in control of the time during which you travel, then you’re in control of whether your ride exhausts you or invigorates you. The best times are early in the morning, between 5: 30 to 7, and late at night, between 9 to 11, when the wind is cool and the traffic is mild. Obviously, most of you would not have reason to travel between these extreme hours, so the next best alternative is traveling in the noon time, between 12:30 to 2:30. Sure, the sun would be beating over your backs, but the dry air sort of makes up for that. The traffic is also relatively mild at this time because everyone’s gone for lunch, except you. The worst times are the bottle neck hours when everyone either wants to get from home to work or from work to home: 9 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. and 5:45 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. You really don’t want to be in the middle of all that.

Okay, so now you know when to go. The next thing I want to talk about is bus etiquette. There’s a certain way you travel in Chennai buses. First off, most of the time all the seats are taken, unless you’re on the bus from its start point at some depot. So, you’ll be standing a lot in Chennai buses. Depending on the time, it will be either an orgy of bodies writhing and squirming as the bus moves, or just you and the wind blowing past you.

Now for the coolest experience while you’re traveling and trying desperately not to slip into the travails of boredom, use the Footboard Technique. Many MTC buses don’t have working automated doors, and if the number of passengers in the bus swells, people start hanging off the steps and footboard (the final step). This is actually great because a. you’re not in an orgy of writhing bodies (who wants that? Sweating, smelly people from all over the city scrambling for a hand hold in a bus. Sometimes you start sweating the other person’s sweat if you’re not careful. All their feet and footwear pressing on your feet…the thought of it all doesn’t affect me because I have to do it sometimes) and b. you get the most of the wind that a moving bus can provide. And it’s a thrilling rush of danger and coolness. The etiquette that the Footboard Technique requires is that at every stop you have to get down to allow passengers further inside passage to disembark and then jostle with the other FT people for a spot on the footboard (it’s not really big, it’s a step after all).

Another etiquette to follow on the bus is the Chain Technique. Since there are a lot of people on a bus, mobility for each individual passenger is quite limited. The conductor has his own seat which he treats as a throne and passengers have to come to him to pay their share for using a public service. The Chain Technique involves trusting a total stranger with your money in the hopes that that stranger will pass it on to another stranger to another stranger and so on until it reaches the conductor and you get you ticket. Sure, the strangers don’t really have anywhere to run with your money because they’re on a moving vehicle, but its still a Chain of Trust.

The Courtesy for Females (CoF) clause is basically a free pass for all women on a bus. The seating arrangement in Chennai buses is such that on the right side of the bus is the side for men while the left side is for women. It’s basically a free for all in the last row and the first seats opposite the driver, but you get the idea. Chennai is conservative in a good way, where women are treated with courtesy. Through the CoF clause, women are allowed to sit on the men’s side if they want while men aren’t allowed to sit in the women’s side. Also, the bus driver has to stop for any women that’s running at full pelt to it even though it started much before she was anywhere within the vicinity.

Some other pointers that don’t deserve much detailed analysis:

  • The Weave Technique: When you’re two stops away from your stop and the bus is kind of crowded, it’s a good idea to get out of your seat and head toward one of the exits in the bus so that you’re prepared when the time comes. Don’t believe that everyone on the bus would move to each side like the Red Sea did for Moses because, let’s face it, if you’re riding in a bus you’re not a celebrity. So, weave through the crowd, duck under arms, step over legs and get to the exit.
  • Don’t take the Footboard Technique to extremes by hanging on to window railings and climbing on top of the bus. That’s not cool, in fact, that’s pretty irritating because all the rest of us in the bus would have to wait for another half an hour for the cops to come and beat you down. I once saw a cop take out his stick and chase a bunch of guys climbing on a bus. The chase was intense; even the people who got away from the scene and acted like bystanders were chased down.
  • The Change Rule: Always make sure you have adequate change before stepping on a bus. It’s nerve wracking to have lots of money but not be able to use it. These days, because of the increased bus prices, many people get in the bus with notes so conductors are strapped for change.
  • Always practice your balance before acting cool and hanging off a rail with two fingers or something. It doesn’t usually end well. This applies while getting off while the bus is moving too. I’ve had many a crash landing.

But above all, happy trails, fellow and future bus riders! I hope this was a good summation of what you need to know to have a smooth bus ride in Chennai. But, as for anything, practice makes perfect.