Once upon a time, double-decker buses were a majestic presence on the roads of India’s megacities, serving as a key driving force behind mass transit systems and the cultural identity of these metropolises.
However, around two decades ago, these iconic buses rode into the sunset in almost every city, barring Mumbai. The decline was prompted by increasing congestion on the roads, fuel efficiency issues, and growing questions about their contribution to public transport capacity.
Today, many Indian cities are reintroducing double-decker buses to the roads, usually in a sleek new electric avatar. Hyderabad and Kolkata have already brought these giants on wheels back on the streets, with Ahmedabad and Bangalore in the process of doing the same. Even some smaller towns, such as Tirupati, have added double-decker buses to their fleets.
“We received many requests on social media to introduce double-decker buses, so we decided to add them to our rapidly growing fleet of electric buses. Currently, six double-decker buses are already in service in the city and have been well-received. This is just the beginning; we’ve already placed orders for an additional 25,” says Arvind Kumar, metropolitan commissioner, Hyderabad Municipal Development Authority (HMDA), which introduced these buses in the city.
Moving to electric
Earlier this year, Mumbai — the only city in the country that never ended its romance with double-decker buses — became the first city to introduce electric air-conditioned double-decker buses. These buses, modelled after the iconic double-decker buses of London, were first introduced in the city in 1937. By the 1960s, Mumbai (then Bombay) boasted at least 900 of these buses zipping around its streets.
Indeed, the red double-deckers lumbering through the streets are iconic symbols of the city, etched in its collective cultural consciousness, having featured in Bollywood films over the decades. When Mumbai bid farewell to its last diesel double-decker bus last month, there was an outpouring of nostalgia, with thousands of people sharing their experiences with the old double-decker buses on social media, highlighting their deep emotional connection to them.
However, continuing its love affair with these buses, Mumbai has placed an order for 900 electric double-decker buses, which will join the city’s transport fleet in the coming months.
“40 are already on the roads, and the remaining should hit the streets within the next few months. The double-decker bus has always been ‘Mumbai ki shaan’ (Mumbai’s pride). It’s comfortable, very popular among people, and has a strong visual appeal,” said Vijay Singhal, general manager, Brihanmumbai Electric Supply & Transport Undertaking (BEST), which operates the bus service in Mumbai.
Other cities, however, are introducing electric double-deckers in small numbers.
In Bengaluru, double-decker buses, which were taken off the streets in 1997, are likely to be reintroduced by the end of this year, operating on selected high-density corridors.
“We plan to introduce 10 electric double-decker buses. Initially, we intended to purchase them outright, but we have now opted for the gross cost contract (GCC) model. We are currently in the process of identifying the most suitable routes for these electric buses,” said Sathyavathi G, managing director, Bengaluru Metropolitan Transport Corporation (BMTC).
Under the GCC model, BMTC will provide conductors and collect fares, while a private entity will handle operations, maintenance, and driver management. The private entity will be compensated based on a fixed operational cost per kilometre.
“Nostalgia is one of the main driving factors behind our decision to add them to our growing fleet of electric buses. We will assess the response to the first ten buses, and based on that, decide on their further expansion,” said Sathyavathi.
Bengaluru residents have expressed delight that their favourite buses are being reintroduced. “When I was in school in the late 80s, it was such a joy riding the double-decker bus number 134 from Shivajinagar to Ulsoor. I remember there were many other popular routes like 131 and 150. They may have faded from our streets, but not our memories. They should never have been taken off the roads,” says Srujan S, 48, a resident of Bengaluru.
Though Mumbai is the city most associated with double-decker buses in India, Kolkata was perhaps the first city to introduce them. In 1926, Walford & Company launched Kolkata’s first double-decker bus. Its registered number was MB 42 and initially carried 56 passengers, according to historian Siddhartha Ghosh in his book Koler Shohor Kolkata (1959).
The erstwhile Left Front government began phasing them out in the early 1990s, and by 2005, the last double-decker bus had disappeared from the city’s streets. However, in 2020, the city reintroduced diesel double-decker buses, primarily operating on tourist routes.
Globally, hardly any city is as closely identified with double-decker buses as London. For over a century, these vibrant red buses have been emblematic of the British capital’s unique charm. For both tourists and locals, these buses are not just an efficient mode of transport , but a quintessential part of London’s character.
Divided over the double-decker
Speaking about the efficiency and the role of double-decker buses in transport systems across different cities, Shashi Verma, chief technology officer at Transport for London (TfL) said: “Double-decker buses are a good way to increase bus capacity, which is why they make up three-quarters of London’s fleet. They come with challenges, though. A heavier, harder-to-manoeuvre bus requires more driver training and discipline. Embarking and disembarking is more intense because of higher capacity, so bus stops need to be clear and buses need to pull in and out more cleanly.”
Verma added, “Since they are heavier, the challenge of finding batteries to run them while not burdening the bus with weight is immense… Double deckers will have a role in India in due course but there are simpler, easier, and cheaper solutions that need to be exploited first.”
Shreya Gadepalli, the former South Asia director at the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy (ITDP) and founder of Urban Works, a non-profit institute focusing on urban mobility, said double-decker buses are excellent for their role as tourist attractions and in changing the image of buses. However, articulated buses are more effective in increasing capacity and reducing congestion, she said.
“The notion is that double-decker buses boost capacity without requiring more space than a standard bus. However, the added capacity on the upper deck comes at the expense of stairs and reduced standing capacity on the lower deck. Moreover, a bus’s capacity is contingent on its speed. The faster the bus, the shorter the turnaround time. Consequently, a bus can operate for longer hours in a day and serve more people,” Gadepalli said.
However, Sewa Ram, professor of transport planning at School of Planning and Architecture (SPA), holds a different perspective. He said, “I believe that double-decker buses can increase capacity by 1.5 times, which is not possible with articulated buses, as our bus stops are typically not designed to accommodate the larger size of articulated buses. Double-decker buses fit comfortably without any issues.”
Regarding prevailing concerns about flyovers and underpasses potentially hindering the operation of double-decker buses, Ram noted that most of these facilities have a vertical clearance of 5.5 metres, which is sufficient for double-decker buses. “Besides, double-decker buses offer a unique visual appeal and enhance the overall travel experience,” he said.
SWITCH Mobility, the company which has delivered more than 50 electric double-decker buses to cities such as Mumbai, Hyderabad, Nagpur, and Tirupati, said that their vehicles occupy less road, terminal, and depot floor space per seated passenger, and will help drive India’s transition to a sustainable transportation system.
Mahesh Babu, CEO, SWITCH Mobility, said their EiV 22 electric double-decker, which costs approximately ₹2 crore, can transport nearly twice the number of seated passengers compared to a similar single-decker bus, with just an 18% increase in kerb weight.“We plan to make substantial investments in research and development to further enhance the design and performance of our buses. We also intend to expand our manufacturing capacity to meet the growing demand for electric double-decker buses in the Indian market,” he said.