One of my favourite memories of growing up in Mumbai is riding in the city’s iconic red buses – specifically the double-decker bus. The second the bus pulled up, I would dart up the spiral stairs and rush to the upper deck, hoping the first row of seats was free. There’s something about those seats; from that height you feel like you’re guiding this giant beast through Mumbai’s crowded streets, taking in the sights you may otherwise have never noticed. However, as grand as Mumbai’s double-deckers are, they aren’t the most cost-efficient, which has led to a reduction in routes. And that’s not the worst part.
Just this week, the Brihanmumbai Electric Supply and Transport (BEST) undertaking, which runs public buses in the city, said that it is facing severe losses, with not a single route in the city making profits. BEST has put up posters across the city, urging commuters to take buses. It would be a shame to lose the institution, considering its arterial role in building this city. On the 89th anniversary of the first motor-bus service in Mumbai, let’s go back in time to visit the BEST’s glory days.
Mumbai’s story with buses goes back to 1873. That’s when the Bombay Tramway Company was set up and licensed to run a tramway service through the city; these trams were drawn either by one or two horses. The company started plying tramcars on 9 May 1874 with two routes: from the neighbourhoods of Colaba and Bori Bunder to Pydhonie, just beyond Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus. This was a time when gas lamps dotted Mumbai’s streets, attended to by professional lamplighters. But as India and the industry developed, horse-drawn trams couldn’t keep up. Eventually the service was discontinued; the last horse-drawn tramcars rode on 1 August 1905, making way for electric trams.
In 1905, the city municipality created The Bombay Electric Supply and Tramways (BEST) Company, which bought out the old Bombay Tramway Company for ₹98,50,000. Remember, this was a huge sum in 1905. BEST was granted the monopoly to ply electric trams in the city. The first tram started running at 5.30 p.m. on 7 May 1907, from the Municipal Office to Crawford Market in south Mumbai. The service gained in popularity, so much so that in September 1920, double-decker trams were introduced to deal with the passenger numbers.
At that time, Mumbai was the first Indian city to have double-decker public transport. The electric tram service couldn’t handle the city’s growing population and was eventually phased out, but not before connecting the southern and central neighbourhoods of the city. At 10p.m. on 31 March 1964, the last tram left Bori Bunder for Dadar.
As Mumbai grew, so did the need for a more efficient public transport service. Between 1913 and 1926, the authorities debated on whether the city should have trolley or motor buses, with the latter finally being chosen. The bus service was slated to start with a fleet of 24 buses on July 15, 1926 and would run on three routes: from Colaba’s Afghan Church to Crawford Market; Dadar Tram Terminus to King’s Circle in central Mumbai; and Opera Tram Terminus to Lalbaug. Here’s the ad that The Times Of India carried on 14 July, ahead of the first bus.
These buses faced a lot of opposition from the drivers of horse-drawn carriages and taxis, who claimed that the buses were unfair competition. But the commuters weren’t complaining. BEST recorded six lakh passengers by the end of 1926; that number increased six times to around 38 lakh passengers in the next year. By January 1927, buses were so popular that they were hired out for private use; the service is still available today.
One really interesting feature of the buses than ran between 1928 and 1930 was that each bus had a postbox for passengers to drop in letters to be posted.
My favourite buses, the double-deckers, were first introduced in 1937 to ferry the burgeoning number of passengers. At first, there was no statutory limit on the number of passengers that a bus could carry, but that changed with the Second World War. In 1939, the short supply of tyres and rationing of petrol affected road transport in Mumbai. People refrained from using private cars for public transport, leading to an overburdened bus system where scuffles occasionally broke out between passengers and conductors. Finally, a statutory amendment was made so that no more than six standees were allowed on the lower deck of a bus at that time.
Double-deckers became a great favourite with the masses. They continue to roll up and down Mumbai’s streets but the cost-intensive operations – double-deckers require an extra conductor and more construction material for example – coupled with fewer passengers have caused their numbers to dwindle.
Just ahead of Independence, in early August 1947, the BEST was acquired by the Municipal Corporation. The new entity continued supplying the city’s power and its bus system. As one of the first public undertakings in independent India, there was a lot riding on the BEST and the company proved to be up to the task. It expanded its motor-bus services to western suburbs like Bandra in October 1949, and to the eastern suburbs in January 1955.
The company kept innovating with various modes of public transport, such as introducing trolley buses powered by overhead electric wires in 1962. Not all the experiments worked – all-standee buses, introduced in 1967 for passengers willing to stand throughout their journey, were taken off the road in 1970.
In 1970, the BEST also put out 10 hulking articulated buses on Mumbai’s streets. These buses were truly one-of-a-kind. The engine and driver’s cabin formed a separate unit, connected to the passenger coach like hitching a wagon to a tractor.
The BEST has gone on to add open-top tourist buses like Nilambari, and air-conditioned buses to its stable. Let’s hope those red buses, especially the double-deckers, continue to ply on Mumbai’s streets.
Photos and information courtesy the Brihanmumbai Electric Supply and Transport undertaking and “The BEST Story” by S.N. Pendsay.
Kamakshi Ayyar is a former member of NGT India's digital team. She is partial to places by the sea and desserts in all forms. When she isn't raving about food, she's usually rambling on about the latest cosmic mysteries. She tweets as @kamakshi138.