More than 68 million Indians travelled by bus, city and intercity, in 2018, according to Indian state road transport undertakings. The pandemic may have affected commutes and travelling, hitting public transport hard but the sector is one of the largest.
However, these transport systems can be chaotic.
This led Vinayak Bhavnani, Mohit Dubey, Priya Singh Dubey, and Dhruv Chopra to start Mumbai-based public transport management startup Chalo in 2014. The idea was to create tech-led solutions to make public transport reliable in India.
“Why is traffic so bad in our cities, and getting worse? Why are two-hour daily commutes becoming the norm in our largest cities? Why is air pollution getting worse? Why do we have lesser time than ever before for ourselves, family, and friends? All these, and more, are closely linked to the way we travel,” Vinayak says.
The Chalo Bus operating system
He believes the answer lies in the way we choose to travel every day. In Hong Kong, London, Singapore, Tokyo, or other developed cities, people rely on public transport to get around. “But in India, we do not have reliable public transport. Hence, as soon as we can afford it, we choose private transport, whether it’s a car or a bike, or even a taxi or auto rickshaw,” he says.
The Passenger Information System (PIS) and mobile ticketing platform provides three key services: the app, through which a customer can track any bus on a real-time basis, and see its live arrival time; Chalo Card, an NFC touch-to-pay card that can store a wallet; and multi-trip tickets (monthly pass).
From ZopHop to Chalo
At the outset, the team knew that buses were the way to reduce congestion on Indian roads. Metros and other modes of transport all have a role to play, but buses are the single largest mode of transport. But the bus experience is “broken”.
“Bus travel is riddled with complaints in India – long waiting times, unreliable services, poor experience with the crew, and the need to always have small change to buy your ticket. No wonder then that occupancy in buses is as low as 30 percent in the entire day. Using technology to reduce the uncertainty and wait time at bus stop was the first step,” Vinayak recalls.
In 2014, the first version of Chalo (then known as ZopHop) was launched with a trip planner feature. The idea was to simplify the problem of ‘discovering the best bus route’. The app showed all possible trip options, based on published routes and schedules, helping passengers plan their bus route.
This made it easy for people to discover which bus they could take, but timings remained a challenge. Passengers were spending up to 40 minutes a day waiting at bus stops. “That’s why we decided to work on live tracking of buses. We were the first organisation to attempt live tracking of buses; till now unchartered territory.”
The Chalo team considers the live-tracking product their “first product launch”, stating that they had a very clear understanding of what they were trying to build.
“We had the support of angel investors and building a small team was not a challenge. It took us 30 days to release the first prototype app,” Vinayak says.
Learning from the first experiments
The first few experiments with live tracking buses included asking conductors to carry a mobile phone with the Chalo app on it, and were not very successful. But they taught valuable lessons.
The team learnt that existing solutions were insufficient to help build a consumer app that could accurately predict the ETA at each bus stop. “The available GPS devices would typically send location data every two to three minutes, whereas we needed location updates every five to ten10 seconds.”
With the cellular telecom network intermittent across cities, the team needed to build technology that would work flawlessly with 2G networks.
“Third and most important, to accomplish live tracking, we realised that we had to build our own tech infrastructure from zero and digitise all data across the bus network. In hindsight, that was the first decision towards adopting our full-stack approach,” Vinayak says.
The Chalo team initially tried to live-track buses using smartphones with a special conductor app that could be tracked. However, this didn’t work for several reasons:
- Smartphones are not purpose-built for such an activity. Their architecture has not been designed for such a processor and energy-intensive activity.
- GPS accuracy varies in smartphones, and it can take several seconds to establish location. The Chalo App needed high speed and high-accuracy location updates every five to 10 seconds.
- The human element is large – conductors must charge phones, use the app correctly, and protect the phone from damage. There were also some cases where a conductor or driver forgot to charge the phone overnight; one forgot the phone at home!
“These trials and experiments led us to settle on dedicated hardware GPS devices, which come with their own advantages. From simple things like ignition detection to accessories such as panic buttons, fuel sensors, RFID readers, camera connectivity, and more, they contribute rich data that significantly adds to Chalo’s live-tracking dataset and for building future applications,” Vinayak says.
Building the full stack
While the tech team worked on the infrastructure, the operations team went on ground to map the physical location of every bus stop in the city, trace every bus route, and upload vehicle data for each bus in the city. This was a mammoth task.
Backed by data and strong tech infrastructure, the team implemented deep machine learning techniques with artificial intelligence to improve their live arrival time calculations.
“Over 2016 and 2017, we ran several pilots and experimental services across Mumbai, Nagpur, Indore, and other cities, to improve and fine-tune our algorithms for live-tracking and live arrival time calculations. In 2018, we finally launched in Bhopal, with 100 percent buses being live-tracked on the Chalo App. Today, Chalo is present in 31 cities and more than 15,000 buses are live-tracked on the app,” Vinayak says.
The accurate live tracking reduces wait time and enhances reliability on bus systems for passengers.
To provide greater convenience, the team also started working on payment systems that could be used on buses. Reducing cash transactions was important – this would also reduce revenue pilferage on buses.
“We developed expertise for not just issuance of mobile tickets and closed loop cards, but also for accepting payments. The team worked on developing ETIM machines that could work in low/no internet connections, had instructions in multiple languages, and were sturdy,” Vinayak says.
The routing system
When a bus begins its trip from a bus depot, the depot manager assigns a route for it. This is a manual process and not pre-determined. The depot manager has to look at current conditions of traffic, road obstructions, other buses available, staff attendance, and more.
“For Chalo, it is mission critical to know which route this bus is embarking on. Without that information, we cannot display it live on the Chalo App,” Vinayak says.
The team did this manually in the beginning, by stationing team members at bus depots. But this solution was never going to be scalable.
This lead them to build an AI-based live-tracking engine that determines the route a bus is embarking on. This engine uses predictive algorithms to learn the behaviour of the citywide bus network and predict the route of the next bus. Any deviations from the predicted route are re-calculated; buses that cannot be mapped to known routes are immediately “hidden” on the Chalo App to avoid confusion.
Route deviations can happen for a variety of reasons – traffic accidents, road closures, road works, etc. The live-tracking engine predicts where the bus is likely to return to its original route and keeps Chalo App users informed of the revised live arrival times accordingly.
“This information is also sent to our city operations team, who can publish alerts and service disruption information on the Chalo App to keep bus passengers updated in near real time,” Vinayak adds.
This information can also help city authorities detect major events faster, and plan for solutions around them. For example, if an accident is causing a blockage on an arterial road, city authorities can quickly implement detours to other roads to avoid inconvenience to other road users.
Bringing in the offline element
Vinayak says that when we pay in a store using a card or smartphone, the internet is used to connect to bank servers to verify the transaction. This ensures the security and integrity of each transaction. But in a moving bus, this standard globally accepted payments architecture fails.
The team realised intermittent data networks meant poor connectivity, and that there were several minutes of ‘network dark’ stretches along bus routes. Many transaction requests fail because of this. Even when high speed networks are available, the time taken to authenticate a transaction online is 20-30 seconds. In a bus full of passengers, conductors need to complete a transaction within two to three seconds.
“We already knew about patchy and slow networks through our live-tracking experience. So, when we built our tickets and payments infrastructure, we knew we had to solve for offline validation,” Vinayak says.
Today, whenever a Chalo mobile ticket is validated via visual or Sound QR, or when a Chalo Bus Card is tapped for a ticket, the entire transaction is validated fully offline and in milliseconds. This ensures 100 percent success rate in ticket validation.
“For passengers and conductors, the experience feels ‘instant’ as it takes about one second to complete. We have built in security layers on the Chalo App, the Chalo Card, and on conductors’ electronic ticket machines. These are backed up by sophisticated algorithms for fraud detection and enhanced system security.”
Incidentally, the team did try to roll out a network-dependent payment service. Imitating the experience of paying at a shop, they pasted QR codes inside buses to enable passengers to pay via UPI or any other online payment mode, instead of paying cash to the conductor.
“The sounds good on paper, but we found that 40 percent of transactions failed in the real world. As a bus moves along its route, networks are intermittent. A typical online transaction takes 20-30 seconds to complete, and if the data network drops during this time, the transaction cannot be completed. The experience was poor and cumbersome. Many passengers gave us feedback that they were unlikely to use it often,” he recalls.
Differentiated product approach
From the initial days of building a live-tracking and trip planner app, Chalo’s products have evolved considerably to address multiple aspects of bus travel. It now offers three consumer products, and a comprehensive Bus Operating System for bus operators.
The Chalo App now offers live bus tracking with live arrival times, mobile tickets and passes, live passenger indicator, multi-modal trip planner across all public transport modes, and an SOS function to alert contacts. It is available in nine languages
The Chalo Bus Card is a tap-to-pay travel card that stores a pre-paid wallet and bus passes. With this card, passengers no longer need to worry about carrying loose change. They can recharge the card with any amount from Rs 10 onwards and use it to pay for their bus tickets. They can also buy a bus pass on the card.
The Chalo Bus Card also eliminates cash exchange with the conductor, which is critical to avoid the spread of COVID-19.
“Our internal calculations show that buses without cash are 95 percent safer than buses where cash is exchanged. This is simply because the conductor comes into contact with each passenger while exchanging cash. If even one passenger carries the virus, they can pass it on to the conductor, and thereafter to all the other passengers on the bus. In fact, exchanging cash with the bus conductor carries the same mathematical risk as shaking hands with every single passenger on the bus,” Vinayak explains.
Chalo also offers Super Saver travel plans in many cities. Passengers can choose their ticket price, number of trips, and the duration of the plan. These plans work just like bus passes, and help travellers save money. For example, in Jabalpur, travellers can buy a 28-day Chalo Super Saver that entitles them to 100 bus trips for just Rs 299, effectively working out to Rs 2.99 per trip.
Bringing in reliability
Vinayak says Chalo’s objective has always been to increase reliability and convenience for passengers. Live tracking of buses, digitised payment systems, and the recent sound technology-based authentication are all a part of this. “From the very first prototype, we’ve kept certain principles in mind while building our technology.”
The team decided to take the long-term approach and build a modular microservices architecture. With this, they could keep evolving specific components of their tech stack without impacting others, and also keep building new functions and features without disturbing or re-engineering the entire stack.
“We are also committed to a full-stack approach early on, and decided on certain core components that we would build ourselves to be able to retain flexibility going forward. We’ve always felt it’s better to ship quickly and seek user feedback, rather than build mammoth tech projects,” he says.
Existing GPS technology and other payment systems were not suitable for the unique requirements for public transport. The Chalo team had to build the tech platform inhouse.
“Similarly, when we expanded our services to payment systems, an in-house built technology platform and the team helped us tweak our offerings based on on-ground feedback. For instance, our latest sound-based authorisation of tickets was based on the feedback that QR codes do not always work in a moving bus,” Vinayak says.
Apart from Ola, Uber, Shuttl, and others, several startups are working to solve the transportation problem in India. There is also ride-sharing startup LiftO. Riddlr, which has been acquired by Ola, focuses on connectivity and transport information.
Chalo is now eyeing newer innovations.
“With COVID-19 capacity restrictions, we accelerated our live passenger indicator feature. This helps people know if a bus is already filled to the allowed capacity or not. They can also make more informed travel choices if the bus is already crowded.”
The recent decision to switch to Sound QR for validating mobile tickets is also rooted in user feedback. While everyone has become accustomed to scanning QR codes with their phones for payments at stores, this task is much harder in a moving bus.
“The conductor and passenger’s hands move, making it hard to align and focus the devices. The harsh lighting conditions mean QR code scanning fails if there is a glare at the wrong spot on the screen. All this meant that our conductors and passengers were making two to three attempts to validate a mobile ticket,” he says.
With Sound QR, the passenger just needs to bring their phone next to the conductor’s electronic ticket machine, and the mobile ticket is validated within two seconds. Nearly 100 percent of validations are completed in the first attempt itself.
Some of the other innovations Chalo is working on are:
National Common Mobility Card (NCMC) In some cities, the Chalo Bus Card can already be used for multiple modes of transport. The team is working on upgrading it to a full-fledged NCMC card that can be used as an open loop card for payments for any transport, or at any merchant or retail outlet in the country.
First and last-mile connectivity Bus stops are often on main roads, located far from homes, offices, and colleges. This makes the first and last mile a challenge in many cities. Chalo is onboarding partners such as e-rickshaw providers to help people with transport right to their doorstep. “In the future, we will also offer Super Saver plans that combine both buses and e-rickshaws to make it convenient for people to travel anywhere on one plan,” Vinayak says.
Camera-based audits Matching passenger counts with ticket counts is tough in buses. There are several scenarios where passengers may be able to board and alight without a ticket being issued. Chalo is working on AI-driven people counting in buses by deploying cameras. This also impacts scheduling algorithms to better match demand-supply dynamics in a complex public transportation network.
Chalo is now looking at an international expansion.
“It has been quite a journey so far, starting with just putting a live bus on a map. At each stop along the way we have learnt something new – sometimes in solving a technological challenge, and sometimes a human one. We are looking forward to what the next few years will teach us now,” Vinayak says.