As a child, one of the attractions of visiting Mumbai during summer vacations was the ride on a double-decker bus. We would climb up the metallic spiral stairs, and I would run eagerly towards the most coveted seats—at the front of the upper deck. Even today, a ride on the city's double-decker buses offers a mix of excitement and nostalgia for both residents and visitors. For years, though, the transport authority has been thinking of retiring an ageing fleet that is not only expensive to run but operates only on limited routes.
So, when Brihanmumbai Electricity Supply and Transport (BEST) announced in November that it would add 100 new double-decker buses with “advanced features” to its fleet early next year, it came as surprising and welcome news. The new, BS-VI compliant buses with two doors will replace the existing one-door double-deckers, which are more than 15 years old.
The upgrade will mean slight changes in design, but most commuters and public transport enthusiasts are happy the iconic vehicles are not being phased out. From a fleet of 227 in 2006, the double-deckers are down by nearly half, but their appeal cuts across age, class and gender. For many, it was a school bus; for college-goers, it was a cheap yet fun way to spend some time with girlfriends or boyfriends, getting some sort of privacy during non-peak hours. For office-goers, the additional space came as welcome relief from the jam-packed regular buses.
The more hard-headed believe these don't make economic sense any more and should be limited to a few tourist destinations, while others believe this Mumbai icon should have been marketed much better, like its London counterparts. “People are still crazy about double-deckers, and so we have kept them despite high operational costs. Our committee has insisted that we keep a certain number of double-deckers running,” explains BEST spokesperson Manoj Varade.
Like many Mumbai icons, the double-decker buses have featured prominently in movies. Kurshed Lawyer, actor and public transport enthusiast, says BEST buses have been “an essential visual cue of identity” of the city. Lawyer, who remembers travelling in double-deckers as a child, says there was a time when most of the buses that started from Dadar were double-deckers. He believes that limiting the fleet of double-deckers, which can carry nearly twice the number of passengers compared to normal buses, would be detrimental to BEST, “which is the only public transport company that’s carrying on this legacy since 1937”.
“It takes me back to my childhood and reminds me of old Bombay, not the new Mumbai,” says Ketan Kale, who grew up in Mumbai and now works in the insurance sector in Dubai. Kale would take Bus No.171 from Antop Hill—he would always get the coveted front seat on the upper deck as the bus started from there—and hop off at Dadar to reach his school. “I always let the normal buses go so that I could travel in the double-decker. And if I saw the front seat of the top deck was filled, I would wait for another one,” recalls Kale. He has traveled in double-deckers in London and Istanbul, but nothing matches the feeling of being in a Mumbai bus, he says.
When he was in college, recalls photographer Aslam Saiyed, he would take a double-decker to Nagpada after getting off the local train at Mumbai Central. “Travelling in the upper deck, sitting in the front seat, it still brings out the child in you. You see Mumbai from a different angle, and it’s magical,” says Saiyed, who is co-creator of the Instagram account BEST Stories Collective, which shares photo stories of BEST buses and passengers.
Advertising professional Gopal M.S., who grew up in Bengaluru and moved to Mumbai for work, used to ride on double decker buses “just for fun” in pre-covid times. He’s the co-creator of the BEST Stories Insta account with Saiyed “The first time I rode a double-decker from Mohammad Ali market to Regal Cinema in Colaba was when I got to see the heritage buildings and the architecture clearly. For a tourist, it’s the ultimate ride,” he says.
To draw in tourists, the state tourism department introduced sky-blue, open-deck Nilambari buses, similar to their London cousins, about two decades ago. They operate in south Mumbai but haven’t become as popular. Nilambari’s biggest moment was probably when the Indian T20 cricket team, captained by M.S. Dhoni, was ferried from the airport to the city in 2007 after its World Cup win in South Africa. “It’s a matter of honour for us,” says Varade.
And when badminton player P.V. Sindhu won an Olympic silver in 2016, the Andhra Pradesh chief minister requested an open double-decker bus for her victory lap. “We took the double-decker from Colaba to Hyderabad for her to ride on it,” he adds.
Kale says BEST should capitalise on these buses like London has, and even create souvenirs and merchandise for this Mumbai icon.
Nostalgia aside, does it make sense to invest in them considering the high traffic density and narrow roads of the city? Public policy analyst and transport expert Paresh Rawal doesn’t think so. He’s all for saving the double-deckers, but says they should be restricted to a few key tourist locations with comparatively wide roads. “The need of the hour is faster commute and last-mile connectivity. If BEST itself is saying upfront that it’s unviable, then it must be absolutely unviable for them. Economically, it’s not a wise decision to invest in double- deckers in current times,” he says.
For most people, though, double-deckers are a time portal, transporting them to an older, charming Bombay.