Monday, October 29, 2012

The Road Ahead for Public (Mini)Buses

SMRT was fined $100 for overloading one of its buses in the Woodlands-Choa Chu Kang route. Granted safety is paramount and overcrowding of a bus is a safety concern. However, the underlying problem is that there were probably not enough buses during peak hours - an unfortunate combination of demand greater than supply during busy times, and supply greater than demand during non-peak hours. The easy answer is for private minibuses to fill in routes and times when there is demand for it.

Going Full Circle

Before 1970, there were 10 bus companies. These underwent M&A until SBS was formed in 1973. In 1982, TIBS joined the network and these two companies complemented rather than competed with one another. This cosy relationship has survived until now and even replicated in how the MRT is run in the NS, EW and NE lines for example. Again, on paper and on the roads, there is room for minibuses to zip around on Singapore's roads again especially as feeder buses in industrial and housing estates, as well as the main housing estates to city lines. The old CSS yellow buses which had cheaper fares than SBS and under NTUC, scrapped its fleet in the late 1980s as MRT rolled out into residential areas. However, with increased population, cost of private cars, inadequacy of the current train and bus capacities, it is time to rethink now the entry of small-medium-sized bus companies.

The Hong Kong Story

The Hong Kong example was recently mentioned to compare how Singapore can do different and better. In Hong Kong, there are five bigger companies and the red and green minibuses that ply the back streets and far flung places. Safety is an issue as minibuses are more aggressive in fare collection as they could be self-employed like taxi-drivers, but with Singapore's track record of regulation and enforcement, safety is typically not a worry for public transport passengers.

The Experimental Role of Town Councils and Minibuses

The fact is that public bus transport system in Singapore can be improved and the best experiment is to re-introduce more niche or specific route players into the networks to compete with the heavyweights. Town councils should be allowed to easily run their own ferries for within their GRC or SMC if they are up to it for a start, and WP in Aljunied or PAP in Ang Mo Kio can set the pace as trailblazers in locally running minibuses that drop and pick up in larger car parks or under the blocks even, competing with the feeder bus services by SBS which are probably unprofitable because of the way it is run.

Apart from town council starting local, operators from the Singapore School Transport Association can be the ready fleet to draw from especially during the school holiday periods to experiment in the minibus network concept. If the project takes off, then there is push for SME bus companies to operate and expand into 365 days and more routes. Easier said than done as there are probably regulations about SME private operators, but something that should be included in the so-called ongoing national conversation if there is public, commercial and government interest in improving public transportation..

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