Increasing light bus seating capacity won’t strengthen public transport

We believe that the focus of the discussion should not be on whether the PLB seating capacity should be increased, or whether 20 or 19 seats is more suitable; rather, we should focus on solving the long-standing issue of how to improve coordination between various public transport modes, and fitting PLB into the smaller markets as they are supposed to.

Public transport in Hong Kong needs a better rethink than just increasing the seating capacity of public light buses. Mismatch between public transport modes should be addressed with great urgency.

After a quarter of a century, the government is reconsidering increase of public light bus (PLB) seating capacity from 16 to 19 seats in order to alleviate the shortage of PLB services. The proposal is the result of the “Public Transport Strategy Study (PTSS) – Role and Positioning Review” for PLB, part of a government study to review the role of various public transport modes to respond to public’s concern on the over-reliance on railway.

The idea was suggested by the PLB trade union in recent years and gained overwhelming support from local politicians and opinion leaders. But given the complicated planning process and ownership of the public transport system, we hold the view that such approach to solving public transport problem is short-sighted and unsustainable.

PLB is one of the main public transport modes, carrying around 1.8 million passengers daily, accounting for about 15% of the public transport market, alongside franchised buses, non-franchised buses, and taxi services. On the surface, these modes differ only in capacity, routing, and rate of charge. However, they are treated much differently in terms of licensing, route planning, and government monitoring. Such differential treatment undercuts holistic transport planning and coordination.

For example, the operating licenses for taxis and PLB were issued or auctioned by the government and owned by individuals (or companies) with no limit of effective period – each license worth five to seven million dollars in the public market. Thus, any change of policy regarding these transport modes, such as a change in the overall number of vehicles (that of PLB has been capped at 4,350 since 1976), would affect the value of the licenses. So is an increase in the seating capacity of PLB.

Some of the major PLB operators foresaw the change in PLB seating capacity and introduced vehicles with longer chassis, which can fit in 16 seats, and can be easily converted into a 20-seat vehicle as soon as such conversion is made legal. Apart from a genuine need for a change, it was also part of the industry’s advocacy for greater seating capacity.

From an investment point of view, greater seating capacity enhances the speculation value of the license as well as the vehicle. The problem with promoting the value of PLB licenses, though, is that it will further perpetuate the fragmentation of the public transport market, hindering coordination across different transport modes. It is to our dissatisfaction that the government has not addressed this issue in the proposal.

Besides, PLB and franchised bus services are planned separately – franchised bus routes are planned more comprehensively in each district and are approved by local district councils. Meanwhile, PLB routes are planned more sporadically and only a limited number of local representatives are consulted in the process. Such arrangement was considered reasonable in the past given PLB’s supportive role to serve smaller communities with lower demand and areas with road design constraints. But as time went by, many PLB routes have grown into “main lines” in the area, pushing out its franchised bus rivals. The results are long queues of passengers during peak hours, traffic congestion as increased number of small vehicles requires more road space, and aggressive driving behaviour such as speeding and illegal disembarking outside of designated areas.

We argue that while the proposed increase of seating capacity might slightly reduce the capacity pressure on busy PLB routes, it will further cause PLB to deviate from their original purpose, which is to serve only low-demand markets. It fails to address the mismatch between passenger demand and vehicle capacity on these routes. The proposal does little to alleviate road congestion or nurture safe driving behaviour among PLB drivers.

Taking a closer look at the proposal, the government’s argument is hardly convincing. For instance, it claims that with increased capacity, the proportion of routes with passengers left waiting at the terminus for another PLB during peak hours would be reduced from 70% to 40%, and the number of routes with more than 10 minutes of waiting time would be reduced from 28 to 6.

However, even from a layman’s experience, these metrics are inappropriate. It is very common for a PLB queue to exceed 16 people. As each PLB cannot take more than 16 passengers, the rest will have to board another PLB. However, queue length does not necessarily imply intolerable waiting time; also, setting the threshold of waiting time at 10 minutes sounds arbitrary. It begs for more detailed study methodology which its results would better facilitate public discourse.

On top of that, the government has also acknowledged that a number of new railway lines will open soon, namely the Kwun Tong Line Extension and South Island Line in 2016, East-West Line in 2019, and North-South Line in 2021. These new railway lines will replace a substantial proportion of road-based public transport. Last year, as West Island Line began operation, some PLB routes have become almost obsolete.

More PLB feeder services will be needed for the new railway lines, but some “main line” PLB routes will be cancelled, truncated or merged, thereby releasing PLB capacity for the new feeder routes. The proposal does not indicate whether the government-hired consultancy has taken into account the impact of railway development on passenger demand for PLB. We suspect that it has not.

We believe that the focus of the discussion should not be on whether the PLB seating capacity should be increased, or whether 20 or 19 seats is more suitable; rather, we should focus on solving the long-standing issue of how to improve coordination between various public transport modes, and fitting PLB into the smaller markets as they are supposed to.

The idea to cope with increased demand for PLB services by increasing the number of seats per PLB is unsound. Logically, it would be more sustainable to “promote” routes with increased demand from PLB to larger vehicles, and “reduce” routes with lower demand to PLB routes. According to the government’s data, about 10% of green minibuses runs at a headway of less than 2 minutes during peak hours. Having single decker buses of 80-passenger capacity (seating plus standee) to run on these routes instead would result in a headway of 10 minutes, saving a lot of road space and pollution. From PLB operators’ point of view, why would PLB operators not be allowed to operate on single or even double decker buses if demand for their services has grown? All in all, there are many other more sensible solutions which should not be carelessly dismissed in public discourse.

We urge the government to address the public transport problem at its source and should not circumvent the dire need of a wider market reform that will benefit both the PLB operators and the society at large in longer term. We should avoid reinforcing the anomaly of the market, or worse, perpetuating the problem.

Sensible Transport
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