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Bus consolidation necessary, but not sufficient


One of the significant developments last week was the call of Congressman Edgar Sarmiento, chair of the House Committee on Transportation, for the consolidation of the many big and small bus operators that serve Metro Manila commuters. This recommendation is based on the observation that it is difficult to deliver a reliable high-quality service when service providers consist of many small fragmented uncoordinated units.

There are about 100 or so big and small bus operators operating the 3,000 plus buses that travel along EDSA. There are a few large operators with more than 100 buses; but many are small operators with less than 20 units. Because different operators are in competition with each other in the same market, everyone loses.

The competition among bus operators is magnified when combined with incentives for drivers to chase for passengers. Bus drivers who are offered a commission on fares engage in unsafe and inefficient driving behavior to maximize their income–rushing to bus stops to grab riders ahead of the next bus, then lingering at bus stops, blocking other vehicles behind. Even during parts of the day when demand is low, many buses are out trawling for passengers because each passenger means additional income for the driver.

Another problem is that small bus firms have fewer resources to draw upon to deliver quality and consistency. With greater scale of operations, a bus firm can hire full-time professional management; it can negotiate with suppliers with greater leverage and receive more competitive bids; it can operate a proper workshop with qualified mechanics; it has better access to finance and technical expertise. And having a larger asset base enables a firm to better withstand economic shocks, crises and setbacks.

With a larger fleet, a bus operator can distribute its fixed costs across many buses. For example, every bus or jeepney operator is now required by the Department of Transportation (DOTr) to have a full-time Safety Officer with the job of conducting a safety inspection of each unit and driver prior to dispatch daily. This is a standard requirement in many countries for obvious reasons. The cost of a full-time Safety Officer would be a major expense item for a small transport operator but it would be more easily absorbed in a large bus company.

But consolidation is more than creating larger firms—it is also about setting incentives to deliver better services. For example, if all bus operators on a route share in the same revenue pot, they have an incentive to collaborate to increase the size of the pot and grow the market. They also have an incentive to operate in an efficient manner. Instead of competing with each other ‘in’ the market, they need to work as ‘one team’, competing ‘for’ the market. This is the kind of incentive framework we need to have among our public transport providers.

Therefore, we should support Cong. Sarmiento’s call for consolidation. It sets an important foundation for the reform and transformation of the bus industry. But consolidation is only a start; while essential for service improvement, consolidation is far from sufficient. The impact on commuters will be marginal unless other parts of the public transport system are modified.

Because public transport capacity along EDSA is constrained and far below demand, hundreds of thousands of commuters are waiting in MRT3 queues or in bus stops for over an hour before they can catch their rides home. And then their journeys of less than 10 kilometers can still take over an hour. The priority should be to increase public transport capacity on EDSA so that the huge crowds during rush hour will have reduced waiting time and faster commutes.

On MRT3, DOTr is working towards maximizing capacity—replacing worn-out rails, upgrading the signaling systems, adding more trains, moving from three-car trains to four-car trains, and reducing the intervals between trains. This will allow MRT3 to achieve ultimately its maximum capacity of about 800,000 passengers per day. This will definitely help. But if bus services remain low quality, MRT3 trains will still be crowded with long queues.

For the EDSA bus system, DOTr needs also to maximize capacity. One fundamental capacity constraint is inappropriate bus design. The majority of city buses along EDSA are not designed for fast boarding and alighting; this slows down their operation at every bus stop. A bus passenger has to climb five to four steps to enter the bus, a challenge for the elderly and the disabled.

Some buses have only one narrow door which means only one passenger can pass through at a time. Moreover, most city buses are configured like provincial buses—with five seats in each row and a very narrow internal corridor. The result is that buses take minutes to load and unload at bus stops instead of the optimal duration of about 20 seconds. With these types of buses, bus stops will continue to be congested and slow moving. Inappropriate bus design also creates issues for using automatic fare collection.

Another major constraint is that EDSA buses operating on the curbside or in mixed traffic lanes are hampered by friction with cars. Despite efforts over decades to reduce the number of cars occupying the yellow lane, it has not succeeded. The problem is that there are a huge number of entry and exit points along EDSA (driveways, connecting streets and gas stations) that attract cars into the yellow lane. In a survey of 620 meters of one side of EDSA, we found 10 different points where cars needed to enter and exit. Under these conditions, curbside bus lanes will continue to attract conflicts between buses and cars and prevent buses from improving travel speeds.

A further issue is the absence of properly-sized bus stops on the curbside.

Along most of EDSA, the bus stops are too narrow and short to accommodate the volume of commuters waiting for buses during rush hour. This forces passengers to stand on the roadway and to flag down buses even before they reach the bus stop.

Consolidation is essential, but it will have very little benefit to the commuter (and very little impact on traffic congestion) unless we increase the capacity of bus system, meaning a) moving buses to the median or innermost lanes, liberating them from friction with cars; and b) using the right buses, with multiple doors, without stairs to climb on entering the bus, and configured like the interior of a train for both sitting and standing passengers.

If we keep buses in the curbside yellow lane, there is little prospect, even with consolidation, of increasing bus capacity on EDSA beyond its current ridership of about 1.3 million passengers per day, with most enduring slow and uncomfortable commutes. However, if we focus on maximizing mass transit capacity (as we are doing for our rail systems) and move buses to median lanes with median stations, we can double the capacity of the EDSA bus system while significantly reducing bus travel times for commuters. There is no better time to implement a bus rapid transit system on EDSA, especially since the project is already NEDA (National Economic Development Authority) board-approved and part of the Build, Build, Build program.

The path to reducing traffic on EDSA entails attracting car users to shift to public transport. By making public transport an attractive option for car users, we will be creating the conditions for improved mobility for all. The challenge is to deliver more capacity in both the EDSA train and bus systems and to make these services high-quality. The consolidation of EDSA bus services together with the implementation of EDSA BRT is the most expeditious way of achieving this outcome.

Robert Y. Siy is a development economist, city and regional planner, and public transport advocate. He can be reached at mobilitymatters.ph@yahoo.com or followed on Twitter @RobertRsiy

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