Minibuses should have freedom to roam in a market driven city

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 31 August, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 31 August, 2006, 12:00am

I TOOK MY CAR to work yesterday. Silly thing to do, I know. I've calculated my combined cost of depreciation, fuel, maintenance, insurance, licensing and carpark fees and I recognise that I could have saved a great deal of money over the years by binning the car and taking a taxi, much more yet by taking the bus.

Why should anyone bother to drive a car in a town that has sky-high car prices, fuel prices and carpark fees when that town also has possibly the best and cheapest public transport facilities of any city in the world?

People do it, I suppose, because they like driving, particularly if it's a fancy car and because they have the money. What better way also of showing the world that you're not one of those impoverished commoners who have to take the bus? It's even more of a show if you're being chauffeured. Look at me, folks. I've made it.

With an old Volvo, however, I can't really lay claim to any of these reasons. Whom does a scratched-up underpowered Swedish box impress? A friend of mine who drives a Porsche tells me I'm an obstruction on Repulse Bay Road in the mornings. It goes with your Marks & Spencer taste in clothes, says another.

I do it for a different reason. I used to enjoy taking the bus to work in the mornings, a quiet time to chew the cud on thoughts for the day but I enjoy it increasingly less.

To start with, there is that abomination, bus television, with its drum hype and silly music videos to destroy the peace of the ride. Then there is the overly cold air conditioning. You can close the overhead vent of course but everyone does, which makes it blast down on you from cracks in the ventilation system, just what you want when your hair is still wet from a morning shower.

And then there is that seat spacing (I'm a tall fellow) or advertising plastered over windows or bus drivers who fancy themselves as F1 drivers and throw you back and forth as they go around the bends. That's not to mention the new bus shelters that no longer shelter from either sun or rain because it might interfere with the visibility of the advertising displays. No, I don't enjoy it like I used to years ago.

But Hong Kong has its own ways of getting around these things. The franchised bus services are losing passengers to other modes of transport, most obviously to the rail services but also to those unique Hong Kong institutions, the green minibus and the residential coach service.

The minibuses have traditionally had a bad reputation - wild drivers, too many smashes, grimy interiors and seating just as squished-up as the double deckers.

They are slowly getting better, however.

The new ones are more spacious, kept cleaner and the standard of the driving is steadily improving. Those interior speed read-outs help and there are new gadgets in the market to remind the drivers that the public is sitting behind them.

Best of all, they are frequent. I was in Causeway Bay the other day (wouldn't dream of driving through that tangle) and I finally gave up waiting for a double decker to get home. One street away was the minibus stop and with the frequency that the minibuses were rolling in, I waited for no longer than two minutes despite a long line-up.

The reason so many people were waiting there is that the minibus service on the route is simply better and more congenial than the double deckers offer. This is not just personal experience. The patronage numbers say so too. The same goes for residential coach services. Where they are allowed to compete they are the public's first choice.

What we have done here by happenstance is pioneer two modes of public transport that suit Hong Kong superbly. But I cannot take a green minibus from my home to Central. That route has not been approved. And when our home was under renovation and we briefly lived in a development with a residential coach service, I could not disembark where I chose. That stop had not been approved.

The reason of course is that taxi, rail and franchised bus operators object. They stand to lose and they want the Transport Department to keep the competition away. Horror of horrors, people might vote with their feet for what they like best and we can't have that. It's a market driven system we have here, you know.

And that's why I often still say, 'I think I will, dear' when my wife says, 'I'm not using the car today. Why don't you take it to work?'

It's silly a thing to do but not much sillier than standing in the way of public preferences for public transport.