Three bus companies are expected to replace 700 polluting buses, offer more fare concessions and make space for foldable bicycles after being granted new 10-year franchises by the government.
But critics say the renewal conditions do not go far enough in demanding cleaner vehicles and more concessions for elderly passengers and long-distance commuters.
The new franchises are for New World First, on Hong Kong Island, some cross-harbour routes and routes from the island to Tseung Kwan O; Long Win, on routes from the airport to the New Territories; and Citybus, for its airport and North Lantau bus network.
They will begin when the existing agreements expire in May and July next year.
'The renewal was made after a public consultation and rounds of discussion,' Secretary for Transport and Housing Eva Cheng said yesterday after the Executive Council approved the renewal. 'The government's main consideration was whether the bus companies could provide efficient services.'
The operators agreed to replace a total of 700 buses with buses meeting the latest Euro V emissions standards by 2016. Many buses in the fleets have reached the end of their expected 17-year life cycle.
Cheng said the operators had also committed to letting passengers bring foldable bicycles on board and to incorporating barrier-free access and elderly-friendly features.
They will offer an additional 60 fare concession schemes, ranging from 30 cents to HK$24.90, on top of the existing ones, including 27 new discounts for passengers interchanging between different bus routes and 27 new section fares for people travelling shorter distances on long-distance bus routes. Some Hong Kong buses charge a flat fare regardless of the distance travelled.
At present, 116 interchange discounts are available and there are section fares for 112 routes.
Cheng said the concessions would benefit an extra 8,000 passengers, especially airport workers and residents of Tung Chung, Hong Kong Island and Tseung Kwan O.
But Coalition to Monitor Public Transport and Utilities spokesman Richard Tsoi Yiu-cheong said the fare concessions were inadequate.
'Obviously the government did not seize the renewal opportunity to make more demands on bus companies to improve their services,' he said. 'At least they should charge the elderly and the disabled a much lower fee.'
At present, elderly passengers are charged half price except on weekends, when they pay a flat HK$2 fare. But Tsoi said they should travel free or be charged one or two dollars like their mainland counterparts.
Helen Choy Shuk-yi, general manager of the Clean Air Network, said the dirty, old buses would be replaced too slowly. 'The government lacks the determination to improve roadside air,' she said.
Choy said the three companies had 751 buses that were due to be replaced by 2018, meaning the new replacement requirement would only bring forward the replacement date by two years.
Martin Turner, of the Cycling Alliance, welcomed the provision for folding bicycles. But he urged the operators to allow cyclists to take the folded bikes on board without having to put them in bags or strap them up.
Hung Wing-tat, a transport specialist at Polytechnic University, called for the new administration, which takes office in July, to review the bus fare pricing mechanism and make it more transparent.
The three companies welcomed the arrangements.