Did the Government of the day move too fast when it got rid of the bus concessionaires and inadvertently created a public transportation model with no real sense of organization some 40 years ago?
Under that old system, those bus companies were assigned to certain routes in specific parts of the country, but after that was discontinued, private operators seemed to gravitate towards routes that were shorter or in what seemed to be heavily populated districts with an inadequate state-owned bus service in an effort to bring in greater profits for themselves.
This is mere speculation on our part since the true story has never been told, but for the last four decades we have tried everything to bring some type of order to the Public Service Vehicle (PSV) sector while at the same time conceding that it is a necessary evil. After all, they are the only bus service some neighbourhoods get, and in some respects they are faster and more efficient than the Transport Board.
Did we make an error when we legitimized taxi vans operating illegally on bus routes by creating a new segment called a “route taxi” in 1992? Prior to that they could essentially go anywhere there was a demand on a given day, for example, an operator could work on the Wanstead route in the morning and Silver Sands in the evening. So they got new “ZR” licence plates and were given permits and assigned to bus routes. The elaborate colour schemes they were often painted in (part of their marketing, especially to attract younger commuters – read students) were replaced by a uniform one in 1995, and the music was banned until one owner argued successfully in court that the vans came with radios as standard equipment and the crews needed them to stay on track with traffic reports and the news. So far so good.
Also in the mid-1990s, amid growing concern about the harmful social effects of the “minibus and ZR culture” the Government of the day increased the road tax, registration and insurance fees on the minibuses and ZR vans. How did the then owners resolve that dilemma? Quite easily; they just sold the vans and permits to other people who could better afford the fees. And therein lies one of the main problems with the sector, as Morris Lee, president of the Association of Public Transport Operators (APTO) recently stated: “Government gives a permit to a man to operate a minibus or ZR. The Government has no history, knowledge or background of these people. They don’t know their standards, there is no training, no guidance and some people don’t know any better or just don’t care.”
As a result, the laws have been in vain because the basic business model has never changed. So as the crews compete for every $2 in a given part of the island, they race one another on the roads, ‘crawl’ and hold up traffic during slower periods in the day, cut through car parks at business houses and gas stations and venture off route through residential areas at high speed to avoid evening traffic congestion. And the simple radios the vans came with were upgraded to 14-speaker systems blasting music with questionable lyrical content. So much for the traffic reports!
Recently, the Government created a Transport Authority in its latest effort to make things right. According to its website, its mandate includes, inter alia, “To undertake planning for the public transport system; to monitor and regulate the public transport system; to issue, cancel or suspend licenses for drivers and conductors of PSVs; to restrict omnibuses, minibuses and route taxis to specific bus routes; to regulate and restrict the number of buses assigned to specific routes and to supervise the conduct of business in the bus terminals.”
So in “Planning for the public transport system,” may we humbly make a few suggestions? First would be to introduce specific driving tests, with refresher courses after repeated traffic violations if they want to stay employed in the sector, for would-be drivers of all PSVs. Ideally, the test will take the driver out on a bus route where he/she will practice proper use of lay-bys, how to turn around at the end of the route, and in the later stages with passengers on board.
Random inspections of all PSVs to ensure they are engaging in best practices on the road and the vehicles are properly maintained. Background checks on owners and drug-testing for would-be crew members as Lee also suggested will be helpful as well. Regarding the “restriction and regulation of the number of buses assigned to a specific bus route”, no one person should have as many as six buses on one route (whether it is a ZR or a minibus) and we must get away from the situation where one route has 50 vans and another further afield has only three. Thankfully, the new set-up at the Constitution River bus terminal has brought some order to the chaos that prevailed before, and it would be great if the other terminals are eventually redesigned along these lines.
However, if we really want to cut down the ‘hustling’, it might be wise to implement a system a driver recently suggested where crew members get a “flat” salary and there is a well organized timed route schedule. GPS monitoring and speed governors should also be introduced to ensure they do not go off route and stay within the speed limits. And passengers also have a role to play, as a series of public service announcements from the same Transport Authority are illustrating at present in reporting any violations and discouraging them from illegal conduct.