Tue 17 Jul 2012
Filed under: Opinion
I was sitting in a traffic jam recently, surrounded by a crush of newer-model cars, when I spied an old bus crammed with commuters. They fought for space with scary-looking compressed natural gas tanks and an engine hatch noisily banging at every shunt forward.
My cab was hardly a Rolls Royce but it felt like it compared with that bus.
A speaker at last month’s Yangon Heritage Trust conference said the city’s planners faced a tough decision on transport, and in particular whether to promote either public or private transport. As I sat trying to count the number of passengers on the bus, which was surrounded by newly imported vehicles carrying at most two passengers, it felt that the choice had already been made: the winner was private transport.
But is this going to be a decision the regional and central governments regret? Would they, like me, start to wish they could wind back the clock to before September 2011, when they first announced the overage car import substitution program, and instead focus on public transport?
Since that day in September, car owners and buyers have been on a non-stop rollercoaster ride, with price rises and falls determined by new Directorate of Road Transport announcements. But one constant in the quickly changing automotive landscape has been the conditions faced by people catching the bus – rusty seats, cramped confines, shouting conductors and dangerous drivers. And despite the apparent privatisation of the circle train line, there seems to have been little progress on revitalising what could be the important first piece in Yangon’s mass transit jigsaw.
Nearly everybody likes cheaper cars, and there is a strong argument for making them even cheaper. But surely it would have been better to address the needs of the majority and fix the many flaws in the public transport network – if you could call it that – before embarking on a plan to help relatively wealthy private commuters.
The place to start must be the bus networks: In the past months the government has talked about establishing public companies to run the bus and taxi networks but I say there’s nothing wrong with the public sector running the bus lines, provided they are properly managed. Alternatively, conduct a transparent tender process and select one private local or foreign company to run the network. Set realistic targets – and price limits – and if the company doesn’t meet them, fine it or take the contract back and award it to another firm.
Private companies dominate public transport at present and it’s clear to anybody who has watched a rusting hulk shoot through a red light or overtake on the wrong side of the road that the system is not working. The other day I saw something that highlighted the insanity of the current system – a conductor emptying a jug of urine onto the road as the bus was stopped at a downtown intersection, presumably because the driver and/or conductor do not have time to stop for toilet breaks.
The problem is competition: all the buses are and racing each other for passengers and putting lives at risk.
No, I say put the bulk of the network back in public hands. That way transport authorities can remove the incentives to break the law and also ensure that only licensed and competent drivers will be at the wheel.
A network in public hands can also keep prices low, which should be a critical component of any public transport strategy. If low-income earners cannot afford to catch a bus or train then the plan will have demonstrably failed.