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August 24th, 2009:

Little headway made in bid to cut bus trips

Cheung Chi-fai and Anita Lam – SCMP

Bus trips have been cut by just a fraction on the city’s busiest traffic corridors in the past three years despite the government’s programme to streamline the routes of the three franchised bus companies.

Last year, just 360 daily trips were cut from the target routes of Nathan Road in Tsim Sha Tsui, Yee Wo Street in Causeway Bay and Des Voeux Road, Connaught Road and Queen’s Road Central.

This was fewer than 1 per cent of the 37,000 daily bus trips on these corridors, Transport Department figures and the department’s latest environmental report show.

But this was an improvement from 2007 and 2006.

Numerous proposals have been suggested over the years to cut bus trips but the conflicting interests of commuters, politicians, bus companies and railway operators have meant few have gone ahead.

The streamlining is aimed at shortening or amalgamating overlapping routes, rationalising bus frequency and relocating bus stops.

It peaked in 2005, when more than 1,100 daily trips were axed.

There are now concerns the streamlining efforts have reached their limit, despite the Environment Bureau’s recent proposal to further cut trips by 10 per cent to improve roadside air quality. The bureau, in its review of air-quality objectives, said such exercises were cost-effective and improved air quality considerably, but it also acknowledged the moves were unpopular among commuters and politicians.

An official familiar with the situation said that with so many vested interests, including opposition at the district level, there was not much “fat to trim” unless there were more rail services.

Transport Department figures show 4,373 bus trips have been cut in the three busiest corridors since 2002. Between Shantung Street and Dundas Street in Nathan Road, for example, buses made up 44 per cent of all traffic in 2003. This had fallen to 29.9 per cent last year.

But on weekdays there are still an average of 11 buses passing that section every minute, and in the mornings, one in every two vehicles is a double-decker bus.

In Des Voeux Road Central, the bus trip ratio reaches nearly 70 per cent in the morning and stands at more than 30 per cent for the rest of the day.

While franchised buses are the second-most-used form of public transport after rail, carrying 3.7 million passengers a day, the diesel-fuelled buses are blamed for deteriorating roadside air quality. They account for 6 per cent of suspended particles emitted by the total vehicle fleet.

The three major operators, Kowloon Motor Bus, New World First Bus and Citybus, have 5,600 vehicles serving 600 routes.

Among these routes, at least 57 serve the southbound Nathan Road section between Shantung Street and Waterloo Road, while 40 ply eastbound Yee Woo Street in Causeway Bay. Many are heading to the same destination when they converge on these key spots. For example, KMB’s routes 6 and 6A originate at Mei Foo and neighbouring Lai Chi Kok but both head to the Tsim Sha Tsui Star Ferry via Nathan Road.

The traffic census last year showed that an average double-decker bus in Nathan Road was carrying 24 people, while it had 100 seats. Yau Tsim Mong district councillor Henry Chan Man-yu said this was because many commuters got off before the buses reached the end of the route in Nathan Road.

“The commuters are scattered among the vast number of routes converging into Nathan Road from all over Kowloon and the New Territories, which drags down occupancy rates,” he said.

An Environment Bureau spokesman said the bureau had no concrete plan on how to achieve the 10 per cent target. But it hoped the cut could mainly come from non-peak-hour services. He said the completion of new rail services could further cut bus trips, but the drop would still depend on public acceptance.

Many suggestions have been made to get commuters to use trains in preference to buses since the government decided 10 years ago that rail travel should be the backbone of the city’s transport system.

To get buses out of busy corridors such as Nathan Road and Causeway Bay, officials have proposed passengers get off at transport interchanges on the edge of the busy districts, switching to the MTR or circular bus routes within the area. But this idea was dropped even before the public had a chance to air its views.

“There is not enough space to house such a big interchange,” an official familiar with the proposal said. “Besides, commuters simply do not like switching transportation when they are a few stops before their destination.”

The officer said the Transport Department had considered Mei Foo, Prince Edward and Admiralty as possible locations but none were feasible for buses.

“After stopping at Admiralty for example, some buses must return to Kowloon and the New Territories, which means they will have to pass through Wan Chai and Causeway Bay anyway,” he said.

So how about offering commuters bus-rail interchange fare concessions so some bus routes do not have to run parallel to railway lines?

The department said it encouraged public-transport operators to offer interchange fare discounts, but with no government subsidies the operators would only do it when there were mutual benefits.

At present, only 14 among more than 600 bus routes offer bus-rail interchange concessions, and some free feeder bus services are in danger of being cut since the opening of the Kowloon Southern Link last week.

As for the proposals submitted to the 18 district councils every year on shortening, removing or reducing the frequency of various bus routes, it is no surprise how they are received by an affected community.

“Keeping a bus route that may be chopped otherwise – even though it carries only four passengers a bus – is one of the greatest achievements a district councillor can put on his political portfolio,” Mr Chan said.

And if one district backs the removal of a bus route, the department still needs the support of the other districts covered by the service before a decision can be made.

Fewer than 10 routes were removed in each of the past three years, and the department’s target in late 2006 to eliminate 100 buses was only half met.

The latest idea by the Environmental Protection Department to ban commercial vehicles that do not meet the toughest European emission standards from busy corridors is under public consultation.