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Bus Services Should Reflect Changing Needs

Dec 08, 2008 – Leader

Our buses are a marvel of functionality on the city’s choked main thoroughfares, helping to keep people moving almost anywhere they want to go. They are an integral part of a safe, affordable public transport system that is the envy of most other places. Moves to streamline the services to meet the city’s changing needs are therefore welcome. But as we report today, they also face resistance.

Bus services, once confined to one operator on each side of the harbour, have proliferated even as the MTR trains have spread their reach underneath them. Compared with other large cities, travellers are often spoilt for choice. It is not surprising that there is room for streamlining, by removing or reducing some services that are duplicated and/or underused. The benefits of such a move include fewer buses contributing to congestion, and cleaner roadside air. People readily agree that would be a good thing, subject of course to the nimby (not in my backyard) syndrome. For the sake of their own convenience, they do not want services that run past their homes to be affected. Some even cite emotional attachment as a reason for keeping an old bus service. As a result, government officials find that however strong the case for cancelling or reducing a bus service on economic and environmental grounds, it can take years of lobbying to convince councils and residents to accept it.

There is no reason to suppose that a proposal to remove or reduce services on more than half the 26 bus routes that serve Eastern District will be any different. As we report today, a district councillor says the council is unlikely to accept such a “drastic” proposal. It is, however, only the beginning of the Transport Department’s route realignment plans for the 18 districts. The aim is to consolidate and reduce the number of buses that converge on major arteries such as King’s, Hennessy and Nathan roads. A government source rightly says that in King’s Road, for example, the choice of dozens of lines, all more or less going along the same route, does nothing for air quality or the economics of bus operations, not to mention traffic flow. Advisers to the government on air-quality objectives have suggested a 10 per cent cut in total bus trips by 2010 through route rationalisation.

The government’s policy intentions are good, but will challenge its powers of persuasion. The question is how to strike a balance with people’s desire for easy access to the most direct route to where they want to go. In such a densely populated, highly mobile society, tailoring transport services to demand is a constant priority. Reversing over-servicing can be politically difficult. But it could be made more palatable by a modern network of bus interchanges that offer flexibility in its place. An example is the airport route, serviced by buses that are often near empty. Granted, air travellers with luggage want the convenience of a direct route to the airport. But the wasteful, polluting use of resources could be reduced by an interchange at, say, Tsing Yi, where buses from all over could feed passengers to frequent departures for the airport.

The controversy over reclamation for the Central-Wan Chai bypass is a reminder that we cannot go on building new roads to improve traffic flow. Experience shows that they tend to create more traffic to fill them. Innovative solutions are called for to make better use of the roads we have. Bus interchanges that offer a pleasant, convenient experience and frequent, reliable services that meet demand could enhance the role that public transport plays in keeping us on the move.

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