A bus bulging its side with overflowing passengers is not an uncommon sight on our roads. It is however, a sight that lingers in one’s memory, reflecting a sorry and primitive state of transport more associated with the comfort of sardines and stories of slaves in a galley. If you are a captive car traveller one such sight is enough to justify why you should never again use the bus. If you do use the bus, you will shrug your shoulders saying that there are worse problems that are not so visible. The almost total absence of customer service or relations, the convenient forgetfulness of balance money, the incessant lingering of slow buses that wait with 50 passengers for 5 minutes to pick one extra passenger and the extra fast express buses competing with other buses, to get to the next stop, all add up to the frustration and stress of using a bus. It is therefore not surprising that each year buses lose one percent of their ridership to private vehicles.
The common perception of a crowded bus is that the low fares cause lower investment and thus fewer buses than what is needed are available. It is misunderstood as a typical problem of supply not meeting the demand. Nothing could be further from the truth. Other than some rural routes, most of the routes and indeed all of the popular routes have in fact an oversupply of buses, sometimes up to 50% in excess. Overcrowding attracts prospective bus operators willing to pay several million rupees just to obtain a permit for one bus for one year. This artificial creation of demand ensures that administrators in the regulatory agencies are in aposition to demand considerations for award and transfer of permits. In most cases, these are given on recommendations of ministers for a nominal fee, with the actual market price going in to personal pockets.
But more bus permits do not increase the number of passengers on a route. As supply increases, then existing buses are left to carry fewer passengers a day and thus have to reduce the number of trips they make to cope with the reduced revenue. This results in them restricting supply and overloading the trips they make. This is why one can see a large number of idling buses parked at terminals and town centres, while the buses on the route are crowded. It serves the Lankan mindset of 'smart work' which is to labour less but to earn more!
The University of Moratuwa as far back as 2002 introduced computer software and provided training in demand based scheduling of buses. In the Western Province where many such timetables were implemented successfully, administrators teaming up with the terminal mafia, moved quickly to derail the implementation of these timetables that would have dispatched buses at intervals close enough to ensure overcrowding did not occur. Thus often the current overloading is intentional in order to allow buses to increase revenue at the expense of hapless passengers, while idle buses lay parked around. These administrators are mostly the kith and kin of the ministers or their leading supporters. Some of them most brazenly declare they are appointed to ensure that the respective Minister's wishes are implemented and no more. The fact that they hold a public office created by Parliament or by Provincial Statute to safeguard and promote public welfare, seems to be an alien concept.
One who travels by car may not be bothered with these developments as they do not affect him directly. But in a densely populated country like Sri Lanka, a deteriorating management of buses, that provide the backbone of the transport system carrying 60% of the passengers, is an ominous sign. The result will be more private vehicles, more traffic and more congestion on the roads you now travel on! This is already beginning to happen.
Sri Lanka has seen better days of bus transport. During the days it was known as Ceylon it had one of the best urban transport systems in Asia. It had in addition to the buses and railway, trolley buses, tram cars, taxis and rickshaws. However it never got the management of buses completely right. The bus industry which started with single bus owners in 1907 was consolidated to private companies as it grew, some of which however did not perform very well. In 1956 a proposal was made to convert these failing companies to public-private companies with 25% shares issued to the public. However, most unfortunately the bus industry was chosen as the flag bearer of nationalism in 1958 resulting in all bus companies both good and bad performers being replaced by the CTB overnight.
Even though government provided the best for the CTB during the first few years to make nationalized transport impressive, the honeymoon days were short lived as commercial sustainability was overlooked for political mileage by starting large number of loss making services, in excessive recruitment and in the reluctance to increase fares. By the 1970s, the top professionals who had led the CTB to become the world's largest public bus company at that time were being replaced by thoroughbred political stooges.
The remedy of re-introduction of private buses in 1978 saw yet another debacle in allowing thousands of unregulated buses each virtually allowed to be a law unto itself. This has now resulted in the 15,000 single bus owners operating 20,000 buses who due to lack of organization are unable to introduce any noteworthy technological or management improvement to the industry. The CTB on the other hand has been assassinated, buried, resurrected and now put on life support from the Treasury to cover its management inefficiency without empowering it with a business plan and placing it under the management of capable and proven industry leaders.
The Bus Transport Masterplan compiled in 1999, the Land Transport Policy approved by Cabinet in 2009, clearly sets out regulatory, management and operational reforms for changing this long stagnant but vital industry. However, the public transport administrators obviously have more profitable exercise to occupy themselves than to implement reforms to preserve and modernize the bus industry for the present and the future. Those who have boldly ventured to introduce reforms including ministers, chairmen, professionals and even operators have been hounded out, so that the well entrenched administrators and their political bosses can milk the present system undisturbed.
Next article: What you should know when you see a crowded train.
(The writer is Senior Professor at the Department of Transport & Logistics Management at the University of Moratuwa and Sri Lanka's foremost traffic management expert.
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