Where have all the (decent) buses gone?

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 It’s a sad commuters tale from Penang. Half-decent City Council buses have given way to ramshackle bone-shakers and cowboy-style coaches (mini-buses) passing themselves off as buses. Angeline Loh has the story.

It is hot under the half-shade of a bus stop in the afternoon. The only seats available – if there is any seating at all – are the thick iron bars, those pipe-like structures, the modern concept of seats. They are cheap and convenient structures, not easily vandalised. It saves the local council some money, being very low maintenance. When it is crowded many people just stand around in the blazing sun while the lucky few sit on the iron bars in the narrow shade of the bus shelter.

When it rains, they huddle under the same narrow shelter of the bus stop; some with good humour, others with exasperation having to sacrifice their personal space, whiles others open umbrellas or simply get drenched. Still, the common, faceless commuter public tolerates much discomfort and inconvenience to move from one destination to another.

The wait is indefinite and erratic. When the bus finally shows up, a mass of people scramble onto it, filling whatever space is available – some literally hang out of the open door – and the bus moves on with speed, oblivious to its overload.

Buses now run on some routes only – what are deemed to be the more “lucrative routes”. These are on some main roads. Yet on other main roads, there stand redundant bus stops. Stops that seem to serve no purpose or are only convenient pick-up points for private transport like factory buses, school buses or  taxi sapu (pirate taxis).

On the bus

The mass of humanity that fought its way onto the bus have to fight their way off it as well until most of them have been dispersed at various stops ( legitimate or otherwise) along the route. A collective sigh of relief is almost audible when a sufficient number have been dropped off to make the journey a little more comfortable.

The interior of a public bus is stifling, badly in need of re-upholstering and repair and a scrub with disinfectant. Floors are often littered with rubbish, organic and inorganic. To some extent, it is a moving rubbish dump or a garbage truck in the guise of a public bus. For this kind of ride, the mass of humanity dependent upon it pay RM1 each.

The only difference between short-haul and long-haul buses is the degree of their up-keep. The air-conditioning on long haul buses is frequently in better condition and the seats are maintained and kept reasonably presentable to attract the express bus commuter, who pays a higher price for a longer journey. The short-haul bus is merely the condemned long-haul vehicle in which almost everything apart from its ability to move, is on the verge of breaking-down or has, for some time, stopped functioning.

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Being former long-haul buses with functioning air-conditioners, their windows are sealed. As short-haul buses with non-functioning air-conditioning and sealed windows, however, they  resemble unhealthy airless mobile saunas. This is public transport as we know it today, in this age of “advancement” and “progress”.

30 years back

Why 30 years back? They were my school days when I used to be a regular commuter. Perhaps I took a lot for granted then and could not imagine that the reasonably good transport system we had would come to such a chaotic end.

In those good old days, there was only the occasional traffic jam. The bus companies that ran routes all over Penang Island had organised workforces of drivers, conductors and depot mechanics who maintained them. Even the City Council (the MPPP) had its own buses that ran specific routes.

Each bus company was allocated areas of the island which they served.  The City Council buses ran routes within the city area as well as to places like Air Itam, Jelutong, Sungai Pinang, Padang Tembak, Pulau Tikus-Bagan Jermal. The Seng Seng – or “Green Bus” as it was nicknamed – ran routes towards Air Itam, supplementing the Council buses as these were densely populated areas.

Rural areas like Balik Pulau and all small ‘villages’ on the way, Sungai Ara, Sungai Nibong, Bayan Lepas etc. were regularly served by the Yellow Bus Company. Tanjung Tokong upwards to Teluk Bahang was served by the Hin Bus Company or “Blue Bus”.

The smallest bus company, the Sri Negara, initially ran from the jetty to Bagan Jermal, where it turned round and returned the same way. Later, it served the Mount Erskine- Hillside route where housing estates and small kampongs had sprouted.

Initially, the Hillside-Tanjung Bungah route had been run by the Hin Bus that went via the main Tanjung Tokong Road and up to the Hillside route from Fettes Road through the Fettes Park area. After a few months, the Hin Bus also ran the Mount Erskine-Hillside route in competition with the Sri Negara Bus Co.

This was healthy business competition which benefited commuters who were inclined to use the buses due to the cheap fares and convenience.

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The volume of traffic on the island was far less back then as the Penang Bridge had not yet been built and almost all the roads were two-way instead of one. Looking back it was as close to an efficient transport system as one could get, although we thought it might have been better if buses ran on time. At least, one had a choice, with two companies running some routes. Life was slower and healthier in more ways than one.

Return to the present

So much for nostalgia, all that seems to have been swept away by illusions of economic gain and the race to acquire “developed nation” status at the expense of basic common sense and  sanity.
Here is another story. Two old ladies. One of them was walking along a road on a blazing hot afternoon. Think of her as your grandmother or even your own parent. She was in her eighties, hunched because of her age and could not walk very fast or very far. She was lost on a road just outside the middle of the city. All the traffic went one way, out of the city.

Granny wanted to go to the middle of the city but could see no buses going that way. All of them went in the opposite direction.

Feeling confused, she stopped a passer-by and enquired how she could get a bus going towards the city; she could only afford to travel on a bus.  The passer-by sadly shook his head and told her she had to cross the wide busy main road and go down another almost equally busy side road to get to the other main road, which was a two way road and where she could get a bus to  ‘town’.  Totally disappointed and quite afraid of the fast-moving traffic, as she could not move very fast, Granny thanked him for the information and resigned herself to taking the risk of crossing the busy road and walking the long distance in the burning heat.

The other old lady was waiting at a bus stop. She waited and waited for a bus going on the Hillside route. None appeared. Eventually, she turned to a fellow commuter waiting there and enquired if the Hillside bus came along that road to which the other commuter said there were no more Hillside buses. The Hillside routes are not served as they are deemed to be not lucrative enough by the present generation of “private “ bus operators. So she wondered what to do since she could not sensibly get home without a long trudge from the main road up the hill.

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Prisoners of progress

Has it come to this? Where the old, the weak and disabled members of our island society are be ‘imprisoned’ in their homes because they are unable to get a public bus? Are the poorer and weaker members of our society forgotten by the rich and powerful who do not even use the public transport? Does the government care that the poor and weak are treated like beggars and ultimately lepers, isolated because they have been forgotten by the state and society? There seems no good reason for their neglect by the authorities who had catered for the public only 30 years ago by running fairly efficient and affordable state-owned public transport.

I wonder why these human beings remain forgotten, bypassed by technology in this age of “advancement’ and “progress”? Now that more people have come to live along these “un-lucrative” routes, have they not become economically viable? An alarming number of high-rise apartments have already crowded the Hillside area at the expense of the environment and still the supposition that these routes are “un-lucrative” remains. It appears that society is so affluent that no low-income group exists and that people’s choice of transport has become so narrowly restricted that they become  ‘prisoners’ in their own homes or have to get their own means, if possible, to move around. Life for the economically weaker has become harder and more burdensome.

If you are a tourist and arrive at the Penang International Airport in Bayan Lepas and think you’d like to take a bus ride to a hotel in town to get a firsthand view of life on the ground here, you would be disappointed. There are no buses from the airport to anywhere. Business has been channeled only to taxis and airport limos priced far, far higher than any public bus. So, what about people who work at the airport such as cleaners, cafeteria workers and duty free shop workers? Are they transported from their homes in a workers’ van or have they to come up with their own transport with costs of petrol ‘eating’ a large chunk out of their budgets. These are not highly paid professionals. Just think about it.

Our magnanimous and benevolent state government has the answer to this. Hopefully, it will stop throwing up its hands in hopeless futility and feigning ignorance, at the suggestion of the need to remember that the poor and weak do matter.

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