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The Big Read in short: The role of buses and why some commuters love them

SINGAPORE — For 24-year-old Glenc Soh, travelling by bus is much more than just a way to get to his destination. It is also his passion.

Regular bus commuter Lam K L told TODAY that given the choice, he would usually opt to take the bus over the MRT.

“The train network is extensive, but sometimes it may take two or three train changes to reach your desired stop. So if there’s a direct bus, then of course, I will take the direct bus,” said the 38-year-old, who works in the technology sector. 

Mr Lam, who has an 11-month-old daughter, added that it is generally easier to get a seat on the bus, as well as bring his child’s stroller onboard. 

“For the train, when you push the pram, you cannot push it up the escalator. You have to wait for the lift (and) able-bodied people will also take the lift.”

Given the continuing appeal of buses despite the proliferation of the MRT lines, it was perhaps not surprising that the Land Transport Authority’s (LTA) announcement on Nov 17 that it would withdraw bus service 167, due to a decrease in its ridership, triggered an outcry from commuters.

The authority later reversed its decision on Nov 28, saying in a Facebook post that it would retain the bus service “for now” and instead operate it at 30-minute intervals throughout the day.

Still, such incidents of bus service rationalisation — where services are withdrawn, merged or have their operating frequency or hours reduced due to low commuter demand — are not new.

In its annual report for 2021/2022, LTA noted that bus rationalisation is “an inevitable process” as the country grows its land transport system. According to the authority’s website, there are currently more than 300 bus services plying the island.

Transport analysts told TODAY that the opening of new MRT lines could lead to a shift in commuters’ travel and usage patterns – with some riders opting to shift their commute from bus to MRT. 

Some degree of rationalisation would hence be necessary to prevent duplication and to not waste resources, they added.

WHY IT MATTERS

Yet, while the public may understand that this needs to be done, Members of Parliament (MPs) and bus commuters interviewed by TODAY said that the impact and inconvenience of such rationalisation ought to be minimised.

This could be done through a gradual phasing out of the bus service as opposed to a complete withdrawal following a notice period, or having the authorities consult affected commuters on the proposed changes, prior to finalising and implementing them, they added.

While rationalisation is unavoidable, how changes to bus services are implemented and conveyed to the public are key to how they are received, said transport analysts, MPs and commuters. 

THE BIG PICTURE

Singapore adopts a hub-and-spoke model for its public transport network, relying on buses or Light Rapid Transit to serve as feeder services, bringing commuters to MRT stations or bus interchanges. 

Under this model, the rail network would remain as the “backbone” of the country’s public transport system, given its higher speed and capacity. 

There are no official statistics on the number of bus services that have been rationalised.

According to the Land Transport Guru blog, which was set up by self-professed “transport enthusiasts”, more than 30 bus services were rationalised between 2019 and this year.

Responding to TODAY’s queries, an LTA spokesperson did not provide figures but said that the authority “periodically reviews and makes adjustments” to Singapore’s bus network in response to “new developments and changing travel patterns”.

Commuters who regularly travel by buses told TODAY that a main draw for them is the convenience of the direct connectivity that buses provide to their destinations, even if it may sometimes translate to a longer travel time.

In other instances, these bus journeys not only provide point-to-point connectivity, but could even be quicker than their rail alternatives, due to the availability of express buses plying the route.

Beyond merely connecting commuters to their destinations, buses also hold a special place in the hearts of some. 

Bus spotters told TODAY that they are largely drawn to the “huge variety” of bus types – different models each with their own unique bodyworks, gearboxes, manufacturer types, and engine performances.

For each of them, the vehicle also carries a unique slice of nostalgia, as they could still recall key moments in their childhood that sparked their love for the mode of transport.

Transport analysts interviewed said that even as more train stations continue to dot the island, buses would continue to play a “very integral” role in Singapore’s public transport network because they serve a complementary role to the MRT lines. 

Buses provide direct connectivity and a “much more intimate reach” to neighbourhoods and areas where it is not cost-effective to have a rail service. In such areas, the volume of travel may be too low to justify rail investment, yet high enough to support a direct bus service, the analysts said. 

Buses also crucially serve to connect the train stations to its surrounding areas as a first or last mile service – or what is commonly known as feeder service.

THE BOTTOM LINE

Dr Raymond Ong, associate head of research in the department of civil and environmental engineering at the National University of Singapore (NUS), said: “If we treat it like a human body, basically the MRT lines are just like our arteries and our veins, and buses… (are like) our capillaries and those blood vessels that actually go down to the individual units.”

He added: “You can see that our rail lines are never designed to give a door-to-door service, or even… a precinct-to-precinct service. But our buses are different. Our bus networks are designed to go to the individual precinct, so that we serve almost every corner where there is a need for travel.”

In the process, some bus services may “inevitably offer redundancy” to the MRT system for at least part of their routes, said Associate Professor Walter Theseira from the Singapore University of Social Sciences (SUSS).

“However, the main aim of these bus services should be to connect routes poorly served by MRT, rather than to provide redundancy per se,” he said. 

Buses should not completely replicate the rail network like a parallel rail service, he added. 

To prevent duplication and the wastage of resources, some rationalisation of parallel bus routes would be inevitable when a faster MRT alternative is made available, said transport engineering consultant Gopinath Menon.

Yet, at the same time, some duplication should be “tolerated” for commuters who still prefer to travel by buses because bus stops are closer for them to get to, or if they are making short trips, he added.

In deciding which bus services should be rationalised, Mr Menon said a main factor could be the number of passengers that the service carries per day.

“It may not be desirable to get all (these) bus passengers on the MRT, which is crowded during the peak periods,” he said. 

Additionally, the availability of such duplicated popular bus routes could also prove useful in the event of an MRT breakdown. 

Ultimately, “reasonable choices should always be given in any public service” including public transport, said Mr Menon. 

For SUSS’ Assoc Prof Theseira, a guiding principle in planning the public transport network lies in balancing the cost of its operations with the service quality offered to the public.

“You want to try to provide good services to as many commuters as possible, but you eventually run into routes which are relatively expensive to operate, and which only make a small difference in service quality, for a small number of commuters,” he said. 

“These are the routes which are prioritised for service rationalisation. Now, these routes might be very, very important for those commuters. But from the system perspective, they end up costing a lot and deliver relatively little on the margin.”

In Singapore’s case, what the authorities are also gradually working towards is “redundancy in terms of the high capacity MRT system, rather than redundancy in the form of bus services that parallel the MRT lines,” said Assoc Prof Theseira.

For example, the growth in new MRT lines mean commuters in the north now have two ways of reaching town by MRT — via the North-South and Thomson-East Coast lines — and can use one if the other is down, he added.

“The reason (for building redundancy through the MRT network) is that the MRT system is far better positioned to accommodate the commuter volumes resulting from one line being disrupted, than the bus system is,” he said. 

All things considered, how the changes are communicated to commuters before implementation is crucial.

Dr Ong believes that grassroot and community outreach would be “very important”, as buses cater to a “huge demographic spread”. This includes retired seniors whose main commute mode may be the bus, as they travel within the town and do not make regular long-distance travel.

“(For) our elderly in such a demographic… it is generally acknowledged that they are not the sort to go online, read emails…They will actually watch television or news, but they may not even catch the news,” he said.

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