Tuesday, 16 October 2007

The bus driver(s)

It's just one tragedy after another. There was this horrific crash involving a bus on the highway. Then all the dirty secrets came out. Many drivers were high on drugs or had multiple unpaid traffic summons but still on the road. The drivers spend long hours on the road because they are paid a miserable sum per trip. Of course the authorities will come crushing down hard on the drivers (who will protest and refuse to drive) and the companies (who will probably bite their tongue pay up, create another company, walk the corridors of power, get another set of permits and the show goes on). Yesterday, a lady died when the emergency exit of a Penang Rapid bus burst open (throwing her out) and the bus company is baffled how that could have happened when the glass cover securing the latch was still intact. And more horrific was the fire on the Mersing-Tioman ferry two days ago killing 4 with 2 still missing. Survivors claimed there was not enough life jackets but the company insisted everything was in order. It reminded me of my recent trip to Langkawi Island by ferry (sometime in May 2007) from Kuala Perlis. I vowed never to take that ferry again. That is another tragedy waiting to happen.

Which brings me to a bunch of Aussie students from South Australia. They have been coming to USM in droves to work with my planning students for the past six years. It is not all work. We allow them to play too. Oh, actually, we join them as much as we can. One of our social and bonding activity was a half-day (actually one morning) trip to Pantai Kerachut which is reportedly the smallest National Park in the World.

OK, OK, so what has this got to do with bus drivers? Well, look in the picture below. Can you spot a couple of bus drivers in there? Hint : not Malaysians.

USM-UniSA students and lecturers
on the way to Pantai Kerachut on on 29 September 2007

We tracked into forest to get to Pantai Kerachut (the beach) which took us more than one and half hours - some faster than others. And I was last on the beach and my excuse was that I was constantly distracted (with camera in hand) and I was making sure that no one got left behind. It was a good track but I thought that the Park people are just trying too hard with the concrete steps. I also didn't get an overwhelming feeling about being in a national forest. In fact, I appreciated the forest more when I was standing on the beach looking into the hills and also on the boat ride back. I think we need to make nature engulf us as we track through the forest.

Alright, alright, back to the bus drivers. While waiting for the USM bus to pick us back to campus, I had a chat with some of the University of South Australia (UniSA) students and discovered that two of the students are bus drivers with a bus company in Adeliade. Wow, they threw me off a little. First you have to go for about 4 weeks training to be certified. They work 8-hour shifts. What's the take home pay, you want to know? Well, in Ringgit, it is about a hundred thousand a year (which is about 33,000 Aussie dollars a year) which is mind boggling for Malaysians but about the average income for a household in Australia. Don't believe? According to Peter (one of the student-bus driver), on a Sunday, his one-day shift will mean a take home pay of about RM900 - you are seeing it right!! Yes, there is big demand for bus-drivers down under and they are importing foreigners to do the job. Private bus companies are very profitable in Adeliade because they are 75% subsidised by the government. It seems this "privatisation" model has saved the South Australian government a couple of hundred million dollars a year. But conditions are very strict for drivers. There is a zero alcohol policy and random checks are conducted by the police - there is no second chance; drivers are sacked if they breach this policy. Oh, if they leave any bus stop earlier than the scheduled time as stated on the bus timetable, the driver gets fined.

Has the bus system changed the travelling habits of the people? Apparently not. The "rich" continue their love affair with their cars. Who is more likely to use public buses? Well, Peter is doing a thesis to prove that residents of lower income areas are more likely to use the public bus. So, to be profitable, the bus companies should put more routes and higher frequency of trips through lower income areas.

Any lessons for Malaysia? Can you imagine Malaysian university student driving buses or taxis to support themselves through university education? Well, even they want to, I don't think our university system allows them to work and study at the same time. It is one mad rush to finish lectures, assignments, exams every semester. And as for the bus companies, first we had public buses operated by the local government; we sold them off in the name of privatisation; now we are pumping millions in Rapid Penang, a government-owned company. Is deep pockets now the answer to public transportation. Of just another knee-jerk reaction to over-demanding Penangites.

Here's one for the album, ready to print, frame, hang and to remember ...
BTW, on the boat trip back, we insisted that everyone put on a life jacket.


Siamak Sarmady said...

I do not get your comment on over demanding penangits!

In my country (a middle-eastern) we had a very better bus system in our city (perhaps the 10-15th city in the country) from 25 years ago. This has been the case in most of the cities there.

After I came here I have had a few serious problems.

Priority wise:

1- Public transport
2- Unhealthy food industry (and restaurants, food etc)
3- Very bad driving habits, I never feel safe crossing the light (which are very rare)
4- Pavements, your city has no pavements in most of places.

Penangit are not over demanding especially when it comes to public transport.

If they are pushed to use their car, soon you will not be able to move in your city because of daily traffic.

Lik Meng said...

I totally agree with you that we need to have an efficient public transport system, especially public buses. Yes, I also agree Penangite deserve to have an efficient bus system. The question is whether "the people that matters" are switching from private cars to buses or other means of public transport. Who are the ones demanding for sustainable transport? They are not the ones using public transport but go around in gas-guzzling 4-wheel drives. BTW, have you notice that many empty Rapid Penang buses plying the roads, especially during off-peak hours?