Shanghai formally renationalized its bus services yesterday. This is hailed a milestone.
When Shanghai privatized its only state-owned bus service in 1996, it was deemed revolutionary, and is still considered a success.
According to reports from the Oriental Morning Post on Tuesday, the new bus management authority in Pudong is considering capital injection, M&A, and soliciting residents' opinion on the exterior visual design of the buses so that "Pudong buses can greet the Expo with a unified, standardized image."
If my opinion is solicited, I would suggest that the bus authority in Pudong, probably in Puxi too, quickly direct their attention to how to expand its fleet so as to avoid being sidelined by soaring number of private cars.
Unlike policy makers who probably do not take buses, my observations come from my own bus-riding experience.
To be more specific, the section of Dongzhou Line bus in Pudong serving Heisong Road in Jinqiao and the Metro station in the Shanghai Science and Technology Museum is deteriorating rapidly.
For well over a year I could comfortably cover this distance by bike in 20 minutes.
But a couple of weeks ago both tires of my bike had been punctured. A cleaner on the road later told me that some bike repairmen had planted fragments of razor blade on the pavement to bring them new business.
So I returned to the Dongzhou Line, only to find the service gone from bad to worse in one year's time.
One year ago a single trip on the bus took about 20 minutes, about the same as a bicycle trip, but now it takes 50 minutes, which is about the time to walk the distance.
The chief reason is the sudden surge in the number of private cars, particularly in the section leading to the Luoshan Road crossing, which is clogged with long line of vehicles, some sending children to a kindergartens and an elementary school on Heisong Road. One conductor said that sometimes they had to wait 20 minutes to make the crossing.
On Friday morning a BMW sedan had a headon collision with a station wagon just in front the gate to the elementary school on Heisong Road, killing two and injuring six.
The snarled rush-hour traffic is frazzling the nerves of the commuters.
On Monday I witnessed a fist fight between two men on an overcrowded Dongzhou Line bus.
One departing passenger brusquely asked a bespectacled man to step aside. As this was difficult, he then accused the guy of being a "country bumpkin."
The accused happened to be a Shanghainese.
After an exchange of recriminations they began to hit each other, leading to bloodshed to both sides.
Although fighting is still rare, at peak hour it is common to hear groans, moans, murmurs of pain and complaints at each stop when someone wants to get on or off.
On Tuesday I heard one young woman actually warning people around that the congestion might make her throw up.
These examples suffice to show how out of touch the bus managers are when they are flirting with such extras and trivialities as visual designs, upgrades, and replacements with greener vehicles.
It is urgent to dramatically increase the number of buses to ensure that services are not too greatly compromised by the increasing number of cars.
For years the bus authority has been obsessed with replacements.
Some years ago a relative of mine was surprised that Shanghai was using Volvo buses.
How many times could they expand their fleet if they settled on a cheaper brand?
Are air-conditioned buses healthier, safer, and more fuel-efficient than naturally ventilated buses, particularly in Shanghai where extreme weather is rare?
If the government is really concerned about emissions, it should be reminded that even the most smoke-belching buses are many times greener than the "greenest" private cars. Given these circumstances, the imperative now is not to make buses' exterior more appealing to tourists, but to prevent bus service from being steadily eroded by greater use of private cars.
As a matter of fact, we are getting further and further from the stated objectives of making bus services more comfortable, punctual, and efficient.
This month local bus authorities have extended discounted fares to all buses.
This is a positive move to encourage the use of public transports, but the discounts are quite limited compared to the 2 yuan (20 US cents) subway fare and the 40-cent bus fare in Beijing.
The cars creeping up on us are neutralizing what little gains there have been in public transport.
Shanghai residents have reason to be nostalgic, for Shanghai was once celebrated for its effective control over private vehicles.
The first private car in the city was licensed in 1986, and in 1989, private cars numbered less than 100.
The number soared to 46,000 in 2001, but that still lagged far behind that in Guangzhou, Guangdong Province; Chengdu, Sichuan Province, or Tianjin.
But since then, every year around 100,000 private vehicles were added to Shanghai's road network.
The number reached 630,000 by last March and is projected to hit 1.5 million before the Expo next year.
Many less-populated developed countries are thinking wistfully of how they should have planned differently in the 1900s, if only they could have foreseen the present state of urban congestion and pollution.
We are repeating their mistakes in 2000s.
Simple arithmetic shows that no solution for a metropolis like Shanghai can solve its transport problem without aggressively discouraging private car use.
(Shanghai Daily April 2, 2009)