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Bus systems that work

Buses may not be sexy (least of all Delhi's buses like the one above). But most cities desperately need to improve their basic bus systems.

And I am not talking about Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) this time. No matter how much BRT you put in, neglecting the basic bus system will undermine your efforts. Jakarta is finding this.

The same goes for urban rail systems. These work best when complemented and fed by a good bus system. Seoul realised this in 2004. Unable to expand its subway, it turned to bus improvements for a dramatic boost to its system.

Maybe the only thing less sexy than a bus is bus regulation!

But if you care about public transport it is time to get interested in regulatory questions like
these: Who should plan the system? Who should own what? What roles are best for the public sector? What roles are best for businesses? How should they be rewarded? What kind of competition works for city buses?

Getting the regulatory framework right is at least as important as the engineering. Maybe more important!

It is hard to get people to focus on this but better understanding of the key choices would save most cities a whole lot of trouble. Certain ways of regulating and organizing a bus system can set the scene for long-term success. Certain other ways are dead ends that work well only if you have a large number of captive users, who have no other choice.

Take a look at the categories below.
They are from a recent paper I wrote on this [Update: It is called "Public Planning with Business Delivery of Excellent Urban Public Transport" published in Policy and Society, vol. 27, no. 2, 2008. See a preprint pdf here and here is the journal's link].

Which one fits your local bus system best? Do these categories work for your city? Feedback is welcome, since this typology is a little different from the usual approaches.

  1. Public monopoly:
    Services are owned, planned and operated by a publicly owned enterprise. Strangely enough, this is the option that is still most common in the United States (despite the fact that 'socialism' is a dirty word there). An urban region may have several of these state-run operators. In theory at least, the state takes total responsibility for the outcomes here and there have been successful state-run bus systems. However, good intentions do not always lead to strong and ambitious systems.

  2. Proactive planning with service contracts:
    Services are planned by a state agency, so the public sector takes primary responsibility for the planning of the network and for many of the service outcomes. Nevertheless, operations are procured from independent businesses (either private or state-owned) under service contracts (which can be issued via competitive tendering). In the most strongly planned systems, the state agency collects fares and pays operators for bus service provided, sometimes in combination with other incentives payments. Examples include Helsinki, London, Seoul (since 2004), and increasingly many others. Singapore appears to be headed in this direction too - something that I had called for (pdf). Unless I am confused, Indore in India may even be an example.

  3. Area franchises (well regulated):
    Operators are given the right to serve a whole area but with some obligation to do so in a comprehensive way and to meet service standards in return for exclusivity and discretion over many tactical details of service. Responsibility for outcomes is shared between the operator and the state. Hong Kong, Singapore (until 2009) and many Brazilian cities seem to have such systems. There is often no competition (or there may be competitive tendering sometimes) but effective regulation can help achieve a reasonably effective system.

  4. "Passive" route franchises:
    Operators are given the right to serve routes, usually with some simple service obligations and at least some exclusivity. Unfortunately, with this approach the public sector often takes little active responsibility for outcomes. The network often ossified into a set of moribund, long-established routes that no-one has an incentive to reform (or is willing to risk changing). Regulation tends to focus on fares and on protecting incumbents. This option gives the worst of both worlds - competition is prevented but it lacks the benefits of effective regulation or proactive planning. Buses in many Malaysian cities and Seoul's buses before 2004 are examples. Kuala Lumpur's RapidKL and Rapid Penang in Penang seem to represent recent attempts to shift to Option 3 but unfortunately only partially, without sufficient exclusivity.

  5. Deregulation:
    The state has little direct influence over service outcomes. Almost always, it is the vehicle rather than the route that is the subject of licensing. The most extreme form of deregulation involves vehicle licensing with little or no barriers to entry or exit. Simple quantity limits may be added to this, but still with no obligation to provide service. Jeepneys in the Philippines are an example as are South Africa's 'taxis'. Effective deregulation may also exist if franchises lack exclusivity or allow for sub-contracting, as in Bogota's buses outside its Transmilenio system. Outcomes with deregulated public transport in cities have generally been disappointing. The number of cheerleaders for deregulated urban public transport has nosedived in recent years.

I have argued that Option 2 is catching on and seeing lots of success, especially when combined with ambitious efforts at network integration. Of course, planning is no guarantee of bus system success (as many public monopolies show).

But success with urban buses is certainly elusive without strong planning. Options 4 and 5 are serious mistakes. The era of a strong push for deregulation of bus systems seems to be over.


  1. I just gave a presentation at the UIPT Global Cities '08 conference in Sydney, making exactly your point, since Sydney is the last major Australian city that has not figured this out. Please let me know when your paper is ready to be cited, as I will want to distribute pointers to it lavishly.

  2. Sorry, URL was incorrect on last comment.

  3. Hi I just read your post and I must say that Options 4 and 5 are DEFINITELY no-no's! Here in Manila bus companies are privately owned. Competition takes precedence over quality of service, so this usually means that bus drivers cut trips (since shorter trips = longer breaktimes), do not come on time (heck they don't even have schedules), and routes are redundant (several companies have buses that ply just 1 route).

    Many feel that it is high time our bus systems have to be reformed, but while many want to take them off the road, the fact is that there are thousands of drivers (not to mention, commuters) whose jobs and lives depend on these sad excuses for public transportation.

  4. Hello, I have just started an experiment in building a responsive bus system as described here - It is currently focussed on commuters and serves the "home to office and back" crowd exclusively. I would love to hear any feedback you might have to offer me.

    I am trying to build a marketplace for commuter buses where commuters decide the routes they need and reward and punish operators based on performance. The only regulation is provided by the licenses of the bus operators, and consumers are free to demand more luxury if they are happy to pay.

    Do let me know what you think if it's not too much of a bother.

  5. Thank you for sharing about the bus system that should be very systematic that a public will get their bus on time. Visit:


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