Faring poorly in BMTA's war on public bus prices
Five days after the bus fare increase took effect, the Bangkok Mass Transit Authority (BMTA) insisted the majority finds the hike agreeable. I really wonder who "the majority" is.
Could the majority mean those in a panel on land transport control who gave the nod to the rise, and not the bus commuters who are required to pay more. Obviously, the BMTA has not followed social media where several bus commuters have shared their plight. The Thai Rath newspaper conducted a two-day online survey which found that only 4,300 out of 42,000 respondents, or just 10%, find the increase acceptable.
Under the new price structure, bus fares will increase from a range of 6.5-25 baht to 8-26 baht, depending on the type of bus, operator, and distance of each ride. That means one has to pay between one and seven baht more per ride, 2-14 baht per day, or 40-280 baht a month. This particular amount is for those fortunate enough to be able to take just one bus direct from their home to their work. I don't think many fall into this category, since most low-paid workers live far from the city centre.
A housekeeper I know chose to move outside the city centre years ago, about 30km from her workplace, for cheaper rent. Despite her low income, she's not eligible for the card for the poor because she happened to inherit a tiny plot of land in the middle of nowhere in the North that could never make her rich. Now, she has to pay at least 10 baht more a day for bus fares, or at least 200 baht a month (if we count only 20 weekdays), for a route that costs her about five hours a day.
One netizen has complained that her daily trip costs her 28 baht more a day from two bus connections, which adds up to 560 baht a month.
This may sound small to the bus panel. But it means a 3.7% rise for someone earning 15,000 baht a month, or almost 10% for workers on a minimum wage. These people are the main group of BMTA customers. As the Bank of Thailand expects inflation of 1.0% in 2019, this group cannot expect big salary hikes, which would have enabled them to cope with the higher fares without much difficulty.
But I would not be surprised if the bus panel were to dismiss such complaints. How many of them use a bus in their everyday life? Most would enjoy a state-sponsored limousine, plus petrol or certain kinds of state assistance.
The increase doesn't only affect city buses, but also provincial ones. For example, a bus trip from Bangkok to Phuket increases from 913 to 991 baht, while a trip to Nakhon Ratchasima from Bangkok climbs from 191 to 209 baht.
Some netizens have tried to justify the new fares, the first such increase in years. They said the old fares were unrealistically low and didn't reflect the real operating costs, or how the bus agency has added new buses to the system in recent years. They are right, partially. We see more old buses than new ones. Some are over 20 years old.
But I don't think bus commuters would complain this much if the BMTA had been spending its budget more wisely -- to improve its service and make its network more efficient, rather than trying to make a bus look smart but dysfunctional. Remember how the agency wasted 1.6 billion baht on the failed cashless system? Commuters had to wait for ages before the agency finally introduced an NGV-powered bus fleet.
Public land transport is the last priority for the government. I couldn't agree more with engineering lecturer Saksith Chalermpong from Chulalongkorn University, who pointed out the huge gap in public transport at a recent seminar on economic disparity in Thailand. The government has focused on the development of airports and high-speed train systems, which serve high-end commuters, leaving those at the lower end of the social spectrum, who rely on buses and vans, out in the cold.
He said the government recently invested almost 500 billion baht on expensive infrastructure for the rail system, but ignored land transport, giving concessions to private operators to invest in regional bus terminals. The lack of a land transport policy has seen the emergence of passenger vans that, in the absence of strong regulatory measures, have compromised passengers' safety.
I would agree with the fare rises if they reflected real operating costs, and led to improved services and infrastructure. To be fair, the state should ease the plight of the poor, not add to the burden of this group, like those housekeepers who have helped the city's growth.
Sirinya Wattanasukchai is a columnist, Bangkok Post.
Sirinya Wattanasukchai is a columnist for the Bangkok Post.