BSBs public bus transport system is a key component of a city’s development that requires attention by policy-makers and decision-makers in the country to enhance our nation’s capacity to innovate and compete in the 21st century. The ‘City in the Garden’ concept set out by the BSB Development Master Plan team years ago serve as a timely reminder of the key commitments made by the government in improving the livelihoods of the Bruneian people in line with the national vision of 2035.
With the pressure on our economy to divest ourselves from Oil and Gas, the need to launch a public transport platform that would reduce the dependency of our people on using private transport seems pertinent as ever. Although the urgency is not felt by wider society today, it will be felt one day nonetheless. This article shall write about the latest initiatives by the government, observations on the bus transport system, recommendations in realising the ‘City in the Garden Concept’, a case as why the fund allocation to this area should be increased in the years to come, and general recommendations in improving the system.
Firstly, the latest initiatives by the government highlighted in the media nowadays should be commended and applauded. These initiatives born partly out of the “Land Transport Master Plan and Land Transport White Paper” include having the bus design competition, the free bus transport for Lumapas residents, an increase in bus connectivity to key points within and outside the city, the opening up of contracts for the private sectors to operate new buses and new routes, and the increased investments in improving the standard quality of buses are reflective to the key commitments made by the public sector in ensuing the people in the city would enjoy better standards of transport.
Based on the personal observations made, the writer found positive review given especially by our elderly citizens on these improvements. The air-conditioned buses with improved seatings and friendly bus staffs has made our elderly citizens’ journey to the city to and from their Kampongs a lot more positive. They appreciate and thank the government for the improvements. As why the elderly are using these buses – to those who may be wondering – one has to consider that some of them are too old to drive themselves. Some of them also live on their own, meaning there is no one to drive for them. And with BSB considered their ‘Gadong’ or their place to hang out, socialise, and buy their groceries, these buses serve as their primary transport. The improvements made so far has made our local elderlies a lot happier and they appreciate such efforts.
Other major users of these buses include migrant workers who usually go to the city in the weekends to chill and hang out with their friends and/or family. Thus there is no surprise why in the weekends there is a lot of people gathered in the city’s central bus station. As for weekdays, some of these migrant workers use the buses to go to their workplace. Some of them even have the bus drivers’ mobile contacts to call them up to know as to when the drivers’ bus would arrive. They call them not just within the city sometimes, but on other bus stops outside the city, such as in Kampong Rimba or in Kampong Lumapas, where information of when the next bus are lacking. There is nothing wrong with this system. In fact it is a good idea.
According to the “Land Transport Master Plan and Land Transport White Paper”, the bus system in Brunei is formerly known as the ‘Purple Bus’. The buses are are now multi-coloured. The system consists of six routes around the Brunei-Muara district and is run by five private operators using a fleet of 105 buses (there are other buses operating in Beliat) as of 2014. The cost per journey within the city is $1. There are twenty to twenty-five seats per bus, and usually journey in rounds of 7 to 10 depending on the location it is allocated to. Each bus could potentially transport around 200 to 250 people maximum per day. And based on this writer’s interview with the bus attendant, a seven round journey for bus number 23 which travels from BSB to Lambak Kiri would only cost the bus $17 worth of diesel to fuel for the entire day’s travel journey.
Contrast this to the average car in Brunei which would cost around $5 (a rough estimate) per day, which means the bus could save up to hundreds of dollars if not thousands in transportation or fuel costs daily if the seat capacity is fully utilised by the Bruneian public. Notwithstanding the hundreds of millions that could been saved by the public sector every year in fuel subsidies if people choose to use public transportation instead of using private transport. According to a government report, it cost the government $470 Million per year for fuel subsidy in 2011 alone. Then there is also potential to reduce traffic jam in the city.
Given the cost-saving and efficiency potential, as well as the government’s initiatives in improving the bus transportation system, it would make sense that more of the Bruneian public would be using the transportation system. Unfortunately no. Speak to any youths today if take the public transport regularly, nine out of ten would say no. Based on my journey using the bus, I rarely find any youths in the buses – except few ones from Kampong Ayer going to Gadong who are already used to the system.
Most youths prefer using their own cars. I find this a major weakness in the system. For it is the youths themselves who would be using this transport in the next thirty years down the road, when Brunei’s fortune would be totally different than it is today. This is the area that needs to be addressed. The questions that need to be asked are as follows: How can we change the youths’ mindset to take the pubic bus system more often? How can we make it as if it is daily routine for them?
On another note, based on the reflections of my travels on many cities around the world, one of the drawbacks of the urban & city planning in Brunei is everything is too far away from each other. The major government agencies, schools, commercial areas, residential units, & postal departments are almost always not in walkable or cycling distance from each other. Everything is ‘spread out’ making not just bus transport but walking and cycling quite unattractive. In the effort to conserve our pristine green forestry and to reduce our carbon footprint in line with the ‘City in the Garden’ concept, may I suggest ‘concentrating’ every urban or city planning together into one or few areas of walking and cycling distance from each other?
In Paris, within a thirty to forty minutes walk radius from the Eiffel Tower this writer can already go to the major governmental departments, universities, major public parks, museums, and commercial complexes. In London, it is the same. Everything is in walkable and cycling distance. And if transport is needed, the bus and train transportation system is there in place to help the public to move around to point A to point B. The point is every major key governmental departments, commercial complexes, or famous or iconic tourist hotspots are concentrated together within a good radius. Every square mile is also utilised and maximised in the name of sustainable city development.
Next this article shall now give recommendations in the way forward in improving the general bus transportation system. First, it is about time for the government to create a new central bus station. The one in BSB is old and dark making it unattractive to our youths to use the public transportation system. Building a new central bus station would be best.
Next, may I suggest an increase in funds allocated to improving the public transportation system by 10% to 15% or more for next year. An increase in a few million dollars to improve the bus transportation system is nothing compared to $470 million already being spent on car subsidies in 2011 alone. This investment in improving transportation system which would ultimately reduce our dependency on Oil and Gas usage would thus be in the long-term interest of our nation and people. An investment in the form of securing new quality buses from the 105 figure to more than 200 buses would be a good example.
Next there should be an increase in awareness for our people to use the transportation system. First and foremost there is nothing to be embarrassed about using the bus. Even the Prime Minister of Australia Malcolm Turnbull and Mayor of London Sadiq Khan use the public transportation system to go to work. So experiment on using the bus. This goes out especially to the youths. Try it once. Then slowly you will build the confidence in using the bus and hopefully make it routine. The government can also hold public competitions which would involve participants to use buses or any of the other transport systems so as to build awareness on the usage of public transport.
Finally, there has to be an increase in knowledge or expertise exchange between Bruneian BSB officials with other officials from other major cities. Remember the advise from Sultan Bolkiah the 5th, go outside the nation to learn from the best and then come back with what you learn and bring those improvements into the nation. This advise applies to the youths, civil workers, and anyone who is interested in realising the ‘City in the Garden’ concept. We have the existing ASEAN networks we can tap into after all. Just go hold an appointment with the team in Jakarta or KL or Davao or any major cities we can learn from, send your delegation there, sign an MOU to exchange ideas or technologies, and bring that ideas or technologies back to improving the state of BSB city. There is nothing wrong to learn from one another. Any existing efforts in these areas should be intensified.
To conclude, there has been massive improvements made into the heart of the public transport system of BSB recently that should be commended and applauded. The effort should be intensified especially by involving and engaging the youths to utilise the public transport system. There is also the need to create a new central bus station to make it attractive and appealing for the youths and general people to utilise it. Brunei Darussalam has the finance to do it. Better to invest with the money we have today rather than thirty years down the road when things will be vastly different. Better to increase the allocation of funds to improve the bus transport system in the city. It will not hurt to shift the hundreds and millions of dollars spent on Oil and Gas subsidy into something like this system which will ultimately reduce our nation’s dependency on Oil and Gas, as well as to increase the competitiveness of the city and nation.