In his first month of living in Hong Kong, nothing has caused Yang Chengyu to throw a fit like the city’s minibuses. He has been late for class three times in a week due to the unpredictability of when the shuttles show up or where they drop off passengers.
“I leave my apartment long before class begins, but I’m still late,” said Yang, 25. “Worse, the bus driver sometimes changes the route and stops without any prior notification, so I have to stay very concentrated once on board.”
Yang is not alone. A total of 1,371 complaints were filed against minibus services in the second quarter of last year, up 8 percent from the previous year, according to a report released by the Transport Complaints Unit. Ageing drivers — an average age of 60 — shortage of labour and lack of competition compound the discomfort faced by the city’s 1.5 million minibus commuters every day.
Minibus stop signs typically say that there should be a minibus every seven to eight minutes during peak hours. In reality, it can take as long as 30 minutes to get a ride, because no seats are vacant.
The city has been facing a shortage of minibuses for years. In 1976, the Legislative Council passed a resolution that capped the number of licensed minibuses at 4,350. No change has been made since.
The policy is supported by advocates like Leung Hung, 82, chairman of the Public Light Bus Merchants’ United Association. Pinched by competition from the MTR, prices of minibus licences on the secondary market have dropped about two thirds since the peak price of HK$7.5 million in 2011.
The Hong Kong government has counted on the underground railway system as the backbone of public transport since 1999, Light buses have always played a complementary role to help people reach places not covered by the metro.
The expansion of the MTR system is further squeezing business. “Metro is more convenient for commuters during rush hours.” said Ling. “Not to mention minibus operation is banned on certain main roads.”
Younger drivers are reluctant to work on minibuses due to the low salaries. At least 20 percent more drivers are needed, especially for the morning and evening rush hours, according to Ling Chi-keung, 67, president of the Public Light Bus General Association. “We have buses, but don’t have drivers.”
Currently, the main source of minibus drivers is retirees from double-decker fleets. The average age of drivers is 60 years old, and only 9 per cent are under 40, according to the Transport Department. On average they are paid HK$50 per hour and need to work 10 hours a day.
“This job is low-paid and tiring; many have turned to other jobs,” said Cheung Hon-wah, 68, head of the Public Light Bus Owner & Driver Association, “It’s impossible to get young drivers to join.”
Increasing shifts to tackle behind-schedule issues is not the solution, says Cheung. With the drivers already over-worked, that would only increase the risk of accidents. In 2016, drivers over the age of 60 were involved in 35 per cent of minibus accidents, according to the Transport Department.
Among those stretched thin is Cheung Bing-zi, a 62-year-old driver in a minibus fleet whose average age is 65. He says ill-treatment is a common issue, citing how one of his colleagues works a 13-hour shift starting at 6 a.m. every day.
Minibus operators also want more. Last year` nearly half of the 600 minibus lines demanded a fare increase, with some seeking a bump of as much as 56 per cent.
The red minibuses operating on leases have it worse. Accounting for a quarter of the city’s total, they operate without any subsidy from the government. Last year, their revenue was slashed by 60 per cent, according to Ling. A red bus driver has to pay HK$600 per day to the bus owner and another $150 for fuel, the reason why so many rush about the streets to make ends meet.
“We do know where the problem is,” said Ling. “But it’s impossible to improve unless the government provides more support.”
Out of frustration, Yang has now swapped the minibus that sometimes takes him 40 minutes for a reliable 25-minute walk to his university.