New policies steer public buses toward sustainability

China's Ministry of Transport and eight other departments are determined to revive the ailing public bus business.

Photo by Fan Jianlei

Photo by Fan Jianlei



China’s local public transportation networks are in a well-publicized decline. On Monday, a cluster of new policy measures emerged to try to put China’s local buses back on the city streets.

The pandemic was very bad news for many bus companies, and not only in small towns. Tianjin, one of the biggest and most modern metropolises, has struggled to pay salaries.

Taking the app way

The fundamental problem is reduced passenger flow - not enough people are taking the bus. Even with huge government subsidies, income from bus tickets can never cover costs.

Customized bus services and business shuttles cause as many problems as they solve. Bus companies are selling and delivering groceries and offering wedding services. These novel measures do not address the fundamental issue of profound changes in public travel habits.

People are on shared bikes. There are metros everywhere. Instead of standing on crowded buses, people sit in traffic jams.

Unable to compete

Widespread operational difficulties equate to unpaid salaries and unserviced vehicles. Public transportation companies were not designed for cutthroat competition and will never be able to compete. A public service with low fares relies on government subsidies to operate smoothly.

The policies include greater-yet subsidies, improved pricing, tweaks to exemptions and electricity price discounts.

Many of the companies that have ceased operations cited unpaid subsidies as the main problem. Local government finances are tight, some cities have not paid their dues.

Taking a free ride

To address the subsidy issue, the Ministry of Transport has said without increasing local government debt, the operational costs of urban public transportation companies should be met. All companies should receive the same treatment and funds should be paid promptly.

In some cities, pressure arises from too many exempt groups, especially the elderly. It is suggested that, according to their capabilities, cities consider paying appropriate allowances to the elderly as an alternative to blanket bus coverage.

Big change, small change

Fares have always been low, but the question arises of how low is too low. Many fares around the country have been fixed at 1 yuan (US$0.14) for a long time. Prices should establish a dynamic mechanism, considering factors such as operating costs, public affordability, and subsidies. Recently, Lanzhou doubled many fares, increasing the starting price from 1 yuan to 2 yuan.

More than 70 percent of buses are electric and electricity costs are correspondingly significant. The policies mention that bus companies could be charged off-peak electricity prices during certain daytime periods.