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Rural bus services

 

Rural bus transport, other than on main roads, is rare in very poor countries: rural roads are too bad and incomes too low. Private means of transport, even the humble bicycle, are not affordable for most families. Walking is the dominant mode, and markets the principal destination, with pickups and conventional trucks used reluctantly by those whose loads are too heavy and distances too long (nevertheless, walkers often must carry loads of 50kg over distances of 10km and more). IMT such as light goods carriers, bicycles and motorcycles, adapted to carry passengers, can also provide transport services over short distances.

Regulation, even for safety, is ineffective due to widespread police bribery. It is cheaper for a driver to pay up than to make repairs. It is simply a form of unofficial taxation with no effect on safety other than a negative one in that it reduces operator profits and the funds available for maintenance.

As incomes rise, roads improve, people value their time more highly and are prepared to pay to avoid long walks. Conventional rural bus transport becomes more viable, although not necessarily scheduled (drivers often do not start until the bus is reasonably full which can take ages), particularly on the main and secondary roads linking towns. Services proliferate. Access to villages still remains limited because of poor roads and some walking is still necessary. Ownership of personal means of transport becomes more widespread but not yet to the point of offering serious competition to bus services. They can even complement them by providing service from villages to nearby towns or bus routes.

Destructive competition between operators can become a problem as demand increases. Regulation becomes necessary since safety, reliability and passenger comfort can be jeopardised if fares are driven down to unviable levels during battles for market share, while at the other extreme, monopolies, sometimes paradoxically supported by too much regulation, can emerge from such battles. They often prefer inertia, are unwilling to adapt services to demand, charge high fares and use their power to crush competitors. Some interesting lessons on the consequences of both excessive regulation and deregulation of bus transport can be drawn from past experience

As incomes continue to rise towards middle levels and beyond, local bus services becomes mature. Poor roads are no longer a hindrance. Services will normally be of high quality as long as demand remains strong, subject to judicious and probably light regulation in the public interest. This will involve: monitoring competition to ensure that new entrants are equipped and qualified to provide the service they propose; gauging demand for new services and satisfaction with existing ones; and rigorously enforcing safety requirements such as driver licensing and vehicle inspection.

Rural mobility is now at its highest. However, privately owned means of transport now offer increasingly stiff competition: public transport demand weakens, and bus operation often becomes unprofitable unless subsidised. If not, service quality, in terms of frequency and coverage, drops, promoting a spiral of declining demand, dragging service with it. Eventually, public transport in rural areas virtually disappears and those without access to a private car (estimated at 20% of the population in the UK), seriously lack mobility, resulting in a rise in social exclusion.

In many mature high-income societies this problem is now being addressed through the introduction of rural bus services targeting local mobility issues. These are characterised by flexibility in responding to short-distance access needs, with complete freedom to modify routes and schedules. Such flexibility calls for small private sector firms or cooperatives with modest fleets of small buses (9-15 seats). Shared taxis can also play a role. Regulation is light and limited to ensuring vehicle and driver safety. Fares are subsidised to keep them competitive with the out-of pocket costs of private car operation, and sophisticated IT tools have been developed to optimize scheduling.