HCMC annually spends tens of millions of U.S. dollars on bus fare subsidies, but faces a seemingly irreversible fall in passenger numbers.
Le Ngoc Thuy Trang, deputy director of the city’s Department of Finance, said the number of passengers in the first half of this year was only 96 million, equivalent to 32 per cent of projected demand and down 16 percent year-on-year.
According to local Tuoi Tre newspaper, 2013 marked the golden age of the public bus, with passenger levels rising to 315 million. But it has been downhill since then, with the latest statistics from the Department of Transport showing that last year the number had dropped to a mere 223 million.
Speaking on an episode of the TV program Listen and Discuss broadcast by the city’s People’s Council on September 9 on “Bus subsidization – effectiveness and solutions”, Trang said the average number of passengers per bus on a round trip also dropped to 32 from 45.
Reports from the Public Transport Management Center, which is responsible for the operation of public buses, show that since August at least four routes have been canceled due to lack of passengers or low efficiency.
The center said passengers stop using buses due to increasing traffic congestion and ownership of private vehicles.
According to the center, one of the main reasons is that 85 percent of people live in outlying districts like Tan Binh, Tan Phu, Binh Tan, Binh Thanh, Phu Nhuan, and 10 percent live in narrow lanes that are often less than six meters (19.6 feet) wide and cannot fit medium- and large-sized buses.
People living in them often have to walk over 600 meters to the nearest bus stop, while the maximum reasonable distance should be 500 meters, it said.
So fewer and fewer people use buses and prefer private vehicles, usually motorbikes, but now, increasingly, cars, it explained.
The metropolis of 13 million people now has around 7.6 million motorbikes and 700,000 cars.
One transportation expert also pointed to the boom in ride-hailing apps to which a large portion of the population has switched over, especially for short trips.
Nguyen Van Trieu, chairman of Transport Cooperative 19/5, said that earlier almost all students used the cooperative’s public buses to travel to the National University in Thu Duc District.
“Now not only do they prefer to use their own motorbikes, but are in fact using their free time as motorbike-taxi drivers for ride-hailing services such as Grab and Go-Viet that compete with public buses,” he added.
Another transportation specialist in HCMC said buses used to be the cheapest mode of transport, but now some ride-hailing apps offer discounts that sometimes take fares below buses’ levels. It only cost VND5,000 (22 cents) for a trip of less than eight kilometers on a motorbike-taxi whereas a bus ticket was VND 6,000 (26 cents).
“If you look at factors such as convenience, punctuality, ability to avoid congestion, then motorbike-taxis beat buses by a mile,” said the specialist.
Le Trung Tinh, from the city’s Department of Transport, believed that the decline in bus use is a result of the deteriorating quality of service, traffic jams, lack of designated bus lanes, and poor punctuality of buses.
The solution, he said, lies in improving the quality of customer service by further investing in newer buses but also improving the transport infrastructure itself.
Ho Chi Minh City’s budget subsidised more than 1,300 buses, with total fund of over VND1 trillion ($43.47 million) so far this year.