Bus rides are unpleasant nowadays

Selene Cheng, Tan Jian Wei

Public transport companies SMRT and SBS Transit have applied to the Public Transport Council (PTC) to raise train and bus fares on October 1 2008, citing higher fuel, energy, and operating costs from more trips and asset upgrading. Commuters in turn have been up in arms over this news, as the likelihood that the fares will be approved is high.

But while a lot has been said about costs, there has been little discussion on service standards or the commuter’s experience on board public transport.

In this respect, The Online Citizen provides a glimpse into a typical bus commuter’s experience.

Long waiting times, no standing space

Just when you need the bus the most, you can’t get one. It’s paradoxical. Buses arrive at more regular intervals of about every 10 minutes during peak hours, but frequently are packed to the hilt so you can’t get on, especially those going to the Central Business District (CBD) and/or which stop at an MRT stop along the way. Everyday Joes going to town see an average of two packed-like-sardines buses pass them by before they can board a bus. If you’re taking a bus to the CBD and your boarding stop is at the half-way or two-thirds mark of the journey, forget about trying to board after 8am. There’ll be no standing space for you, and if there was actually some place for you to get on, you get to enjoy the lovely smell of Essence of (Somebody Else’s) Armpit.

The (lack of) the sound of silence

Whatever happened to the good old sound of silence? It seems non-existent on board our public buses today.

People are forced to listen to noise of all kinds on their bus trip. Respect for personal peace and privacy have gone out of the advertisement-obscured bus window. It is so common now for bus commuters to have to put up with teens blasting their music, more often than not of the techno genre, out of their cellphones. One wonders if these teens have known of the invention of headphones and the concept of manners.

Then there are the mostly middle-aged (30-50 year old) uncles talking loudly on their handphones. Sometimes it seems like they think the louder they speak the better their friends will be able to hear them on the other end. It’s to the extent where they are practically shouting into the phone. Worst are those who cuss and swear down their blocky Nokias; I swear (no pun intended) that you can get an education in Hokkien vulgarities this way.

And of course, who can forget the ever-present TV Mobile. Blessed are those who take SMRT buses, for they shall escape the scourge of TV Mobile. Mr Tan Shao Yi, who had written a letter to the Straits Times forum page calling for TV Mobile’s silencing, had the unfortunate honour of receiving the inane reply from Mediacorp that “the TV Mobile audio level on buses is calibrated for everyone’s comfortable listening pleasure”.

As pointed out by one of this article’s writers before, given the proliferation of high-end mobile phones and their widespread ownership, almost any commuter can tune in to any station he wants — including TV Mobile’s 98.3 FM’s. But no, Mediacorp insisted that “not all TV Mobile viewers have easy access to FM receivers”.

Despite the barrage of letters to the Straits Times Forum page, past and present, calling for TV Mobile’s muting or removal, SBS Transit has been pin-drop silent on the issue, when it is clearly within their jurisdiction to ask Mediacorp to mute TV Mobile. One wonders what happened to SBS’ service promise to give commuters a pleasant (which includes peaceful) ride on the bus. Instead, SBS Transit and Mediacorp maintain their cosy commercial relationship by taking commuters aurally hostage in exchange for cash, with the former claiming on one hand that revenue from advertisers helps to keep fares low, while on the other hand applying to the PTC for the right to raise fares.

That coveted seat

We can’t blame the bus companies for everything. While yes, they have exacerbated the problem of crowding by refusing to provide more buses and running them more frequently, the lack of grace from fellow commuters also form part of the man-in-the-street’s woes of taking public transport.

If you want a seat, be prepared to fight for it from the minute you reach the bus stop. First, everyone strains to see the bus coming in the distance – is it my bus? Yes it is! See how everyone suddenly awakens. You hear the quick steps of people as they rush up in a bunch to the bus entrance, with some elbowing or pushing others in order to be nearer the door.

All is not won once you’re in the bus. You only have one shot to scan the bus for available seats. Take too long to look, and there goes the seats. People subtly fight for the coveted empty ones: window seats that have the ledge for you to rest your elbow on. Witness silent battles as people glare at each other when they fail to score their plump seat.

Then there are the seat hoarders who deprive others of a place to sit. Aunties are especially guilty of taking up two seats by putting their groceries on one seat and occupying the other, and brazenly persist in doing so even when the bus is crowded. People sitting in the seats opposite the backward-facing seats put their feet up on the ledge meant for those in the backward-facing seats.

Most people usually just leave such seat-hoarders alone, and choose to stand. Given the current crowded conditions, it’s time to stop such selfish behaviour. Be the one to buck the trend. Tap the offending seat hoarder on his/her shoulder and gesture for the seat. For those backward-facing seat feet-space hoarders who only move their feet a little bit backwards even after you’ve indicated you’re going to sit, look at their feet, then at them, and say “Excuse me” – a bit more loudly – and they should move.

Fighting the daily fight

There’s no doubt about it – bus rides are unpleasant nowadays. The question that comes to mind, though, is why? Why should commuters be forced to wait ages for buses, and fight daily for standing space and seats?

People who can afford to take taxis or drive cars will never understand what it is like being squeezed cheek by jowl into a bus, daily, in the morning and evening. It is time to speak up about this ridiculous deterioration of service standards and ever-increasing fares. It’s time to stop fighting for seats, and start fighting for rights.

See you this Saturday @ Hong Lim Park.


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