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LCQ1: Bus services during peak periods

     Following is a question by the Hon Michael Tien and a reply by the Acting Secretary for Transport and Housing, Mr Yau Shing-mu, in the Legislative Council today (October 22):


     Some members of the public have complained to me that at present during peak periods, as buses of certain routes are already fully packed with passengers at the first few stops, it is difficult for passengers awaiting buses at en route stops to get on board. However, the Transport Department (TD) has refused to improve the frequencies of such bus routes on the ground that the occupancy rates of such routes have not yet met the relevant standard, i.e. 100 per cent during the busiest half-hour of peak periods and 85 per cent during that one hour, or 60 per cent during the busiest one hour of the off-peak periods. Those members of the public have pointed out that the standard currently adopted by TD with respect to bus occupancy rates is outdated due to a change in riding habits of the public in recent years, including unwillingness to board a bus that is too crowded as well as reading newspapers and using tablet computers on board, etc., which have reduced the actual patronage of buses. As a result, the bus occupancy rates of the aforesaid routes in fact can never meet the standard for frequency improvement. In this connection, will the Government inform this Council:

(1) whether it has any plan to review the standard with respect to bus occupancy rates required for frequency improvement; if it does, of the timetable and whether the scope of the review will include the abolition of the existing means of assessing bus patronage by visual inspection, the inclusion of the numbers of passengers awaiting buses at bus stops in the standard, and the calculation of bus occupancy rates with reference to the standard of accommodating four persons (standing) per square metre newly adopted by the MTR Corporation Limited (MTRCL); if it has no such plan, of the reasons for that;

(2) given that traffic congestion has aggravated the situation of lost bus trips during peak periods which results in passengers awaiting buses being unable to get on board, of the Government's measures to tackle such a problem, and whether the Police will step up law enforcement efforts with a view to reducing traffic congestion; and

(3) whether it will urge franchised bus companies to follow the practice of MTRCL and conduct a trial programme of early bird discount promotion, so as to relieve the demand for bus services during peak periods?



     When adjusting bus service frequencies, the Transport Department (TD) and bus companies would make reference to TD's "Guidelines on Service Improvement and Reduction in Bus Route Programme" (the Guidelines) released in 2010 after consultation with the Legislative Council (LegCo). According to the Guidelines, a reference indicator for frequency improvement is: the occupancy rate of the route reaches 100 per cent during the busiest half-hour of the peak period and 85 per cent during that one hour, or reaches 60 per cent during the busiest one hour of the off-peak period. Meanwhile, the maximum carrying capacity is a sum of the total number of seats and number of standees on the lower deck under an average passenger density level of six persons per square metre. Generally speaking, the number of seats accounts for 70 per cent and number of places for standees accounts for 30 per cent of the maximum carrying capacity of a double-decked bus. In other words, passengers will generally have to stand only when the patronage is above 70 per cent. This is quite different from the situation in MTR trains where the number of places for standees far exceeds the number of seats.

     Apart from the abovementioned reference indicators using occupancy rates, TD and bus companies would take into consideration other factors such as changes in population and passenger demand, and infrastructure development. If there is persistently a longer queue for an individual route and the waiting time for that route is also longer, TD would request bus companies to increase service frequencies with certain flexibilities as appropriate, having regard to cost-effectiveness.

     The current arrangement has a reasonable and objective quantitative basis, while still allowing certain flexibilities as appropriate catering individual circumstances and the actual situation. We do not agree that lower occupancy rates should be adopted in the Guidelines. Otherwise, the decrease in carrying capacity per bus would increase operating costs and induce fare increase pressure. Moreover, an overly-relaxed criterion for frequency improvement will put more buses to run on the road. This would inevitably affect both traffic flow and roadside air quality. We must therefore strike a balance between the benefits and drawbacks very carefully. In fact, one of the major objectives of using the "Area Approach" for bus route rationalisation is to optimise the use of bus resources without increasing the net number of buses serving the area concerned. Buses used for less-patronised routes would be re-deployed to more popular ones and frequencies would be improved according to need. With reference to the Guidelines, TD has increased service frequencies of 170 routes over the past three years, amounting to 30 per cent of all bus routes in Hong Kong.

     It is worth noting that MTR Corporation Limited (MTRCL) would mainly take into account the handling capacity of the signalling system and passengers' waiting time when considering increasing train frequencies. In the case of increasing bus frequencies, bus companies not only have to take into account passenger demand and safety, but also the impact on road traffic and roadside air pollution.

     To alleviate crowdedness on certain sections of the East Rail Line during specific hours, bus companies have introduced, on a trial basis, two morning express routes from Sheung Shui to Tsim Sha Tsui and to Lam Tin respectively in end-August 2014. Bus companies will consider increasing frequencies of these routes or making similar arrangements in other districts if these routes are popular. TD and bus companies will also consider further enhancing such new services, such as by offering no-standee service at a slightly higher fare.

     The Hon Michael Tien has also asked whether bus companies would follow MTRCL's practice in offering early bird discount to divert passenger flow.  Given that the two-minute morning peak headway for urban railway lines has already reached the limit of the existing signalling system, it is no longer feasible to enhance passenger flow by increasing train frequencies. Hence, MTRCL has offered fare concessions to encourage passengers to set off earlier with a view to relieving crowdedness. Franchised bus operation is quite different. Bus companies can deploy buses to increase service frequencies more flexibly to meet rising passenger demand of an individual route. Although road traffic remains a concern, there is no constraint caused by any signalling system. The Government will continue to urge bus companies to make an effort to rationalise bus routes so as to ensure a more cost-effective use of bus resources. I wish to take this opportunity to appeal to LegCo Members to support our work on bus route rationalisation.

     Finally, I must stress that traffic congestion would inevitably affect the reliability of bus services. In light of the increasing vehicular flow while road space is limited, TD has formulated traffic management measures having regard to the actual traffic condition. These measures aim to enhance the capacity of road network and alleviate traffic congestion. Moreover, franchised buses would be accorded priority on road usage when the circumstance permits. Designating bus-only lanes and bus-only lane changing positions by TD could help increase the travelling speed of buses. This in turn could help enhance the reliability of bus services. To have a vehicular flow, the Police have also stepped up their enforcement at various locations against illegal parking/stopping of vehicles and loading/unloading activities of goods and passengers. As invited by the Government, the Transport Advisory Committee is conducting a study on Hong Kong's road traffic congestion and will submit a report to the Government in late 2014.

Ends/Wednesday, October 22, 2014
Issued at HKT 14:18


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