Bus in Jaffna.
I’ve been taking the bus a lot lately, which is OK, but also silly. There’s a lot of competitive forces that the bus operators are just ignoring. Bus operators compete on speed, racing across routes. Since they stop every kilometer, however, this doesn’t make the ride significantly faster, just more dangerous. What they don’t compete on is quality, and I’m thinking they should.
Privatization Without Competition
At any time of the day you can catch one of five buses going down the Galle Road. Some end in Moratuwa, some end in Matara but if you’re going to any place in between it doesn’t matter. What’s weird is that the price is always the same, and it’s always insanely low, about Rs. 10 from town to town. Therefore, the buses are all essentially the same, same worn seats, same metal frame, same grinding engine, same portrait of Lakshmi pouring money from her hand.
This would be unremarkable for a state bus system, but these are private buses. There would theoretically be competition, but it seems to be a cartel. Once they get the route, they just put out an identical product and compete based on speed and insanity. There’s actually more variation among the state-owned buses (New Buses In Colombo, Southern Expressway Bus).
I honestly don’t think bus privatization of decades ago has been a success. The contracts seem to go out to politically connected people anyways and the service continually sucks. I used to take the bus with my Achchi when I was young and I’m still taking the same buses. The bus system could have diversified, tried different things and made more money, but nobody seems to care. You can’t blame this all on the private buses, I think fares are limited and regulated, but if they made some investment they could lobby for exceptions.
Supply And Demand
Sometimes the buses are insanely full and sometimes they’re empty. Sometimes they don’t run (ie, at night). When they’re full the price is the same as when empty. This doesn’t make sense, for anybody. At rush hour, I would much rather pay, like, double (still Rs. 20) to not be wedged into someone’s armpit. At night I would gladly pay Rs. 50 because at that point the alternative is a Rs. 200 trishaw. One would think that a privatized system would adapt to these market realities, but it doesn’t.
The Southern Expressway Bus costs Rs. 400, Rs. 430 if you include booking. I haven’t taken the Galle Road bus all the way to Galle in years, but I don’t think it costs more than Rs. 100. Yet the SEX Bus is consistently overbooked. There’s obviously a demand to save time, and for a bit more comfort (it’s a tourist style coach). The demand is mostly for time, but people don’t mind the comfort.
For the daily city commute, I’d say that comfort is more important, because traffic limits your speed no matter what you do. If there are five buses passing on the Galle Road and one of them A) has seats and B) is modern I would pay extra to take that. I understand that I have more money than the average bus goer, but the average bus goer is actually a diverse lot. Some of them can afford to pay for quality, which in this case is not being treated like luggage.
I don’t think the government privatizes anything it cares about, and it always tries to make money. Buses were privatized yonks ago I think out of neglect and greed. I don’t even oppose nationalizing the whole city system and running it properly, like they do in most metros. I’ve actually never taken a private bus outside of Sri Lanka, even in America. They’re always run by the city, on monthly passes or tokens. Then you can run better buses, following the law, running on schedules, and generally making life and productivity better.
Barring that, the private bus operators should be allowed (and perhaps forced) to compete more, and more people should be allowed in. If I want to run a 24-hour ice cream and baila bus I should be allowed to try that out, at a reasonable price-point, and succeed or fail. That would be the benefit of privatization. Instead we get a private system without (valuable) competition and millions of Sri Lankans pissed off, tired, and in each others armpits.