To privatise or not
The bus service seems to have been in the news more often than any other government department or agency. Certainly, more than tourism, one of the twin pillars of our economy. This important mode of transport to many has had a tumultuous time these past few years —from a long-overdue and then rejected schedule, contractual disputes, an ailing fleet that is finally beginning to get replenished and industrial action taken by the workers.
Our bus service has not been dependable. Along with their union representatives, they have lost the trust of many. Who would have believed the apparent chasm that has been formed between a labour government and one of its key supporters, the union?
There have been calls for privatising the service, an opinion I do not agree with. Although our bus service must become more reliable and, in some cases, more accessible, I do not believe privatisation of the service would be the best strategy for the island going forward.
The No 1 goal of private transit is understandably to earn a profit, rather than providing the best possible service. Running a private bus service at a profit would put the focus on only the popular routes and busy times of the day that would achieve a positive return. In contrast, public transportation aims to provide service on both profitable and unprofitable routes throughout the day, which creates and supports a more comprehensive network.
The British Government predicted, in the early 1980s, that deregulation would lead to a better bus service that would have greater efficiency and lower costs. The Government claimed that competition would help to keep costs down. However, privatisation to date has failed to achieve those goals. In fact, passengers have seen huge price increases. Between 2009 and 2019 alone, bus fares have increased by more than 60 per cent.
Efficiency is an important goal for a transportation service, but it should not be the only aim of a society that wants to achieve balance. Inclusivity is also key for both the individual and the wellbeing of a community. As I often state, a happy community leads to a productive society, and benefits everyone in it.
Public transportation is an essential service for those that rely on it the most, who tend to be women, students, older people and those who cannot afford their own private vehicle. It is also a valuable service for those that choose to use it, such as our tourists.
Mass transit services such as buses and ferries can deliver significant economic value for a country. However, the number of people using our public transportation has declined steadily over time. According to the Department of Statistics’ Transport Report, the number of road passengers has decreased from 4.3 million in 2007-08 to 2.4 million in 2017-18. That is a reduction of 44 per cent.
Bermuda’s public transportation service is obviously not reaching its potential to take full advantage of the many benefits — whether that is because of the dysfunction, loss of credibility, or a lack of investment in the infrastructure. For sure, our public transit product is not in demand as it used to be.
Some may be asking themselves why they should care, especially those who do not use public transportation. In addition to public transit giving mobility to those that rely on it, to get them where they need to go, there are other important benefits that are not fully realised and appreciated.
Here are four positive benefits of public transportation that aligns with present goals and challenges we face as a country:
Bermuda has approximately 50,000 registered road vehicles, which includes about 22,000 private cars and 20,000 auxiliary and motorbikes. Although traffic congestion is an issue on the island, mass transportation contributes towards reducing it on our roads. Simply put, the more people who take advantage of public transportation, the less congested our roads would be.
Bermuda has far too many accidents. Nearly five people on average visit the hospital every day for injuries that have been sustained on our roads. A good way to avoid those injuries is to ride the bus or take the ferry, as they are the safest modes of transportation on our island.
Globally, transport accounts for between 25 per cent and 30 per cent of greenhouse-gas emissions and much of the world’s transportation remains focused around cars. I would expect Bermuda’s numbers to be similar; in fact, maybe even higher with the large number of cars and bikes on our roads. Public transportation reduces the number of people driving single vehicles, as fuel is conserved and air pollution decreases.
We are a small country, and to some our carbon emissions may seem inconsequential. However, climate change is a global problem and every country must do its part. The introduction of our new electric buses will help us to achieve our goals even more.
Cost of living
If there is one thing that we all can agree on, Bermuda is expensive, and owning, operating and maintaining a car on the island is not cheap. At existing rates, all-zone bus passes are $676 per adult per year. For some car owners, that is equal to a month or two of fuel. There are many shouts that the Government should lower the cost of living. Public transportation is available to all.
Although I do not believe public transit should be privatised, I do not believe the present model of how it is managed should continue, either. Public transportation needs a fresh new start, and it needs to regain the trust of those that rely on it the most, and the other taxpayers that fund it. There needs to be better relations with the workers and their union representatives. The service needs to market itself, attract new customers and earn more revenue. Our public transportation needs to be modernised and steered in the right direction for growth and sustainability.
There needs to be an entity that would guide Bermuda’s public transportation service into the 21st century and be accountable for it. I suggest the service should be under the responsibility of a Transport Authority, which is not dissimilar to how many other countries manage their public transit.
Our public transportation is too essential to be “business as usual”.
• Malcolm Raynor has worked in the telecommunications industry in Bermuda for more than 30 years. Benefiting from Cable & Wireless’s internal training and education programmes held in Bermuda, Barbados, St Lucia (The University of the West Indies) and Britain, he rose to the level as senior vice-president. An independent thinker possessing a moderate ideology, his opinions are influenced by principle, data and trends