The demand for public transport in southern Taiwan has decreased. At a time when oil prices are rising, 250 remote bus routes will be axed by the end of this month. This will shrink the public transportation network and affect at least 40 townships in southern Taiwan, leaving residents with no public transport options. Of these, mountainous areas, sea front locations and Aboriginal settlements will be most seriously inconvenienced. The access to education and medicine, as well as the standard of living for the elderly and for school children, will suffer.
Currently, the public transport system as a whole, including national, regional and urban bus companies, is facing financial difficulties. Even companies operating along the old "golden route" of national transport are suffering losses since the launch of the Taiwan High Speed Rail and are reducing the frequency of their services.
In local transport, negative competition because of poorly structured routes and overlap between ill-conceived routes devised by central and local governments have caused increasing losses. As government subsidies are limited, bus companies are axing routes on a large scale.
The hike in oil prices presents a good opportunity to discourage private transport and encourage public alternatives -- unfortunately the government has not responded to this trend. As soon as the routes in the south are terminated, central and northern public transport, and even some national and urban bus routes, will follow suit in a domino effect. The ensuing transport problems are likely to be severe.
The nation's public transport system needs to be rescued and this requires immediate attention. There are a few viable policy choices.
First, the government should re-allocate the funds collected from air pollution fines, fuel tax, traffic violations and parking fees. One example of this would be increasing parking fees around Taipei's Xinyi District during the computer exhibition at the World Trade Center and then distributing these funds proportionally to central and local governments as a development fund earmarked for the management of policy planning and the implementation of public transport policies.
Second, proactively adjust the structure of local bus routes as soon as possible. Separate out local bus routes that link secondary cities to major cities, which do not require subsidies as demand is sufficient. Routes that link townships to major cities via secondary cities should be organized by the central government and the subsidies for these should become the responsibility of the Directorate General of Highways. Routes that link townships to secondary cities should be organized and subsidized by local governments, as well as community service routes, linking communities or Aboriginal settlements to townships. Public transport routes, for linking public transport stations to major or secondary cities, should be the responsibility of and subsidized by operators such as the Taiwan High Speed Rail.
In addition, local transport committees should be established to ensure that routes are not established in exchange for favors and to implement transportation policies in a smooth manner so that the impact on the public and the operators can be reduced.
Third, create a modus operandi that prioritizes public transport. During rush hours, increase the use of bus-only lanes to give priority to public transport. For instance, the on-ramp control at Hsuehshan Tunnel (雪山隧道) on National Highway No. 5 during rush hour should prioritize buses, in addition to having bus-only lanes on the on and off-ramps to highways to reduce congestion.
During an age of global warming and energy depletion, public transport is the most effective way of improving traffic flow, equalizing regional development, efficiently using energy resources, reducing the environmental impact and guaranteeing social equality. One of the benchmark criteria for assessing advanced cities is the management and planning of public transportation.
The government should construct a sustainable mechanism for prioritizing public transport and create an inclusive system that services remote and disadvantaged groups.
Lee Ke-tsung is an associate professor of traffic and transportation engineering and management at Feng Chia University.
Translated by Angela Hong
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