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Bangkok Case Study
Title: Study of Urban Public Transport Conditions inBangkok, Thailand
Author: Richard Meakin
Date: April 2005
Download the case study (MS Word 1MB)


Regulatory framework
Private sector participation
Structure and organization
Route network
Inappropriate framework
General law and order
The current reform initiative

The Bangkok Metropolitan Region (BMR) covers over 2,000 sq km. In 2000, its population was estimated at 11.4 million.


Regulatory framework
There are about 20 agencies, departments and enterprises with responsibilities in the public transport sector. The organization of transport is typified by bureaucratic and outdated policy directives and ill-defined organizational objectives, and an ad hoc approach to planning with focus on individual projects and routes rather than an integrated system.

Urban public transport in Bangkok is primarily the responsibility of central government through the Ministry of Transport (MOT). The Office of Transport & Traffic Policy & Planning (OTP), Department of Land Transport (LTD), and Bangkok Metropolitan Transport Authority (BMTA), all agencies of MOT, are responsible for key functions with respect to urban bus services.

TheBMTA was created in 1976 to take over bus services within Bangkok and to and from the adjacent four provinces from 26 public and private companies, most of which were unprofitable. The private bus companies not taken over continued as joint-service operators under subsidiary agreements with BMTA. Minibuses, microbuses and passenger vans were subsequently added as BMTA joint-service partners. In effect, BMTA has a monopoly on bus operating rights in Bangkok.

The metropolitan local authority, Bangkok Metropolitan Administration (BMA), is also authorized to engage in mass transit and other transport activities, including the management and supervision of bus terminals, within Bangkok. It has not exercised its power to engage in the operation of bus services but is the sponsor of the elevated Bangkok Mass Transit System (BTS). However, the current Governor of Bangkok (the head of BMA) has committed his administration to the inauguration of Bus Rapid Transit routes using segregated rights of way along major roads.

Many previous studies of the Bangkok transport sector have recommended that responsibility for the planning and regulation of bus services, including the supervision of BMTA, should be transferred from central government to BMA. However, BMA does not favour the transfer.

Fares are set by the LTD although in practice Bangkok bus fares are regarded as such a sensitive political issue that decisions on fare increases are referred to the Cabinet.

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Private sector participation
Reforms were proposed for the transport sector in 1999 that would reduce the role of the state, enhance private sector participation and clearly separate policy, regulation and operation. Immediate financial restructuring was planned for BMTA. As an initial measure BMTA was required by Cabinet to increase private sector participation through granting concessions to the private sector for some new routes, leasing buses instead of purchase, and contracting out maintenance and repair of buses. The legalization of the network of unlicensed passenger van services in BMR was also cited as a privatisation measure.

It was further proposed that BMTA should cease operating buses and should award concessions for the private operation of the basic, loss-making, non air-conditioned bus services. Bus operations capable of cost recovery would be operated by the private sector under franchises.

The concessions and franchises would be awarded by a new agency, the Public Transport Regulator. Services would be planned and directed by a proposed Public Transport Bureau under the Ministry of Transport. BMTA would thus lose its sub-licensing powers.

By March 2005, none of these reforms had been implemented. The re-organization of departmental functions carried out in 2002 to consolidate responsibilities for public transport planning and regulation in the Ministry of Transport did not extend to the creation of a regulatory agency.

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Structure and organization
In 2003, a total of nearly 16,000 vehicles were operated on fixed-route services in Bangkok. These included 3,606 buses operated directly by BMTA, 3,293 other buses, and 3,247 minibuses, 5,531 passenger vans and 168 microbuses. A total of approximately 218 routes were operated excluding van and microbus routes.

BMTA has been incurring deficits since its establishment. Pressures to reform BMTA have increased with the size of its accumulated deficit which is now approaching $1 billion. The main strategy to slow the increase in BMTA’s deficits has been to increase the role of the private sector by reducing the number of buses owned by BMTA and increasing the number owned and operated by the private sector and the number leased by BMTA.

The joint-service private operators operate in parallel with BMTA’s buses on most routes. Some routes are exclusively private and some are exclusively BMTA, but most are shared. Recently some new routes have been awarded exclusively to private operators in pursuance of the government’s instruction to increase private sector participation in the bus sector.

The private big bus sector comprises about 35 companies. Most are small family-owned firms with 30 to 50 buses. Only five companies have more than 100 buses, and one dominates the sector with a fleet of over 1,000.

LTD's policy is to restrict the size of minibuses and for them to form part of the basic network of low-quality minimum-fare services rather than adopt air-conditioning and a higher fare. There are two types of minibus (excluding microbuses). Main road minibuses operate on 58 main routes, either on exclusive routes or jointly with BMTA. Songtael (light trucks adapted to carry passengers on side-benches) operate 111 local feeder routes.

The 1,175 non air-conditioned main road minibuses had their origins as illegal songtaels which explains, but does not justify, the restrictive regulatory policy towards them.

LTD’s stated policy regarding main road minibuses is to phase them out but until now most licences have been renewed. No replacement of vehicles is permitted by LTD so they have been re-bodied and re-engined many times and are now over 20 years old. LTD has offered to issue one full-size bus licence in exchange for two minibus licences but this option is not attractive to operators.
The 2,045 Soi minibuses are pick-up trucks adapted with 8-20 seats. They operate fixed routes, mainly in the outer areas and suburban villages. Control is ineffective and many vehicles are unlicensed.

Passenger vans are 12-seat, air-conditioned minibuses which have developed over the last 10 years. During the 1980s and 1990s many middle class housing developments were constructed in the outer suburbs of Bangkok while a new network of expressways provided rapid access to the city centre. BMTA did not recognize the potential for premium express commuter bus services connecting the outlying estates with the core.

As a result, illegal air-conditioned vans began to meet this demand and presented government with a policy dilemma that took years to resolve. Legalization was presented in August 1997 as a scheme to establish small scale mass transit cooperatives within the BMTA joint service scheme. Currently some 5,530 passenger vans operate about 116 routes within BMR. Others are directly licensed by LTD, while about 3,100 are estimated to operate illegally.

There is an obvious risk that under BMTA's control, the van route network will be unable to respond to demand. Route alterations may be subject to bureaucratic procedures and BMTA may use its powers as a regulator to protect its interests as an operator. The imposition of a restrictive regulatory policy on vans, whose origins lie in their flexibility and demand-responsiveness, may again create conditions where operators must breach license conditions to meet passenger demand.

The Bangkok Microbus Company (BMC) started operation under the BMTA joint service arrangement in 1992, providing premium, all-seated services operating 400 23-seat air-conditioned midi-buses on 10 routes. BMTA was a minority shareholder. The company was confined to secondary routes where it offered little competition to BMTA services, although revenue was poor. Forty routes, and a fleet of 2,200 buses were planned.

By 1996, BMC had a fleet of 863 buses on 35 routes. In 1997 it announced that it would discontinue its services, citing unsustainable losses and inability to pay the BMTA royalties and vehicle leasing fees. By the end of 1998, only 300 Microbuses remained in operation on 20 routes.

Despite being close to bankruptcy BMC has remained in operation. Only about 168 of its newer vehicles remain in operation on about 11 routes. Services are irregular and all the premium features (no standing, on-board video and newspapers) have been dispensed with. There is now very little supervision of Microbus operations by BMC.

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Route network
No systematic bus route network planning process is in place either in BMTA or government. The network has evolved incrementally in belated response to evident changes in demand, public pressure, requests from BMTA or other operators or political interventions.

The licensing of multiple operators and multiple modes on the main routes means that service development cannot be delegated to the operators. On the contrary, changes to services require LTD and BMTA to engage in negotiations with incumbent operators who are likely to resist increased capacity on their routes.

The last major intensive surveys and re-routings were carried out two decades ago. Although several studies of the bus network have been commissioned, constraints on the introduction of changes, are severe, due partly to the problem of negotiating with multiple small operators who may be affected by the changes.

OTP has recently stated that BMTA bus routes are too long, and that it will impose a maximum route length of 15 km to facilitate control. This means cutting the longest bus routes in the city center, a plan that is constrained by the lack of central terminal space and the flat fare structure under which the fares on many non air-conditioned routes do not increase with distance.

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Inappropriate framework
Institutional deficiencies lie at the heart of Bangkok’s public transport problems. The proliferation of different agencies and ministries with transport responsibilities has been reduced since 2002. But there is still no single agency responsible for public transport policy and regulation, while no agency undertakes the essential service monitoring and planning process.

BMTA holds an effective monopoly of bus services in Bangkok and has a power to sub-licence private operators on its routes. This creates a conflict of interest between BMTA’s roles as a regulator and an operator. BMTA has often used its regulatory powers to protect its commercial interests.

The procedure for licensing operators to routes is not transparent and there is no element of competition to select the most competent operator. License conditions are frequently over-ridden by political directives, for example on fares. Government previously adopted a fare escalation policy based on an index of input costs but has frequently disregarded it for short-term political reasons.

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General law and order
Although Thailand is a relatively orderly society with strong community values, compliance with inconvenient regulations is low. The common disregard of minor regulations by the general population reflects the archaic and arbitrary content of much of the legislation, and local conditions that often make compliance impractical. These conditions enable enforcement officials to apply the regulations arbitrarily and discriminately, creating many opportunities for corruption.

In the public transport area, regulations on vehicle construction and maintenance, driver licensing, adherence to authorized routes, fares, schedules and stopping places are widely disregarded. Enforcement efforts are spasmodic and seldom sustained.

An important area of non-compliance is the operation of unlicensed services. The lack of monitoring of demand and service planning, and the rigid and bureaucratic route licensing regulations have created many opportunities for unlicensed transport operators to meet demand where the BMTA monopoly has failed to do so.

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The current reform initiative
The introduction of bus rapid transit (BRT) was an election pledge by the present Governor of BMA who took office in late 2004. A study was commissioned to review the feasibility of the proposed BRT routes, and also advise on the reform of the organization of the bus sector in Bangkok.

The study recommended that the responsibility for managing and procuring bus services in BMR should be transferred to BMA. BMA would establish a Bangkok and Regional Transit Authority (BRTA) which would regulate all public transport modes. BRTA would be governed by a board chaired by the Governor of Bangkok and would include representatives of the five constituent provinces of BMR and representatives of national transport agencies.

A Bus Transit Agency would be established under BRTA which would be responsible for managing the bus system including fares policy, planning, integration with rail and ferry modes, planning and management of infrastructure and information systems and procuring services by means of competitively bid performance-based contracts.

The principle of creating an authority to plan and procure bus services, leaving BMTA as one of a number of commercial bus operators, has been proposed many times over the last two decades and has gained support in the Thai government. However, the transfer of the responsibility for bus operations in Bangkok to BMA is regarded as a separate issue.

Since the strategy proposed is competition for the market (the award of operating rights by competitive tender) rather than competition in the market the efficiency of the future bus network will be heavily dependent on the capability of the BTA’s planners.

However, many of the deficiencies of BMTA result from insufficient professional skills both within BMTA and in Thailand in general. Neither LTD nor BMTA has professionally qualified transport planners to undertake analysis of demand and to design the network and services. The private joint service operators are usually small family businesses without formally qualified professional staff.



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