Government plans to replace the chaotic system of commuter omnibuses with organised bus companies running services on fixed schedules and generally using larger, more efficient buses have been welcomed by commuters, other road users and transport planners.
The kombi owners and drivers are, of course, complaining bitterly, lobbying Government and shouting about potential job losses. Last week the chairman of Harare Private Commuter Omnibus Operators’ Association, Blessing Nyika, expressed concern at Government’s plans, saying that they threatened jobs instead of creating an environment conducive for job-creation.
Job losses are likely to be minimal. The new buses will need drivers and conductors; bus companies will need to employ mechanics and ticket sellers; and the new companies will need to hire people to keep their records, manage their spares and train their drivers in courtesy and customer care. Some of these new jobs do not exist in the present kombi fleet but will be required in proper, decent and modern transport companies. The number of jobs is not likely to decline significantly; there will be instead a greater variety of skills required.
The falling costs to commuters will not come so much from declining payrolls, but more from the efficiencies of using larger buses. A 75-seater bus probably uses no more fuel than a pair of 16-seaters, allowing fuel costs, and all those other costs of spares and consumables, to be more than halved.
Where Mr Nyika needs to be worried is over who will have these new jobs. A bus driver will need to be passionate about safety, law-abiding, courteous and adequately groomed.
While most kombi drivers probably have the driving skills required for the transition, almost all will need a great deal of retraining if they are to be considered for future employment, and perhaps it is this retraining that Mr Nyika should be demanding, rather than keeping his present crews on the road.
We have already seen a transition in another sector, city parking, where the total numbers in employment did not drop. When EasiPark took over the parking in Harare city centre they hired a lot of young women and men to provide the service. The old touts were offered first preference, but most could not accept the discipline required in a regular job. So others were hired and trained, and were grateful for the decent jobs. It will be the same with the new bus companies.
So far as we can see the Government is seeking a regulated industry that is privately owned. This allows groups of kombi owners, should they desire to make the transition, to combine into reasonable-sized companies and start building modern fleets.
On some routes, and certainly on many out of peak hours, kombis might well be the most suitable vehicles for scheduled services. It is not going to be profitable to use a 100-seater to carry 10 people to Hatfield at 10pm. But that kombi will still be on a scheduled service, with a driver wearing a tie, showing he or she has memorised the Highway Code, and calling the passengers Madam and Sir.
The Government needs to start debating with those in the transport industry how to set up the new services, and it needs to give serious thought to the make-up of the regulator; there must be, for a start, people who know precisely how much bus services cost to run as well as representatives of the potential passengers. But the old problems we saw with Zupco – a fat, inefficient company – can be minimised with reasonable private competition and passengers are likely to be rational over how fares are set when they are reminded that the alternative is a return to our present chaos.
So far as we can see, so long as the new system is carefully thought through in advance, so long as the Government shows flexibility in making needed changes rapidly as the system develops, and so long as we phase in the new system as operators build up experience and capital, the changeover will be 100 percent positive: roughly the same number of jobs, although most of them regular and salaried, plus a far better service for the commuters who use the services (and they after all are the ones who count), and safer roads for the rest of us.
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