The Sunday Mail
The rise in kombi fares last week was triggered by a shortage of fuel, although the reaction of drivers, and probably owners, was way over the top and even as fuel started flowing into service stations fares remained around 50 percent more than a week ago despite the drop from mid-week double fares.
Several factors contributed to the fare crisis. First the buses run by Zupco and its franchise holders appeared significantly scarcer. The previous attempts by kombis to raise fares through the roof had been defeated by the arrival of the Zupco service. While the State-owned company could not even begin to cope with demand, enough buses from the vastly diminished Zupco fleet and those companies brought in to supply the basic service were enough to break the kombi cartels and force equivalent fares, or near equivalent fares. When supply rises to meet a fixed demand then the advantage moves to buyers and prices tend to fall.
Fuel shortages at service stations for much of last week, meant many kombi drivers were queuing for hours to buy a full tank, reducing the number of kombis actually providing services at any one time. The laws of supply and demand now kicked in over the opposite direction. Demand for public transport is pretty constant. A sharp reduction in the number of seats, both in the large buses and kombis, meant that those still providing services could jack up prices.
A curiosity in the business model for kombis increased the pressure to push up fares. Although the authorities talk about kombi operators, as if they are large companies providing transport services, this is not the case. Kombi owners maintain and license the kombis but rent them out by the day to the drivers for a fixed charge. Drivers are responsible for fuel and the daily fee. In effect every single driver is a kombi operator and performs this role as an independent contractor.
To show a profit for a day, a driver has to carry enough passengers to cover his fuel and day-charge, plus the tout charges at formal and informal terminuses, and the sum he has promised his conductor. This explains some of the behaviour that so exasperates other road users: kombis weaving through traffic, jumping lanes without signals, and insisting on queuing at informal terminuses blocking streets.
The same problem also helps explain some of the pressures on drivers to raise fees when they spend hours queuing for fuel. Some claim they are buying black-market fuel, which is probably a lie. But even if they were buying more expensive fuel that still drives up their total daily costs by far less than 50 percent. Fuel is not the largest cost for a kombi driver and even doubling fuel costs will have a far more modest impact on daily costs. An increase in daily rents by kombi owners is far more damaging.
The reduction in buses and kombis on many routes, plus the higher kombi fares, had some exceptionally undesirable safety implications. The shortages meant more people were using pirate taxis, or even cadging lifts from passing motorists wanting to offset their fuel and other bills on their way to work or home. These drivers are neither licensed nor insured for public transport and many lack the skills standard. So what can be done?
First the authorities have to ensure that the bus fleets operated by Zupco and its associates are kept on the road. This might well require special fuelling arrangements. In addition plans to expand the Zupco fleet must be accelerated. A Zupco bus is usually a first choice for passengers; the majority resort to other carriers because there are not enough Zupco buses.
Secondly consideration needs to be given to assigning a priority to refuelling kombis. This could be tricky, since the plan would have to be to provide fuel for kombi operations, not fuel for a black market. But the ingenuity of cheats could be defeated by a number of measures: ration cards that had to be filled and stamped by participating service stations, locked fuel tank covers with keys kept at the service station, measuring devices.
As with increasing the number of Zupco buses, cutting queues for kombis would also ensure that more were on the road at any one time, thus increasing the supply adequately to meet the demand at ordinary fares. Market forces can work in both directions. Whatever solution is adopted, we need a solution that ensures that there are adequate seats on offer to move commuters to and from work and school. Not everyone owns a car, and even if they did we should remember that even a single kombi replaces 15-30 cars on the road, relieving congestion, which admittedly is bad enough.