Courier Asks: Are ‘gate-locked’ and ‘seating service’ here to stay?

Thursday, November 9th, 2017


The terms refer to the salient features of a random, unannounced move by a number of bus operators in the capital – first reported in March – to try out their own version of ‘surge pricing’.


It involved converting some of the same buses they were using during off-peak hours to provide ‘local’ service, into what they termed ‘seating’ service: that is to say, they would only take on as many passengers as there were seats available. There were to be no standing passengers, and so once a bus filled all its seats, the door would be bolted shut to prevent people from jumping aboard as they usually do on local buses. Hence the other, more resentful term being applied to the same service by disgruntled commuters: ‘gate-locked’.


Who wins, who loses?


The ranks of the truly dismayed meanwhile, were filled by commuters left stranded on the streets, and there were a large number of them caught off guard by this arbitrary move. That is because cutting out the standing passengers means each bus is able to serve fewer passengers, although those who do get on can expect an altogether more pleasant experience.


To make up the lost revenue in terms of fewer passengers, the buses simply doubled their rates for each journey. So a Tk 10 journey would be costing you Tk 20, some of the Tk 7-8 journeys were now Tk 15, and so on. The arithmetic here clearly favours profiteering on behalf of the bus owners, since excluding standing passengers by no means halved the number of passengers a bus could carry.


Usually, in local service buses, at most roughly 1 in 5 passengers is left standing at any one time. By cutting that slack, as it were, and charging the rest double the usual fare, bus companies were setting themselves up for a potential windfall. In fact, spanning about a month in March-April, many companies did exactly that, before BRTA stepped in to stamp it out to some extent, before their own drive was suspended and some buses continued to provide the services, only somewhat discreetly.


The BRTA-stipulated fare that everyone was obliged to follow made no distinction between ‘seating’ or otherwise. Generally though, those who availed the service reported on the whole a positive experience, and value for money. The rub, clearly, lay in the way that it was implemented. Nothing can justify implementing such a service without advance notice to the paying public.


Even so, a 15-day window was announced for the various interests vested in the transport sector to work out a deal with the government on how to formalise the introduction of what may in the end be called a ‘special service’ plying local routes within Dhaka, during which the drive against such buses would be suspended. But no agreement was reached and the drive remained suspended, lending the impression that the transport companies were succeeding in slipping in the lucrative service (for them) by stealth. In August, an announcement was made whereby the BRTA officially extended the suspension of the drive against the “seating service” buses in Dhaka city by another two months.


The decision was taken as an eight-member committee of BRTA, which was designated to provide recommendations for quality passenger services in mass transport in Dhaka, could not finalise their proposals yet, said Mahbub-E-Rabbani, director (road safety) of BRTA and also the head of the committee.


Now that window has grown to well over six months, and still no clear decision is forthcoming on the part of the authorities. In the last week of October, Road Transport and Bridges Minister Obaidul Quader said the government will take a decision in this regard “within a couple of weeks”.


The committee would submit its report to the ministry within a week, Quader said. Then, a decision over seating services would be taken scrutinising the committee’s recommendations, he told reporters emerging from a meeting of the Road Transport Advisory Council at the ministry. Shipping Minister Shajahan Khan, who enjoys tremendous influence among transport owners, was present there.


Mahbub-E-Rabbani, director (road safety) of Bangladesh Road Transport Authority (BRTA), and also the head of the committee, told The Daily Star: “We have already submitted our report to the chairman of BRTA. Now he will forward the report to the ministry.”


He declined to disclose any detail of the report. However, other committee members, mostly on condition of anonymity, have disclosed to the media that they had opined in favour of “seating service.” But the practice of locking the gate on expectant passengers’ faces will have to go.

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