Hong Kong's third most popular mode of transport is cheap, fast and convenient
Love them, hate them, minibuses get job done Minibuses lining up for fares in Kowloon. A fleet of 4,350 minibuses complements Hong Kong's main transport modes -- PHOTO : ISTOCKPHOTO

The first time I took a xiu ba, I thought I was going to die.

The driver drove like a man possessed, sending the minibus careening wildly along bends. Inside, the 10 or so passengers swayed drunkenly, accompanied by the sweet strains of a Teresa Teng ballad from the radio.

After 10 minutes, I alighted, cross-eyed and slightly dazed. But I had arrived right at my destination, in one piece, for a fare of HK$11 (S$1.80).

There was no MTR train to ShekO, a beach-side village in the south-eastern part of Hong Kong Island. A bus, while cheaper, would have taken twice as long and spat me out at a bus stop some walk away. Taking a taxi would have cost three times more.

Clearly, the 16-seaters affectionately called xiu ba (minibuses) fill a niche in Hong Kong's public transport scene.

They are the third most popular mode of transport after the MTR and franchised buses, accounting for 16 per cent of all trips last year.

Over the years, the minibuses have fought off a lack of government support, encroachment of the rail network, safety issues and even alleged triad involvement, to see daily ridership rise from 1.7 million in 2004 to 1.9 million last year. This is even as ridership of franchised buses slipped from 4.1 million to 3.8 million over the same period.

As Singapore ponders how it can inject more competition into its bus landscape, minibuses might play a part.

Like much of what is successful about Hong Kong, the minibus service is the result of private-sector ingenuity. In 1967, the city was rocked by anti-British riots. Bus and tram drivers went on strike, leaving commuters stranded.

People who owned vans or even cars stepped in to ferry passengers illegally, for a fee.

Mr Leung Hung, 74, a cargo van driver at the time, recalls with a laugh how he would pack eight to 10 people into his vehicle and drive them to work at the factories.

He charged each passenger 50 cents, more than double the 20-cent bus fare, but the faster rides proved a hit, even after the strike ended.

"Business was very good," recalls Mr Leung, now chairman of the Hong Kong Kowloon and New Territories Public and Maxicab Light Bus Merchants' United Association.

Bowing to inevitability, the government legalised minibuses two years later.

Today, a fleet of 4,350 minibuses complements Hong Kong's main modes of transport - the MTR and the franchised buses - by zipping in and out of the city's nooks and crannies, picking up and dropping off workers, housewives, students, and grandparents with grandchildren in tow in the neighbourhood.

Besides speed, the minibuses provide a level of personalised service. One-third have red tops, meaning they follow no fixed routes and pick up passengers at will. But even the majority green buses, which ply 346 regular routes, tend to be flexible and let passengers alight where they want along the way.

The xiu ba has even become a symbol of Hong Kongers' fixation with speed and a fast-paced lifestyle, as a local newspaper columnist put it. The downside, however, is that passenger safety is compromised at times.

Many minibus drivers get a cut of the fares they collect, so they are known to speed in order to do as many rounds as possible. Red minibuses, in particular, are notorious for cutting across lanes to stop for a passenger.

"Hong Kongers, whenever they can make more money, they will," muses transport expert Hung Wing Tat.

Last year, there were 1,067 accidents involving minibuses - 14 per cent of all public transport accidents, which is proportional to their usage. But these tend to be serious, with more deaths and injuries.

Improving safety is a work in progress. The government passed a law last April to "deter driving malpractices". It imposed a speed limit of 80kmh, mandated a speed display for passengers, and designated schools to train new drivers according to a code of practice. The last was to have been completed this month, but the Transport Department tells The Sunday Times it will be delayed to within the year.

More minibuses are being fitted with safety belts, albeit at a slow pace - only 59 per cent have done so, despite a looming deadline next year.

The government is also working at converting the remaining red minibuses to green ones so that they can be regulated, with fixed routes and fares.

As Mr Leung puts it, wryly: "The red one is the 'naughty son' and the green one is the 'good daughter'."

This move will go some way towards quelling talk of triad involvement in the red minibuses.

Perhaps due to their genesis, there has always been a somewhat disreputable whiff about minibuses. In 2003, anti-triad officers investigated two criminal damage cases in which 14 red buses had their windscreens and windows smashed in Kwun Tong.

The Transport Department says a total of 766 individuals or companies own the 1,274 red minibuses. In the more corporatised green-bus sector, 130 operators own the 3,076 vehicles.

In the long run, Professor Hung says, one way of improving safety is for all to adopt a "proper employer-employee relationship with salaries and benefits". But with the self-motivation incentive taken away, he expects fare levels to rise.

The other challenge is profitability. Fuel and maintenance costs are rising. The lack of government support is also striking - the operators are self-financing, without subsidies. Industry growth is curtailed, with the number of licences - each costing from HK$5 million to HK$6 million on the market - capped since 1976. A recent petition to increase the number of seats in the minibuses was rejected.

Prof Hung says the curbs are to put a lid on congestion and also to protect vested interests by franchised bus companies that are owned by property conglomerates Sun Hung Kai and New World. They have "always objected very strongly to minibuses".

Despite this, there is still money to be made, given the rides' abiding popularity. Mr Ricky Tam of the association estimates that a driver working 12 hours a day, six days a week, can take home HK$20,000 a month after deducting a daily rent of HK$900 - higher than the median wage of HK$12,000.

Looking ahead, industry players are hopeful that there will always be a place under the sun for the xiu ba. Prof Hung thinks the government should let some minibus operators take over loss-making routes now covered by franchised buses.

Meanwhile, the swathe of development in the New Territories means that there are areas not yet served by the MTR and franchised buses.

"It's a love-hate relationship," Mr Leung says.

Singapore is less built up than Hong Kong, which may make minibuses less profitable as an enterprise. But it is worth considering if there is scope for minibuses to take over some feeder bus routes plying between MRT stations or bus interchanges and housing estates.

For one thing, this will result in a smaller environmental footprint - the number of half-empty buses rumbling through the estates during off-peak hours can be cut down. During peak hours, the smaller buses can easily be scaled up in frequency, departing speedily as each fills up.

As Singapore's population ages, ideas like letting minibuses drive into HDB carparks and private-estate roads so they can drop off elderly passengers almost at their doorsteps should also be considered.

Hong Kong is refining its own business model and safety measures. Singapore can benefit from its 46 years of experience and pick and choose which elements to adopt.