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Bus network doomed to fail
NICOSIA’S public bus network, extensively overhauled only in 2010, is doomed to fail because of endemic problems that can no longer be solved, a representative from the Nicosia Buses company said this week.
“It’s too late to fix mistakes,” said Sophocles Markides who represents one of the major shareholders of Nicosia Buses, which was set up in 1971 and still runs routes with a fleet of almost 130 buses.
Recent events seem to reflect his pessimism. Bus drivers went on strike earlier this year because they hadn’t been paid their wages. The companies said the government was not paying them their fuel subsidies on time, creating a liquidity problem.
Communications Minister Efthymios Flourentzos said they needed to adjust the rate they paid per kilometre saying it was set too high because when it was agreed in 2010, “no data existed”.
The 2012 budget for public transport, meanwhile, was reduced to €46 million from €68 million, which bus companies said will only cover fuel costs.
Back in 2009, Nicosia Buses opted out of joining the Nicosia arm of the islandwide revamped public system, even though they were an obvious candidate because they had the majority of existing routes and the most buses.
They were concerned that the government had failed to address fundamental issues such as who would be in charge of routes; what bus lanes would be built and where, and how the new bus companies would be formed. Nor could the company accept that fares could be set at one euro per single journey, which the government insisted on, when it was clear to them, this just was not viable. In addition the company felt the whole process was rushed and haphazard
"We were totally confused and didn't have time to negotiate or find out more. As a result, shareholders decided to opt out," Markides said.
“We never got a clear answer, and what followed was chaos."
When Nicosia Buses turned down the contract it agreed to compensation for opting out of the scheme which saw the creation of OSEL, the Nicosia bus company which now runs the public network. Individual shareholders make up each district’s umbrella outfit and charge the government to use their buses and to run routes.
Six bus companies were created, one for intercity routes and five for Cyprus’ districts - Paphos, Limassol, Larnaca, Nicosia and Famagusta. Each company has a ten-year contract with the state.
The government pays companies a rate per kilometre and also leases the buses which comprise the bus network. This is another bone of contention for Markides. The Nicosia Bus company’s buses were small and would have been less costly for the government to lease. They were also more suited to many of Nicosia’s smaller streets.
The government decided that at 15 years old, the fleet was too old and ended up leasing bigger, more fuel hungry buses from other, smaller companies that, according to Markides, “probably thought they found a goldmine”.
There are strong signs that this ‘goldmine’ is now exhausted.
For Markides, the current disarray means a chance to genuinely improve public transport has been lost.
“Many efforts were made [before 2010] to convince the government it needed to change its policy in regards to public transport and urban planning,” said Markides.
“There was no infrastructure, no urban planning, no bus lanes or bus stops.”
He said cities were not being built to accommodate the way people moved: public services were scattered all over cities and people were encouraged to own a private car.
“The point is to get a Cypriot businessman to use a bus rather than his car,” he said adding that unless the infrastructure is in place to make buses easy for people to use “you will only get the people who anyway use buses”.
His point is obvious: most people who use buses in Nicosia are either domestic workers or elderly people who have no choice.
To Markides, the suggestion that buses are for domestic workers is “racist and obscene”.
“Buses are for everyone,” he said.
He said that other cities, such as Limassol, are not as affected by what he describes.
Nicosia, for example, does not have Famagusta’s tourists or Limassol’s cosmopolitan nature: as a generalisation it is a city of lawyers, accountants and civil servants.
To add insult to injury, Markides said the compensation promised Nicosia Buses has not yet been paid. On Friday, the company sent a letter to Communications Minister Efthymios Flourentzos asking for their full settlement.
Although the state had promised 9.0 million euros, the company claims the formula used to work that out had underestimated the amount by 8.0 million euros.
The company said it will go to the European Commission and report a multitude of sins, if they put off paying them any longer or pay others before them.
"If we knew that two years later the government would pay absolutely nothing there is no way we would have accepted," said Markides.
Flourentzos could not be reached for comment.
Nicos Nicolaides, the EDEK deputy who was communications minister in 2010 thinks that despite the ongoing debt crisis and infrastructure problems the bus network can survive.
“We must not give up,” he said. “It’s unthinkable not to have a public transport network.”
Although government officials and insiders say no studies had been done to help create the transport system, Nicolaides was adamant that many studies and action plans had been put together.
“There were very many studies, many action plans, drawers full of them,” Nicolaides said.
“But some [people] - and you can quote me on that - needed to implement the studies. That’s another issue.”
For self-proclaimed pessimist Markides, the currently cash-strapped state “can’t afford” to build the infrastructure and network that should have already been in place.
The state has been “arrogant from ignorance,” he said.
On the buses
One prominent problem with the bus network in Nicosia becomes obvious by looking at its map route.
For example, to get from Engomi - close to the city centre - to the general hospital, lying close to the edge, a person needs to take at least two buses, but sometimes three.
Depending on the time you go, the journey can take as little as 21 minutes to over an hour.
“I would definitely not do this. A visit to the hospital would be time-consuming enough without having to take public transport. Who has that time to spare anyway?” 29-year-old Chara Loizidou said when asked if she would use buses in Nicosia.
Loizidou said she has used public transport abroad - in Europe - because it’s “quick and efficient.”
Driving a private car takes around half an hour.
Website www.cyprusbybus.com helps bus users plan routes.