Note: I was initially planning to make this one post looking at how different types of public transport could be used in Malé, and the Maldives in general. But it became too long, so I separated it into multiple posts, each talking about one different mode of public transport. So this is like a series within a series. This first one will have a short introduction in addition to the whole spiel about buses. There are lots of videos in this post, but you don’t have to watch them in their entirety.


In these posts, we will look at some ideas for developing a public transportation system for islands in the Maldives. We’ll start off in a very Malé-centric way, designing systems just for Malé, before moving on to other islands. We will only be looking at land based public transport that can move people from one part of an island to another. I’ll save sea/air based inter-island transport for other posts.

To start off, we need an accurate idea of what public transport is.

What is Public Transport?

Even though this is one of those terms that everyone intuitively understands, it’s good to have a definition as a starting point so we can see what we’re working towards. Here’s one taken from the repository of all knowledge that is Wikipedia:

Public transport is transport of passengers by group travel systems available for use by the general public, typically managed on a schedule, operated on established routes, and that charge a posted fee for each trip.

The most important parts of this definition are “group travel” and “available for use by the general public”. The rest of the characteristics of public transport are qualified by the word “typically” meaning that they don’t necessarily apply to all systems. And as we know, the population centres of the Maldives are not at all “typical” by world standards.

Based on this definition, taxis would not fully qualify as public transport. I would say they are more of a hybrid between public and private. Still, we will look at how taxis can form part of an integrated public transport system.

Now we can move on to the fun part where we look at all the different types of public transport and how they might work in the Malé.

Buses

Wow, buses! what a revolutionary concept!

But, no, in all seriousness, even though buses aren’t exactly a new thing, they can be a very good form of public transport if done correctly. This is actually the one form of land based public transport that Maldivians have some experience with. Currently buses are used in Hulhumale, Fuvahmulah, and Addu. And during Nasheed’s presidency, Malé also used to have a bus network.

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A bus in Hulhumale
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One of the buses that used to run in Malé

So if we’re going to talk about buses for public transport in the Maldives, it’s not a matter of starting from scratch, but rather a matter of improving on what exists, and learning from what has already been done, both in the Maldives and overseas.

First let’s see what has been done in the Maldives and try to determine the positives and negatives.

Here’s a short clip of people getting onto a bus in Malé when the services first started.

And here’s a report about the bus services made a few years after they started. In it, people explain how the services are substandard.

People’s frustrations with the bus services included long wait times due to lack of frequency, delays, cancellations, and lack of coverage throughout the city. So let’s try to design a system that fixes some of these issues.

Here is a map of Malé on which I have drawn one potential bus route that goes around the perimeter of the island.

Bus Map Malé 1.png

Let’s try to create an ideal bus network, starting with this route.

Frequency

This is one of the key factors that makes or breaks a public transportation system. Services have to be frequent and reliable. The exact frequency depends on the demand. In a densely populated area like Malé, demand for travel is generally pretty high, and relatively even throughout the city, as evidenced by all the traffic everywhere. The frequency also has to be time-competitive with alternative methods of transport. In Malé, this means motorbikes and walking.

With a motorbike, you can go from anywhere to anywhere in Malé within 10 minutes, and on foot, that time increases to 30 minutes. With these modes of transport, there is zero waiting time. For a bus to be able to compete with this, the frequency of services has to be such that there is essentially no waiting time. This is often described as a “turn-up-and-go” service, that is, you turn up to the bus stop, and the bus is there in no time.

The bus services in Malé were supposed to run every 15 minutes, and that’s how it was in when I got to use the services (I can’t remember the year). But in the video, they were talking about waiting half an hour or more for a bus (during which time, they could have walked to their destinations).

I would say that even 15 minutes is too long in a place like Malé. That’s because 30 minutes is the absolute longest time it takes to get from one place to another on foot. Most journeys would be even shorter than that. Therefore, in our ideal bus network, frequencies would have to be much higher than 15 minutes. I once read somewhere that 7 minutes is the magic number at which people stop caring about timetables. At that point, people start treating public transport as a turn-up-and-go service. In our hypothetical Malé bus network, let’s aim a little higher and say that buses arrive at each stop every 5 minutes.

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Timetable for a line of the Tokyo Metro. With they kind of frequency they don’t even have to bother with a timetable.

The perimeter route shown earlier is just under 6 kilometres long. If a bus travels along the route at 20 km/h it would take 18 minutes to go around it once, non-stop. If we factor in traffic, we’ll say that number goes up to 25 minutes. Now, let’s say that there are bus stops every 300 metres along the route, so 20 stops altogether. If the bus spends 30 seconds at each stop, the travel time for the route increases to 35 minutes. We want buses to run every 5 minutes. 35 ÷ 5 = 7, so we would need 7 buses in each direction for this route, so 14 buses altogether. I realise these numbers might be too idealistic, but you get the idea.

The same calculations could be done with any other route as well to determine how many buses are needed.

I think 14 buses is a reasonable investment for one route. It wouldn’t have to start out with that many, though. You could build up to it. Also, this is probably the longest route in Malé, meaning that other routes would need fewer buses.

Fleet

Now that we’ve worked out the number of buses we need to have a good frequency, we can look at what kinds of buses we could use. Once again, it’s a matter of improving on what’s already been done.

If you look at the Malé bus videos again, you’ll notice that the buses only had one door. This is obviously something we do not want for the buses in our new system. One door is annoying for passengers and it slows the bus down, which makes the system less efficient. However, the bus was a good size for the streets of Malé, and that is another important factor we need to consider when we’re dealing with a city as unique as Malé.

So in short, we need a relatively small bus that is easy to enter and exit. And once again, the solution is something that is already used in the Maldives, and technically it’s not even a bus:

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Call it a buggy, golf cart, or whatever else you want. This type of vehicle is perfect for a place like Malé. And we know that because currently, they are used in resorts and regional airports. They’re small, seat a decent number of people, have a short turning radius, and they’re also electric. Not only is this better for the environment and for people’s health, but it also means it’s cheaper to run. In addition, it promotes the image of Malé as a sustainable city. Many cities around the world are now turning to electric buses because of all their benefits. In fact, Shenzhen, a city in the south of China electrified its entire bus fleet consisting of over 16,000 buses at the end of 2017. If a city of 12 million can do it, why not Malé?

But before we get too far ahead of ourselves, there are some other factors to consider. For one thing, what about the weather? I don’t imagine you’d feel too good getting around in one of these while it’s raining. Well fear not; you can get them with doors. Here’s one made by Moto Electric Vehicles:

And here’s a larger one which has a plastic enclosure instead. Personally, I think the doors look better.

Another important thing we should consider is accessibility for people who are disabled. As it turns out, those buggy/golf cart vehicles can also be made wheelchair accessible.

So problem solved. Our new Malé bus fleet will consist of electric, wheelchair accessible, covered golf carts that seat 15 to 25 passengers. If you think that capacity might be a bit too low, I think it would be balanced out by the frequency.

Fares

We know what buses we will use, and how frequently they will run. Now, we need to work out how much people should pay. The previous bus fare in Malé was 5 Rufiyaa per trip. I see no reason to change that. It’s cheaper, and therefore can compete with taxis. It may even be possible to reduce the fare since the buses are electric.

But I’m not really too worried about how much a trip should cost. What’s more important is how people pay, because in my experience with the Malé buses, this was one of the factors that made the service slower and inconvenient.

Each bus in Malé was manned with a driver and a conductor. The conductor would get out at each stop and take the money from passengers and give them tickets before letting them in. This slowed down buses significantly, especially if there was change to be sorted. As far as I know, this is still the way things work in Hulhumale. Also, it was pointless having paper tickets. It’s like “I just gave you the money, you saw me giving you the money, why do I need to have this ticket as proof that I paid for the ride?”

There are a couple of options we could consider to make payment easier:

Man the Bus Stops

Instead of having someone in the bus to collect money, have them at the stops. When people go to a bus stop, they pay before boarding. This makes the process more efficient as payments are made during the waiting time.

Pay the Driver Directly

Because our new buses are much more open than the previous ones, people could just give the money to the driver, as they would in a taxi. The downside is that this would slow things down a little bit.

Smartcards

Card readers are fitted onto the buses and people touch their cards on to pay when they board. This makes things quicker and easier. A possible downside is that it might have to operate on an honour based system, unless it’s possible to have the driver check that each and every passenger uses the card. Malé already has “Dhathuru Cards” for ferries. It wouldn’t be that hard to integrate this into the bus system.

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On a slightly off-topic note, “Dhathuru Card” is such a boring name, isn’t it? London has “Oyster Cards”, Hong Kong has “Octopus Cards” and Sydney has “Opal Cards”. But I guess “Dhathuru Card” actually reflects the card’s purpose.

Coverage

The final factor that makes a public transport network a competitive, viable alternative to private vehicles is its coverage. By spreading the network as much as possible, we put it within reach of a greater number of people. This has a positive feedback effect. If more people use the bus, there are fewer vehicles on the roads, which makes the bus more reliable due to less traffic, which makes more people want to use the bus.

The previous Malé bus network had four routes, but I can’t find any maps. Four was a good start, but since Maldivians have a warped perspective of “walking distance”, I think more routes would be required to put everyone within acceptable walking distance of a bus stop.

This next map shows a hypothetical bus network for Malé. I added five routes to the existing perimeter route for a total of six.

Bus Map Malé 2

I tried to cover as much of the city as possible while also making sure that there weren’t too many one-directional routes. I also tried to make sure that the routes went past important places. For example, the blue, green and red lines pass IGMH and Artificial Beach, and the yellow line passes Republic Square, the museum, the People’s Majlis, Muleeaage, the Friday Mosque, Velaanaage, ADK and a number of schools. The purple line had to be split into a narrow loop due to all the one way streets. The brown line is the mainly to provide extra coverage, but it could complement the yellow line, as it goes in the opposite direction.

And there you have it, our Malé bus network is complete!

In the next post, we’ll look at a different mode of public transport.