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Buses to be longer, high tech but perhaps not much better
By Doug Young

THIS week's Street View takes us back to the roads of Shanghai once more, with news that the city is rolling out a new fleet of super-long buses to make more room for millions of residents who are tired of feeling like sardines on their commutes to and from work.

The city is billing these new buses as state-of-the-art technology that will put Shanghai on the global transport map, with plans to put 3,000 of them on the road starting next month. But to me they look suspiciously like a throwback to China's simpler but inefficient past of clunky slow-moving buses staffed by snippity ticket sellers. Perhaps the truth lies somewhere in between.

The city is touting the new buses both for their length and also for high-tech features that make them more friendly for the handicapped and elderly. These lanky vehicles appear to be the city's answer to the double-decker buses that Hong Kong has used to effectively double the capacity of normal buses.

The new buses will have three doors instead of the current two, making it easier for people to get on and off. As a frequent subway and bus rider, I can confirm that it often takes half a minute or more to work one's way to a door during peak hours, and the audio reminder of "please get ready to exit" is one that should be taken quite seriously.

So the addition of another door does seem like a good way to ease the anxiety that many commuters feel when they realize they need to get off the bus or subway soon. The new buses are also filled with amenities making that will make it easier for the elderly and handicapped to get on and off, big spaces that can accommodate wheelchairs and steps that lower down to street level each time the bus stops and the doors open.

But if any of Shanghai's older residents are feeling a sense of déjà vu with these new buses, it's because they certainly do resemble a much older fleet of sluggish vehicles that plied the streets of major cities like Shanghai and Beijing for years until they were gradually taken out of service starting in the 1990s.

My earliest memories of China back in the 1980s were filled with such buses, which were often so packed with people and moved so slowly that it was often easier and even faster to ride a bicycle, even for long distances and during bad weather. Buses during that era were quite Darwinian, as only the fittest, most aggressive people could get on them since they were often filled to capacity.

My other big memory of those buses were the surly ticket takers, most of them snapping at passengers to pay their fares after each stop and then handing them flimsy little paper tickets ripped off from their little wooden boards. God forbid anyone should try to evade a fare, as such people usually got an earful of abuse from the angry ticket taker.

These new buses look strikingly similar to the old ones in terms of length, though the new models lack the accordion section in the middle that helped the older buses to make wide turns more easily. Perhaps the city deliberately made this design change to improve speed and to also disassociate the new buses from their sluggish ancestors. But I do suspect these longer buses could have more difficulty taking wider turns due to their length.

The new buses will also re-introduce the ticket seller, in a move that looks decidedly like a step backward to me. The city says they are necessary because people can get on and off at any of the buses' three doors, making the current automated fare paying system impractical. But I suspect the new system is partly designed to create more jobs for Shanghai's underemployed, much the way the city already does with its armies of traffic assistants and subway safety inspectors.

Perhaps the city will at least give this new army of ticket takers some courtesy lessons, and teach them you don't have to snarl at customers each time you take their money.

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