Did you ever wonder which genius invented these fabulous grey-blue buses with a digital number display in the front window? Secondly, what does the “M” stand for in the name M-Bus?
The first time I was very positively surprised because it was an innovation in Korea’s public transport system. I loved the buses for their comfort, concept and branding. Since some months I rely on them on a daily bases and I have to say that my love turned fast into dislike (and in some very weak moments I hate these buses). I will try to describe my relationship with the M-Buses in this post.
Concept of M-Bus
Launched in 2009 with six pilot project lines the M-Bus proved very fast to be successful. M-Bus stands for “metropolitan express bus” and the main intention of this type is to attract long-distance commuters to public transport. Statistics say that it worked (for the pilot project around 8% of passengers originally drove to work in their car). The M-Bus doesn’t allow standing passengers during the ride. On the lower left corner of the front window a digital display shows how many seats are left:
There was one more motivation behind this new bus: The M-Bus used a new financing structure, which satisfied Seoul Metropolitan Government and Gyeonggi-do at the same time. The main problem is that Seoul operates public transport under a quasi-public management system, whereas Gyeonggi-do has a private management system. Seoul tries to keep the quality of service as high as possible while keeping the costs low. Gyeonggi-do focuses more on profitability of bus lines.
Completion of new cities increased the demand of bus routes. The previously mentioned opposing management systems hindered fast expansion. That’s why the Korea Transport Institute came up with a new concept: The ministry, who takes care of transport, can issue permits to private companies to operate on certain routes, if they follow certain rules and standards.
The first step is that a council of experts chooses a new route for the M-Bus. This also includes the number of stops. Usually there are only four stops in a distance of 5km. In the next step this council receives business proposals by bus operators and in the final step they choose one of them to operate for a couple of years (between 6 and 9 years). The company has to fulfill particular conditions. It ensures a high quality of public transport while it is totally privately managed. The first routes have been the following:
To make the M-Bus lucrative, the ministry set higher fare prices than for other express-buses. Usually the basic fare for the M-Bus is 2,300 KRW (there are sometimes exceptions on new routes, where the fare costs only 2,000 KRW for the first year).
Majority of the vehicles are new and so they have very high standards. The seats are more comfortable than other buses. Once I took a M-Bus which had an air-purifier, phone charging stations, umbrella holder and newspapers for free. OK, this was a big exception. The M-Bus is very fast because of the low number of stations and as soon as the bus is full, it doesn’t stop at any station.
Evaluation among users showed a strong satisfaction. I can understand why: After walking and cycling that is the most convenient way of commuting:
I think that through the M-buses Koreans learned to wait in a line for the bus. Almost every bus-station, which is served by M-Bus, has a sign on the floor and the bus always stops in front of that. All red express buses have nowadays also waiting lines.
If you take the last M-Bus at night, the rule of limited seats doesn’t apply. This is really nice!
The first problem is the high price for a ride in the M-Bus. For sure, the service quality is better but for me it’s more importantly to receive my destination fast. Hereby, I see only minimal advantages but I feel a much lighter wallet at the end of the month.
The number of seats is limited and so it’s a big challenge to get a seat in the morning. In the evening between 6:15 pm and 7 pm it’s also difficult but Koreans tend to be more flexible in the evening. Of course, during peak times the buses are coming more regular but in some cases the high number of operating vehicles still isn’t sufficient. A lot of times I see that (like in the picture on the right): 0 seats left and the bus just passes by. That’s frustrating.
From my personal opinion a district in a city of Gyeonggi-d0 shouldn’t be served only by M-Bus. The standard should be the normal red Gyeonggi-do express bus and the M-Bus is more like a premium upgrade for a more sophisticated group of public transport users.
The concept of M-Bus is really nice and branding as well as the vehicle design are good. Choice is very important. Of course, it’s impossible to give every citizen in Korea a subway station, bus, M-Bus and highway connection but at least a red Gyeonggi-do bus and M-Bus to choose between would be very nice.
Resources and Related Links: Lessons from Transition in Urban Transport Policy