IT'S 3 A.M., you’re drunk, and you’re in Hong Kong’s famous nightlife district, Lan Kwai Fong. You check your pockets: HK$20 (about £2), not even enough for a taxi. How will you get home?
Then, as you stumble down D’Aguilar Street to Queen’s Road, the answer reveals itself: the red minibus. You pile on, sit down and notice a sticker pasted above the driver, warning that you will be charged HK$300 if “your vomitus smears the carriage.” Then you notice the oversized speedometer hanging from the ceiling, next to which is another warning: “The maximum speed of this vehicle is limited to 80 km/h.”
Except it isn’t, as you soon find out when the minibus departs, racing down Connaught Road to the Cross-Harbour Tunnel, its speed soaring above 80 as a warning light flashes and the speedometer squeals. You look around at your fellow passengers perched on padded pleather seats: Chinese bar-goers, Nepalese restaurant workers, European exchange students. There are plastic handles on the back of each seat — useful for when the bus swings around a corner at high speed. There are seatbelts, but few people wear them.
Hong Kong is often said to have one of the best public transport systems in the world. The former British colony has the world’s largest fleet of double-decker buses, 18,000 taxis, and a spotless, efficient subway system known as the MTR. And yet, every day, thousands of people opt to ride one of the 1,138 red-topped, 16-seat Toyota Coaster minibuses that are notorious not only for their speed, but for their eccentric drivers, unregulated fares, and tendency to smash into other vehicles.
According to the Hong Kong Transport Department, between 2005 and 2015, minibuses were involved in 12,237 road accidents, with an average rate of 256 crashes per 1,000 vehicles — nearly 20 times the accident rate of private cars. “Once I was on the bus from Causeway Bay down to Shau Kei Wan [and] the driver was reading a newspaper,” says industrial designer Danny Fang. “Funny, I was the only one who said something about it.”
So why take the minibus if it’s so dangerous? Easy, says one veteran driver, who would only give his name as Mr. Ho. “It’s fast.”
Minibuses exist to plug a gap in the public transport network
It’s also convenient. Uber still isn't dominant here, and unlike other forms of public transport, red minibuses are only loosely regulated, which gives them the ability to run a point-to-point service between destinations, changing the route as necessary to avoid traffic jams or pick up more passengers. Most routes are well-established by tradition, though, so rather than requesting their destination when they board the bus, passengers know where to catch a bus heading in their direction. Minibuses seat a maximum of 16 passengers and all passengers must be seated, so once a bus fills up, it becomes an express service until the first passenger needs to get off, making it a particularly speedy way to travel long distances.
Hong Kong isn’t alone in having a network of informal minibuses. Similar systems exist in Manila, where old military jeeps known as Jeepneys roam the streets, while minibus taxis connect far-flung neighbourhoods in Johannesburg and Cape Town. Even New York has a network of jitneys known as “dollar vans” that connect immigrant enclaves. But in most of these cases, minibuses exist to plug a gap in the public transport network. Only in Hong Kong do they compete directly with such a comprehensive array of buses and trains.
It’s a system that dates back to 1967, when the Cultural Revolution spilled over the border from China. Left-wing agitators were intent on overthrowing the colonial British government, and Hong Kong was crippled by protests, strikes and riots. When drivers from the city’s major bus companies went on strike, shared taxis that had long served the rural New Territories began to illegally pick up passengers in the urban areas of Kowloon and Hong Kong Island. The colonial government decided to legalize this additional service.
Today, the government mandates the number of seats and the type of vehicle that may be used as minibuses, which it refers to officially as “public light buses.” Other than that, drivers are free to determine their own routes and fares. Drivers are free agents who rent the vehicles for a shift — the going rate is HK$800 per day — which gives them extra incentive to drive quickly and pick up as many passengers as possible.
It also leaves them free to personalize their vehicles as they see fit. Some driver keep a potted plant on their front dash, while others glue down anime figurines and other toys. Cantonese opera often plays through the stereo, though late-night drivers prefer something racier – like throbbing techno music.
A distinct culture has developed around the minibuses. Most passengers call out their stops by street name or landmark — “Garbage depot, please!” — while those unfamiliar with the route employ the all-purpose Cantonese phrase yau lok, which simply means “get off.”
“Not only do you have to shout out really loud in the middle of a bus packed with people, but once you do then it'll swerve frighteningly across the road, whatever is around, and skid to a stop,” recalls former Hong Kong resident Nicholas Olczak, who often used minibuses to get around town.
The government has often had a contentious relationship with red minibuses. In the 1980s, it began issuing licenses for green minibuses, which have regulated routes, stops and fares. Green minibuses tend to have more stops, which means they drive more slowly, and drivers earn a salary – which means there is no pressure to complete the route as quickly as possible. “[The] Transport Department has been trying to convert all red minibuses to green minibuses whenever there are new potential profitable routes for them to run,” says Hung Wing-tat, a transportation expert and associate professor at the Polytechnic University of Hong Kong.
When you’re a red minibus driver, you’re free to do what you want
Minibuses are problematic not only for their high accident rate. Passengers often complain that drivers hike fares on particularly busy nights. In neighbourhoods like Mongkok, entire streets are occupied by idling minibuses, which leads to sky-high levels of nitrogen dioxide and other pollutants. Mafia-like organisations known as triads have also elbowed their way into the industry, shaking drivers down for protection fees. In 2010, police cracked down on a triad racket that controlled three minibus routes and pocketed HK$14 million a year in protection money.
Despite these issues, Hung says the government is reluctant to change the status quo, because red minibuses are useful in soaking up extra demand for public transport during busy times like festivals. But drivers can’t do much about the MTR, which is building several new lines that will compete directly with some of the most popular minibus routes.
In June, Cheung Hon-wah, chairman of the Hong Kong Public Light Bus Owner and Driver Association, called red minibuses a “twilight industry” that will gradually disappear. A new MTR line to the west side of Hong Kong Island has nibbled away at ridership, and more lines are under construction in areas like Kowloon City, which are the bread and butter of many red minibus services. The government estimates about 337,500 people take red minibuses every day, but the informal nature of the industry means it is hard to determine whether this number is growing or shrinking.
Other signs point to a rough road ahead for red minibuses. The South China Morning Post reported in June that the value of a minibus licence has dropped from HK$7.5 million in 2013 to $4.8 million today, a sign that the industry has become less profitable.
Mr. Ho, the minibus driver, isn’t convinced of the gloomy prognosis. “I’ve driven all sorts of things – taxis, green minibuses – and there’s so many rules,” he says. “You work for a boss and you always have a hand on your throat. With us red minibus drivers, if one route doesn’t work anymore, we’ll drive another. When you’re a red minibus driver, you’re free to do what you want.”
Whatever happens, drivers aren’t likely to take it lightly. When a policeman issued a traffic ticket to a minibus driver in Mongkok last summer, dozens of drivers blockaded a major thoroughfare in retaliation, leading to a two-hour standoff with police. Drivers claimed the lack of a suitable bus terminus meant they had to break traffic laws, and the government has suggested building a large new terminus in Mongkok, where most red minibuses congregate.
Even larger changes could be underway. As the MTR opens new lines and ridership continues to drop, the ranks of red minibuses could well thin out. But at least one proposal could save the industry. Drivers and minibus owners have long lobbied the government to allow larger vehicles with room for 20 or more passengers, which owners say could boost revenue by 10 or 20%.
And minibus owners might need that extra cash. Uber is growing in popularity and competes with cabs, but the red buses still offer fares that are less pricy, depending in the route. Will the share economy disrupt the way Hong Kong residents get around — even when they're drunk and looking for the cheapest and fastest ride available?
Maybe. For now, though, red minibuses will keep running as they always have: on the edge.
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