Bus service reliability shouldn't come from rewards

I am perplexed by the Land Transport Authority's decision to reward the two public bus operators with a substantial sum for what should have been obligatory service improvements ("SBS Transit, SMRT rewarded with $1.34m and $504k respectively for improving bus waiting times: LTA"; ST Online, May 9).

First and foremost, as a matter of principle, running bus services on time is a basic expectation we have of our public transport operators.

Their struggles to meet this minimum requirement should not merit a monetary bonus at all.

Second, we must question the necessity of a reward scheme.

From a psychological point of view, research has demonstrated that negative reinforcement - penalties and punishments - is dramatically more effective at spurring improved performance, as compared with positive reinforcement - rewards and bonuses.

The transport operator evaluation framework already calls for stiff penalties if companies fail to meet stipulated requirements. That alone should be sufficient incentive for the operators to step up their efforts.

Some have argued that fines would deplete transport companies' funds and, hence, their ability to improve their operations, whereas bonuses would help provide the requisite resources.

This assertion simply does not hold water, since both SBS Transit and SMRT are very profitable firms, more than capable of covering the associated costs ("Higher revenue drives up SBS Transit's profit"; Feb 6).

It also does not consider how the Government has stepped in by introducing an additional 800 taxpayer-funded public buses to improve bus service performance, removing profit-funded purchase from the equation ("Reliability of buses: 27 out of 34 services improve"; last Tuesday).

Third, even if we accept the need for a reward scheme, improvements in bus waiting times have been far too marginal and minuscule to justify a million-dollar disbursement.

The three Bus Service Reliability Framework performance tables indicate improvements of a mere 0.38 minute (22.8 seconds), 0.42 minute (25.2 seconds), and 0.33 minute (19.8 seconds).

This difference is barely perceptible to commuters.

Moreover, the concept of unpredictable excess waiting time is irrelevant to commuters praying for the bus to arrive as soon as possible.

Throwing money at a problem will not do much to resolve it.

We would do well to consider more substantial, systemic change in the way our public transport operators do business.

Paul Chan Poh Hoi

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 17, 2016, with the headline 'Bus service reliability shouldn't come from rewards'. Print Edition | Subscribe