With an area of just over 5000 sq km – and most of that occupied by remote jungle – Brunei’s land transportation system is quite compact. The country has just 3127 km of road, and only 2575 km of that is paved, according to statistics from the Ministry of Development. However, car-based development has completely dominated in Brunei up to this point.
MASTER PLAN: While the use of public transport such as buses and taxis is relatively low, car ownership is approaching one per two people. Gridlock has not yet taken over Brunei’s urban areas, as it has in a number of South-east Asian cities, such as Jakarta or Manila, but Brunei’s authorities are seeking to implement proactive measures in anticipation of congestion. Officials from the Ministry of Communication (MoC) are now preparing a transport master plan to improve public transport, rationalise its bureaucracy and set concrete investment goals for the future. In the meantime, the Sultanate is filling in the map, with key projects designed to address pressing deficiencies in land transport infrastructure.
The acknowledged need for a long-term plan for land transport has unleashed a cascade of consultancy studies over the past year. The MoC called upon the Centre for Strategic and Policy Studies, a government think tank, which in turn commissioned the UK-based SQW China to do a year-long study. The consultant will work alongside design and engineering firm Atkins to draft recommendations for the master plan, including traffic forecasts, key programmes and cost estimates. The study and results of public opinion surveys and discussion forums, will inform the final plan, which will be released in mid-2013.
GOING PUBLIC: Public transport, which has not been the subject of far-reaching planning or development, will be a major concern of the new study. Two major factors underlie this shift in focus: the desire to lessen the Sultanate’s total dependency on private cars, and a growing awareness of energy efficiency and carbon emissions. Brunei is one of the most car-dependant countries in South-east Asia – the MoC lists 148,186 vehicles registered at the end of 2011, up 30% from the previous year. This amounts to nearly 400 cars per 1000 people, or more than two cars per household. Reliance on private cars, meanwhile, is self-perpetuating; in Brunei, high car ownership has helped facilitate the spread-out growth of the past half-decade, which then pushes residents to own homes. Moreover, the excess number of cars has clogged the Sultanate’s roads, pushing city highways to more than 90% of capacity and turning Bandar Seri Begawan into a commuter city, which poses challenges to pedestrians. The environmental impact – Bruneians emit more carbon per capita than anyone in South-east Asia, save Singapore – has been acknowledged in recent years.
BUS STOPS: Bus ridership in the city of Bandar Seri Begawan is low – around 2m-3m rides per year, or just 8219 per day. This figure has dwindled from a high of 4.5m rides in 1997, when massive construction projects under the Amedeo Development Corporation was at its peak and migrant workers filled Bandar Seri Begawan. Further surveys have revealed that just 27% of Bandar Seri Begawan residents make use of the city’s “purple bus” system, with over twothirds of these being foreign workers.
Beyond the fact that most residents have their own vehicles, prospective passengers also note the lack of schedules or route maps, as well as the irregularity of services. Indeed, transportation ranked last in a survey of citizens’ satisfaction in 2013, below other concerns, such as housing and education. Meanwhile, the use of taxis is almost nonexistent – with a national fleet of just under 50, taxis can be found at the airport and at major shopping malls, but hailing a cab on the street is almost unheard of.
Visiting business travellers tend to take advantage of cheap gas and low-paid migrant labour by hiring a car, while the tourists that venture to Brunei use taxi and shuttle services provided by their hotel.
IMPROVING APPEAL: The complaints about public services have not gone unheeded, and proposals to upgrade the country’s bus and taxi offerings have been bandied about for years. The bus system is run under a franchise system by five private firms, which have all held their licences since the start of the purple bus system in 1995. Licences were extended in 2010 while the Ministry of Communications (MoC) attempted to plan future reforms, but further indecision led to extensions in 2011 and 2012 as well.
In 2011-12 the Land Transport Department finally called for bids from operators to revamp the bus system, which would require new vehicles with modern features for disability access, communications radios, CCTV, on-board ticket machines and luggage compartments. The transport system would cover key points in a “diamond” layout within Brunei-Muara province – Delima, Batu Bersurat, the Brunei International Airport (BIA) and Gadong – and route operators would be required to offer dedicated access to hospitals and schools. As of early 2013 bids for the new bus system were being reviewed and a decision is expected later in the year.
FOCUS ON TAXIS: The government has also pledged to address the dysfunctional taxi market by introducing a franchise system with tighter regulations. Taxis in Brunei are privately owned and operated by individuals with either an airport or a general taxi permit; these tend to be un-metred, expensive and hard to find, which leaves tourists and business travellers with few options for transport. However, the taxi franchise is proving a hard sell: in addition to earning the opposition of the local taxi drivers’ association, the government’s call for bids won just one qualified response, and that winner dropped out of the bidding before its name could be revealed.
The key to attracting private sector support will be proving that a competent taxi service – with clean, professionally maintained cabs and easy hailing options – can indeed be profitable in Brunei.
However, the most exciting potential project within Brunei – at least according to a recent poll of its citizens – would be a modern light-rail transit system that would connect the downtown and suburbs of the city. The concept, first raised in the preliminary Bandar Seri Begawan Master Plan, which was developed by Hellmuth, Obata and Kassabaum (HOK), the US-based design and engineering firm, is one of several options presented by the consultants to city planners. The possibility of a downtown rail system attracted immediate support from 80% of readers of a poll in The Brunei Times, but its feasibility – particularly given Bandar Seri Begawan’s low density – would have to be the subject of considerable study.
The design for an Integrated Public Transit System (IPTS), as submitted to the government, features a tram with 24 stops in a 10-km stretch from Yayasan Shopping Complex to the BIA, with interconnections to buses, ferries and airport shuttles. The IPTS would be one of five catalyst projects within the framework of the Bandar Seri Begawan master plan, but lower-cost alternatives include increased usage of buses or enhanced water transportation.
BRIDGING THE GAP: Although all eyes are on the government’s intentions toward the public transport sector, cars and roads are not being neglected in Brunei’s transportation plans. Several significant projects are currently under way, with the TelesaiLumut dual carriageway project the most exciting for contractors. The 18.6-km construction, which will strengthen Brunei Darussalam’s section of the Pan-Borneo Highway near Kuala Belait, is being implemented under the National Development Plan by the Brunei Economic Development Board. The plan includes construction of Brunei’s longest land bridge – a 565-metre span stretching over the peat bogs of Telesai. However, the Chinese company building the bridge at Telesai will not own the bragging rights for long, as two upcoming projects will reset expectations for the Brunei transport sector. One has been long-awaited: the bridge connecting the mainland to Pulau Muara Besar, which Brunei is promoting as a home for refineries and other petrochemical industries. A contract is expected in early 2013.
The second, and larger, project has much more to do with social development than with investmentcritical infrastructure: a bridge across the Bay of Brunei to the isolated districts of Temburong. The project, which received approval from Sultan Haji Hassanal Bolkiah in mid-2012, will certainly save considerable transport time for the residents and tourists who visit the district, as they must now travel by boat or by a roundabout route through Malaysia.
However, the Bruneian government will find it hard to justify the expense of the massive construction project, which is expected to cost as much as BN$1bn ($778.8m), amounting to some BN$100,000 ($77,880) per capita for each resident of Temburoung. Although a usage fee is being considered, demand will likely never be high enough for the bridge to recoup any more than a fraction of its total cost.
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