A new law could hold the key to improving the often chaotic and self-interested way Jordan’s public transport vehicles are operated.
By Hazem Zureiqat
A paradigm shift is slowly taking place in Jordan in terms of public transport and urban mobility. Two BRT projects are in the works, and there seems to be a general higher awareness of transport issues among policymakers and residents alike. Going through such a shift often leads to tensions with existing institutions and structures, most notably in the realm of public transport operations.
The vast majority of public transport vehicles in Jordan—large buses, Coasters, and serveeces—are run today by individual owner-operators, while a very small proportion are run by companies. Permits and licenses to operate are granted by individual routes, which are defined by a start and end point. Routes are identified and fares are set by regulatory authorities—the Land Transport Regulatory Commission, the Greater Amman Municipality, and the Aqaba Special Economic Zone Authority—depending on the area in which a route operates.
Although these authorities are responsible today for granting permits and licenses, many existing operators came in decades ago—long before any of these institutions existed or had any authority over transport. Back then, permits and licenses were granted by what were known as the traffic subcommittees at the Ministry of Interior.
Today, these operators see their right to operate on their routes as entitlements. And some would like to continue operating individually—not as part of a larger company.
This represents a significant hindrance to transforming the Kingdom’s public transport network. Introducing subsidies (for which I argued in a previous column), realigning routes to better serve demand, building new public transport infrastructure, using IT-based systems for ticketing and tracking, and having strict service quality standards that can be properly monitored will all be difficult to implement in such a fragmented operating environment.
The tensions that arise with existing operators are often complex and highly politicized, as these operators see any change to the status quo as an existential threat. These tensions, however, are not impossible to tackle. Many cities and countries in the developing world—from Latin America to Africa—have done so successfully. The key is having a strong political will, not succumbing to populist pressure, and introducing smart incentive schemes that can turn existing operators into allies moving forward.
Despite repeated promises by officials that the issue of individual ownership will be resolved, we have yet to see any concrete action taken. But there seems to be a glimmer of hope on the horizon. A new piece of transport legislation is being debated in parliament. It will include clauses that require individual operators to merge into companies or to join existing companies within a specific time period. If this comes into law, it will be an important step forward.
The law does face some opposition, though, as existing operators are attempting to introduce grandfather clauses that protect their “right” to operate on specific routes. These attempts are not to be taken lightly. The existing electoral system in Jordan is producing parliaments that promote individual interests—including those of existing operators—rather than a collective agenda for modernizing public transport.
This is where citizen-based groups like Ma’an Nasel (of which I’m a founding member) are playing a vital role by adding the users’ voice, thus balancing the discourse on public transport. They can ensure that any new transport legislation creates a legal basis for future improvements, rather than a means to protect antiquated operating structures. With the right incentive schemes, this can be done hand in hand with existing operators, without having to disenfranchise a segment of the population that has for so long relied on operating public transport vehicles for its livelihood.