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Public Transportation in Asia

We’ve grown used to the sight of buses on the street, overcrowded tram cars and constantly late trains. Public transportation is an essential part of many people’s daily lives, but it doesn’t necessarily make it easier. Ticket prices are rising, while the quality is declining. At least that’s the way it is here.

But in recent years many news outlets have reported the wonders of public transport in Asia. Especially in parts of the continent where they suffer from massive overpopulation, like for example Japan, reports show a high efficiency in public transport.  How do countries like Japan manage to offer clean, fast and reliable transportation for an incredible number of people every day, while our local authorities fail to do the same thing for a much smaller number of passengers?

While in Ireland concerns are arising about the privatisation of Dublin’s bus service, being described as a disastrous decision for workers and commuters alike, cities in Asia are moving fast ahead in the development of their public transport services.


Japan’s larger cities are serviced by subways or trams, buses and taxis; many locals rely entirely on public transport. It is the home of the world’s fastest bullet train, which are so hygienic you could eat in the bathrooms, if you wanted to.  You should almost just go to Japan to see how public transportation should be.

There is a vast public train system connecting all cities around the country. Each city has its own great local subway system and bus network.

Also popular in Japan are baggage courier services and many domestic tourists use them to forward their bags, golf clubs, surfboards etc. ahead to their destination, to avoid having to bring them on public transport. The tourism bureau has been working to open this service up to foreign travellers.


Singapore’s MRT (mass rapid transit) system is probably the fastest way to travel around the city. The extensive rail network means that most of Singapore’s key attractions are within walking distance from an MRT station. It’s the most efficient way to get around the island, with the system moving more than 2 million passengers daily.

Another way to get around is Singapore’s bus system, which has an extensive network of routes covering most places in Singapore and is the most economical way to get around, as well as being one of the most scenic.

Most buses in Singapore have air-conditioning – a welcome comfort in a tropical city.

South Korea

Seoul has a modern and efficient system of public transportation that includes both subway trains and buses. There are nine major subway lines that run all throughout the city and even go into the suburbs and surrounding areas.   It is a great system; the trains leave every 5 minutes and for added convenience, the signs are in both Korean and English.

The city has four different bus categories which are also colour coded. The colours are Blue, Green, Red, and Yellow. Bus numbers indicate districts in Seoul, enabling passengers to identify the bus departure point and destination. For instance: Yellow Buses circulate in the Central Business District (Downtown area), connecting major tourist, shopping and business area.

Hong Kong

The MTR in Hong Kong has a number of lines which extend all over the city, but you need to take buses in between each neighbourhood.

Hong Kong’s transport strategy has a strong focus on integrating transport and land use planning, with railways playing a back-bone role. Its Government grants ‘Land Development Right’ of sites planned for new railways and in return the operator MTR pays a land premium. MTR also partners with property developers to develop areas around stations; MTR benefits from the rising property value and the community benefits from an affordable world-class rail service and high quality sustainable development along the railway.  


The subway is the best way to travel in Taipei and get to the city’s attractions. Their MRT is fast and cheap, but it is a young piece of infrastructure and is not as comprehensive as it could be. To supplement it, the peripheries contain Taipei’s widespread bus network, which can take you within striking distance of nearly any location in Taipei City and the surrounding boroughs.


There’s a need for fast and reliable public transport with low fuel consumption in order to protect the environment more effectively and improve quality of life in the smog covered city of Bangkok. The goal is to increase the use of public transport from its current level of 40 percent to 60 percent by 2021. With this in mind, the city’s traffic planners developed the “Bangkok Mass Transit Development Plan” back in 1994.

The plan’s first major achievement was the Skytrain, which is split into two lines. Both Skytrain rail lines connect at several stations, which makes transfers fast and simple. In total there are currently 7 train lines available in Bangkok.

The city’s transport network is still growing. The current master plan calls for 18 new lines to be built by 2029. Some of these routes will lead directly from the city centre to its outskirts, while others will run in a ring around the centre.


In 1998 Kuala Lumpur built two automated urban rail lines for the Commonwealth Games. The Kelana Jaya Line runs from east to south, and the Ampang Line runs from north to east. However, no other lines have been built since 1998 except for the KL Monorail and the Express Rail Link (ERL) to Kuala Lumpur International Airport.

As in Bangkok, permanent traffic congestion in Kuala Lumpur has produced an urgent need for the public transport network to be significantly expanded.  A draft proposal of the Malaysian government calls for more than 100 kilometres of new subway lines to be built by 2020 to link the city centre with the suburbs.

In 2012 Kuala Lumpur’s Mass Rapid Transit Corporation ordered 58 Inspiro trains from Siemens and commissioned the company to construct two depots. In 2016 new driverless trains began operating on a new 51-kilometer route connecting the north-western and south-eastern parts of the city.

Complementary Services

In June, Dublin City Council issued a safety warning to the public over the use of rickshaws in the city centre. It said rickshaws operating in the city were not regulated and it warned that “some rickshaw operators appear not to have public liability insurance”.

Currently, rickshaws are treated as bicycles under Irish law, and rickshaw drivers are not required to have public liability insurance.

The Department of Transport is considering regulating the vehicles under the Taxi Regulation Act 2013, which would bring in certain standards and requirements for drivers. The regulation of rickshaws has been a matter of public interest for some time now and the information we gather in this process will bring some clarity to bear on how the relationship with regulatory authorities will be defined into the future.

In many Asian countries, private drivers offer their services in addition to taxis and public transport. The regulations there are not as strict as here, and offer a relief on the overcrowded streets.

The Tuktuk is Thailand’s local version of a taxi. It’s essentially a three-wheeled vehicle that looks like a modified motorcycle built with a metal frame carriage that can accommodate 2 passengers. The carriages are usually bright and colourful. These three-wheeled vehicles can be found in nearly every town and city in Thailand, including the mega-packed city of Bangkok.

Tuktuks are great for buzzing around the busy and crowded streets, as they can easily maneuver and squeeze through the smallest gaps in the traffic. The drivers can drive really fast and turn and cut corners that most foreigners find themselves clinging on to their seats! It is one of Thailand’s unique mode of transport, and a symbol of Thai ingenuity.

The Jeepney is the Philippines’ take of a bus. Its name originated from the American Jeep, which was how the Jeepney started. After the Second World War, when Manila was almost completely destroyed by the Japanese bombings, the American Jeep became the only vehicle available as a means of transport. The American Jeep was then modified for public transport purposes.

Usually, the Jeepney can take in between 16 to 18 people, but as regulations are pretty loose in the Philippines, this vehicle can take up more than that number. The Jeepney acts similarly to a bus and travels on distinct routes, however, it doesn’t have proper stops. You can hail it practically anywhere and get off anywhere.

In Cambodia, since the single track between Battambang and Poipet was used so little, locals figured out their own type of train to transport harvests of rice, cattle and themselves. The unique bamboo train consists of 2 sets of wheels and a bamboo platform with an engine on top of it. Cruising at a maximum speed of about 40km/h makes you feel like sitting on a flying carpet.

In cities situated next to a body of water, people use so called water buses:  Commuter passenger boats operating on a schedule cruising down a river or lake. Sometimes they even provide a faster connection than transportation by road due to the lack of traffic jams on the water. They are a common sight in countries like Brunei, Cambodia, China, Japan, Philippines, Singapore and Thailand.

Of course there are many other forms of travel in Asian cities, but these are the most prevalent ones.

Written by Catherina Arndt.


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