Interview: The relevance of people’s buses in times of economic crisis, municipality of Qamishlo

This report was published by the Rojava Information Center on 13 August, 2020. It has been very lightly edited to improve readability.

Last year, the municipality of Qamishlo has set up public transport for the first time in this city: the Basên Gel (People’s buses). It is the first step towards more sustainable and affordable transport in North-East Syria, a region where people mostly rely on individual motorized transport and expensive privately run companies, in times of strong inflation of the Syrian pound. RIC interviewed the head of the municipality committee of Qamishlo to understand how the bus service came into existence, how it is working as of today, and what future projects look like. The interview was carried out on 20 July 2020.

Why did you decide to create the Basên Gel?

During different public meetings with the inhabitants of Qamishlo, the people had brought up which problems they faced in their daily mobility. One important problem was that the owners of the foxes (privately run minibus service, 100-200 pounds per trip), and the taxis were asking for a lot of money (1,000-2,000 pounds per trip), also due to the inflation of the Syrian pound. Once we had decided to develop a public transport system, we figured out what the route should be: it was important to connect the souke (market) in the city center with the outer parts of the city. The project started 2019, we bought 7 buses to begin with, as a first step. To promote the new bus service, we offered one week free travel, so people could get to know and understand it. Then, we introduced the ticket price of 25 Syrian pounds per person, which is very very cheap (as of today the price is 50). For children and old people the ride is free. We bought more buses, now they are 18 which serve four lines that run through the city. And we made bus shelters, to protect the passengers from rain. The people are happy about the new buses, most importantly because they can travel cheaply.

Which problems did you encounter when the buses took up their service?

A problem that came up was that private taxi and fox owners were angry because they feared the buses would attract their clients and harm the taxi business, so they are protesting. But in the end, the service also benefits them and their families. They don’t have so much money, but now they can send their people around cheaply. We were negotiating with the head of the taxis union. He had a child going to university, and now instead of sending him in taxi for 2000 pounds a day, he just spends 25 pounds to go on a bus. So he could see that this change was also something good for himself. And people are still using taxis as well, according to their needs.

What does the normal bus service look like?

During the Coronavirus quarantine we stop all the buses to make sure they don’t contribute in spreading the disease. But when they are working normally, on average the buses transport 10,000 people per day. The service starts at 7-7.30, that’s when people go to work and when school starts. Then we continue throughout the day, until 8 or 9 in the night, depending on how many people there are. When people are getting less, we stop the service. We are extending the service around holidays, Aïd, when there is a lot of demand. On Fridays there are just two buses running because there is not much demand so it’s not necessary. On normal days there’s no real timetable. At the bus terminal, the drivers wait until the bus is full and then they leave. At the main bus station there is a responsible, and if there are a lot of people this person calls for more buses. Along the bus lines, you can stop the bus anywhere, you just put your hand out to stop it. Each bus has two drivers, for the morning and for the evening. There is also a conductor to take the tickets.

Map of the 4 Basên Gel lines in Qamishlo

For now, all bus drivers are men, but we would like to get women drivers as well. Everything is delayed because of Coronavirus, we didn’t train any new drivers in the last 4 months. But normally we plan to do it this year, to find women and train them in bus driving. And for the international day of women’s rights (8th of march) we decorated the bus accordingly. So we use the buses also to spread a different kind of thinking in the city, because everybody take the buses so the messages we spread touch a large variety of people.

How are you planning to further develop public transport in NES?

The development of public transit is still new in North and East Syria. We first made a trial in Qamishlo because it’s the biggest urban center in the region. The city center is very congested so it made a lot of sense to improve the situation here first. Now we want to expand the project, we already set up the same system in Heseke. The next step will be in 2020: before the end of the year, we want public buses running from Derik all the way to Heseke. This will be particularly interesting for university students who travel from Qamishlo to Heseke and then come back. There is a private company doing this at the moment, the fox buses, but they are really expensive. There is no public transport for anyone who wants to travel along this kind of common routes, which are the main roads of NES. Right now we are in the second phase of developing public transport inside several cities, not only Qamishlo. But soon we will enter the third phase, and connect Qamishlo with other regions: buses will run from here to Raqqa, the Euphrates region, with the same aim to provide public transport to the people, at a cheap price so they can afford to travel. Of course, the improvement of the air quality is also one of our goals, since the buses can reduce individual motorized transport. And they will be more comfortable and secure than the private minivans that are currently running between the regions.