A new paradigm needed in public transportation

Efficient public transport is the key to livable cities, and affordable accessibility for all should be the policy objective of any good government. It is about moving people, not cars. Sadly, no such system has yet to emerge in Kuala Lumpur as transport is usually planned by vendors, driven by real estate interests, and structured as profit-driven entities instead of as public goods. My humble hope is that modest attempts in Penang will break this cycle.

Good public transport is a must for our cities, and the sooner the better, for the following reasons: no amount of road construction can cater for the increasing number of cars and population; petrol is a finite resource and for the foreseeable future its price will only rise; and cutting carbon emissions to help ease climate change is a shared responsibility of all.  

Malaysia has more cars per capita than the far richer Western Europe, and falls marginally short of the landmass-developed economies, namely, the US, Australia and Canada.  

In 1987, the total number of registered vehicles in Malaysia of all categories was 3.7 million, with a population of around 15 million. In 2005, private cars alone numbered 6.47 million. Merely four years later in 2009, the number stood at 8.47 million, a two million increase. The number of private motorcycles was seven million in 2005 and 8.92 million in 2009. The grand total of registered vehicles of all categories, commercial vehicles included, came to about 20 million as of last year.

Going by the logic of the former transport minister Tun Dr Ling Leong Sik, who said that the more cars on the roads the more prosperous our nation was, it is indeed a feat that we have more registered vehicles than our adult population. What is holding back our cities from ensuring an efficient public transport system?

A new tolled highway, one of the six listed in Budget 2011, will be built almost parallel to another tolled road, Lebuhraya Damansara Puchong; the cited reason being that the latter is congested during peak hours. In some instances, a stakeholder somewhere gets a cut for every inch of road built. And in all others, people remain uninformed, stuck in the automotive dependence model that Malaysians have come to accept as the norm since the introduction of Proton in 1985. Many politicians still think building more roads means more votes.

Progressive cities around the world have already decided not to build highways. Some, like London and Melbourne, even turn previous thoroughfares into pedestrian malls. All resources for transport are channelled to improving public transport.

It is no cause to celebrate that by failing to provide decent public transport, our cities will never be considered environmentally friendly, failing dismally to prepare themselves for a resource-scarce world. It is dismaying that we have more registered vehicles than our adult population, yet the transport needs of many — especially women, senior citizens, teenagers, the poor and the disabled — are still not met.

Politicians and bureaucrats in Malaysia are still mostly not convinced that public transport is the only way to go for our cities. Old mindsets and prevailing paradigms need re-examination. Let’s hope new paradigms will emerge before it is too late.

Malaysia has no public transport system to speak of. We have many operators but not any system. Let us examine these reasons in turn.

First, the government abdicates its planning responsibilities to the private vendors. Since the introduction of former prime minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s controversial privatisation policy, highways and public transport schemes undertaken by the government are generally vendor-driven. For instance, the Economic Transformation Programme (ETP) bestowed a new lease of life on the previously touted high-speed rail link from Kuala Lumpur to Singapore.

The mass rapid transit project is another case in point. A city that is unable to manage its fleet of buses suddenly enters the mass transit debate out of nowhere just because a private interest with past experience in tunnelling intends to fill its order book. The government bypassed its supposed technical agency, the Land Public Transport Commission, to entertain the MRT idea.   

Second, vendor-driven schemes more often than not cannibalise each other in the quest for private profit with no cooperative measures whatsoever. Public transport needs extensive links and the feeding of passengers from as many sources as possible to reap the benefits of economies of scale and synergy.      

When rail systems were planned in Kuala Lumpur in anticipation of the 1998 Commonwealth Games, logically KTM should have been asked to extend its services into the inner city. Yet, apart from KTM Komuter trains plying some inter-city routes, three other unlinked systems were built by private interests, namely Putra, STAR and Monorail. All were eventually bailed out by the government. Nearly a decade after the bailout, the systems are still not integrated.

The MRT and high-speed rail network will almost certainly cannibalise KTM’s already shrinking business, and further, the government seems to have forgotten the LRT extension projects promised in 2006. The embarrassing gap between Monorail’s KL Sentral station and the actual KL Sentral is another blatant example of the government’s inertia in the face of the irrational behaviour of private vendors.

In the case of Penang, while the bridge concessionaire, the ferry operator, and the bus operator are all federal government appointees, they do not coordinate for greater traffic efficiency, but actually compete as commercial rivals, cannibalising each other.  

Third, the concern for real estate development often outweighs other considerations in transport planning. For instance, KL Sentral was constructed at the expense of the old railway station without improving the quality of public transport, but provided its developer with a fantastic site for real estate which is still evolving. In Penang, a RM2 billion Sentral station is being constructed in Seberang Perai when there is hardly a public transport system to speak of.

In another instance, the ETP makes no apology for treating land along the MRT project as investment opportunities for real estate developers. The lack of government leadership in transport planning fuels the real estate developer’s penchant for urban sprawls, further jeopardising the provision of public transport which is most efficient in a compact city setting.

Fourth, public transport thrives only when it is considered a public good. Society as a whole benefits from an efficient public transport system in many ways, but more often than not, public transport itself is not a profitable venture. The government is strangely contradictory in that it has no problem funding the construction of roads, yet public transport is expected to pay for itself one way or the other.

And because public transport is expected to pay for itself, vendor-driven schemes, cannibalisation, and real estate considerations are allowed to set the course of transport planning in Kuala Lumpur and other cities.

It is time for effective and affordable plans which will not cost a massive amount like the RM47 billion MRT project. In this context, initiatives by the Penang state government in collaboration with RapidPenang are worth mentioning. The state, since January 2009, paid RapidPenang to provide three central area transit (CAT) free buses to cater for the needs of locals and tourists in the inner city. In 2011, the state will pay RapidPenang RM1 million to provide free rides for the residents living in the mainland to get to their workplaces in the Bayan Lepas industrial zone. It is hoped that the effort will take away 3,000 cars from the mainland into Bayan Lepas.

It is a rare commitment from any state government in the country to recognise the need to support public transport financially to achieve other societal benefits. While modest, other states must emulate these efforts as the first step in reversing the nation’s dated transport paradigm.

Liew Chin Tong is the Member of Parliament for Bukit Bendera.
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