Budget: 10-point 'wish list' for transportation

Moaz Yusof Ahmad

Published
Modified 29 Jan 2008, 10:21 am

1. National transportation strategy

Transportation networks are an important piece of the communications infrastructure of a country. We are completely dependent on our transportation networks to move goods and people throughout the country. A national transportation strategy would help Malaysia create a complete transportation network with inter-modal and multi-modal transportation. This would help encourage development and economic growth.

2. National public transportation strategy

A complete transportation network must make a provision for the movement of goods and people. This is why the government must outline their short-term and long-term goals for public transportation, and clearly state how they want Malaysians to move around in the future. Then, they must make these goals happen through a public transportation strategy.

It will be necessary to create public transport networks that serve the people at the national, regional, and local levels. By 2020, Malaysians should be able to move from one end of Peninsular Malaysia (or East Malaysia) to the other end, conveniently and comfortably, without having to drive their own private car. This is not to say that driving is always convenient or comfortable, but rather, to emphasise that Malaysians should have choices when it comes to transportation.

The Malaysian government has stated a goal to have 40% of the population using public transportation in the future. Unfortunately, the specific details, time frame, and how this goal will be achieved, have yet to be identified. In the meantime, we have limited choices for safe, convenient, reliable public transportation. Trains are currently too slow, while the price of express bus travel fluctuates quickly and easily, and safety is a huge concern.

3. National public transportation department

The current planning, regulation and oversight of public transportation is a confusing, bureaucratic tangle of agencies at the federal, regional and local level. At the federal level, there are the Commercial Vehicle Licensing Board, Road Transport Department, and Economic Planning Unit. The CVLB is part of the Ministry of Entrepreneur and Cooperatives Development. This basically explains current thinking about public transportation - that it should be run like a profitable business and not like a piece of transportation infrastructure.

It is time for the government to formalise their commitment by creating a National Public Transportation Department as part of the Economic Planning Unit. The National Public Transportation Department would cut through the bureaucracy that exists. This department would plan public transportation networks and operations in Malaysia, ensure secure, long term sources of funding, and at the local level oversee the actions of the public transport operators.

In Malaysia, only the Executive (meaning, the Cabinet and the Prime Minister's Department) are able to cut through bureaucratic confusion. The Economic Planning Unit is part of the Prime Minister's Department, and there is a Public Transportation Committee in the Cabinet.

4. Expanded national railway network

Railway technology is still the most efficient way to move goods and people. Successful rail networks in Europe, Japan, India, China, Taiwan, and soon in Argentina, show us that the movement of passengers by rail is faster, easier, and better than car or air travel. Thanks to the English Channel Tunnel and the Eurostar High Speed Train, London and Paris are now two hours apart by train. Trains move more people, avoid congestion on the roads, use less energy, and are far more appealing than planes or cars.

A nation like Malaysia should have a reliable railway transportation network for freight as well as a fast passenger railway network connecting all major cities. High Speed rail connections between Kuala Lumpur and neighbouring capital cities must be explored. Thus, the full double-tracking and electrification of all rail lines within Malaysia is necessary. In addition, triple tracking and the construction of additional rail lines should be considered.

5. Regional/local public transportation authority

Attitudes among Malaysians have led us to believe two myths: first, that public transportation is a business, not a piece of infrastructure, and second, that public transportation is for urban areas. A National Public Transportation Department and national public transportation network would emphasise to the people that neither of these myths are true.

Under a National Public Transportation Department, national and local public transportation needs could be identified and properly met. The national level department would create authorities at the regional or local level, which would be responsible for the planning, regulation, and oversight of public transportation.

A single local/regional authority would have control over bus routes and be able to organise all bus operators under an effective and efficient route system. This would eliminate unnecessary and wasteful competition and encourage stability and reliability in public transportation.

Currently there are no regional or local public transportation authorities. Rapid Bhd. does not have any authority to control routes or bus companies, and is hampered by aggressive competition from more than 15 different bus companies in the Klang Valley and six different companies in Penang. Plans for Kuta, a local public transport authority for the Klang Valley, seem to have been forgotten.

6. Additional, secure funding for regional/local public transportation

Public transportation service is important infrastructure. It should not be operated like a business. There should be no reason why a bus company should even try to operate a sustainable business. All world-class public transportation services do not make money. They in fact lose money, and their additional costs are borne by a combination of government funds, bonds, and additional investments.

The best way to build stable, reliable public transportation infrastructure is to fund it properly and fund it early on. This means capital investment and regular operations subsidies are necessary. No world class transportation agency should even be attempting to recover 50% o more of their revenues from fares paid by passengers. Instead, they should be receiving money from public and private investment.

Currently the state government of Terengganu is planning the introduction of Rapid Terengganu, a state-level bus service. While any bus service improvements are good news, this news is even better because it shows that the state government is committed to improving public transportation through government regulated service.

One small point, however. The name "Rapid" is overused, and perhaps should be limited to big cities only. A state-level service should have an appropriate name that reflects the service being offered, not a marketing tool. I personally like "Bas Negeri Terengganu" and I think the acronym "Bantu" (for "Bas Negeri Terengganu") would be a very appropriate as the word "bantu" reflects the concepts of helping and supporting each other.

7. Expanded KTM Komuter Service

We have to realise that KTM Komuter has the lowest costs and greatest potential for expansion among all modes of transportation. An expanded KTM Komuter service (that means, higher frequencies, longer trains, faster trains, and more lines) would encourage people to use rapid transit. It simply costs too much to build enough LRT lines to make a difference in the transportation infrastructure in the Klang Valley.

KTM Komuter expansion plans include new networks in the north and south, extensions from Sentul to Batu Caves, Rasa to Tanjung Malim, and Seremban to Senawang. A plan is underway to rebuild more than a dozen damaged electric-multiple unit (EMU) trains, which would allow higher frequency and more reliable service. The government must commit to a real expansion of KTM Komuter service, meaning more lines, enough trains for five minute frequencies, and reliable service.

8. More urban mass-transit lines

LRT and mass transit should be built in urban areas, rather than suburban or rural areas. The cost of construction is increasing daily, and this is why the government should be committing to build lines in urban areas, not suburban or rural areas. There is no reason, for example, to build an LRT from Kuala Lumpur to Klang, when Kuala Lumpur itself still needs at least four more LRT lines (in addition to the new Kota Damansara-Cheras line).

Urban areas need mass transit. Urban areas have vast numbers of people and they have the population density to make mass-transit cost effective. Suburban areas do not need mass transit such as LRT lines. They really need enhanced, frequent and reliable bus service to move the vast numbers of people spread out over a wider area.

The planned Kota Damansara-Cheras LRT line will travel through Kuala Lumpur. The Sentul-Batu Caves extension will change transportation in the northern areas of Kuala Lumpur. However, additional lines are needed in Kuala Lumpur to create the core of a mass-transit network. The government should be building in urban areas, not the suburban areas. Extensions are for the future. The core of the mass-transit network needs to be built now.

9. Other forms of 'rapid transit'

Malaysians seem to have an obsession with LRT and a misunderstanding of traffic congestion. We also think that traffic problems can be solved with massive projects rather than simple solutions. I won't bore you with the details of why.

LRT is a mass-transit, and it is costly. As stated before, there is no possible way to build all of the LRT lines that are needed to create quick, reliable, convenient public transportation. This means that other rapid transit alternatives must be explored. Alternative forms of rapid transit include rapid trams, and bus rapid transit. Even simple things like traffic signal priority, bus lanes, and traffic monitoring cameras will make a huge difference.

Sadly, the majority of people in Malaysia still cling to the belief that traffic lights, reduced number of lanes, and roundabouts contribute to traffic congestion. The truth is that traffic congestion is caused by having too many cars on the road at the same time. Fewer cars equal lower congestion.

There is hope that the arrival of local public transportation authorities will make a big difference, expanding and enhancing public transportation. Radical ideas need to be implemented to reduce the number of cars on the road. Bus lanes are only a start but they are easy to implement. Bus Rapid Transit would be the next step.

A reliable Bus Rapid Transit service running along major roads like Jalan Puchong, Jalan Klang Lama, the Federal Highway, Jalan Ipoh, Jalan Kepong, and others, would also help. The government must announce a plan to invest in tram lines, not just additional LRT lines.

10. Reduction in petrol subsidy and incentives to encourage the use of public transportation

Petrol subsidies may make the lives of some people easier, but economics say that anytime you fix the price of an item below its natural price, demand will increase and this will ultimately result in shortages of the product. We have seen this happen in Malaysia with cooking oil, sugar, and diesel fuel. Petrol and wheat may be the next items facing shortages.

The price of petrol in Malaysia is low (compared to world markets). Malaysians are driving more and demanding more petrol. The supply is less and less reliable. Any imbalance is paid through taxes and government funds.

Other countries such as Indonesia (2005) and Myanmar (2007) have seen huge increases in the price of fuel after the government could no longer afford the subsidies.

One way to reduce the demand for petrol is to reduce the subsidy (thereby raising the price at the pumps) and directing that money into enhanced public transport service. The government needs to accept that this decision, though unpopular at first, will be in the best interests of the people.

To make their point clear, the government should reduce the petrol subsidy by an amount of RM0.08 per litre, which would lead to an increased pump price of RM2.00 per litre. An 8 sen increase in the price of petrol (after the election, of course) would be much easier to accept than a 60 sen hike in 2 to 3 years time. The government should allocate the funds saved towards improving and enhancing public transportation.

There are many simple things that the government can do to enhance public transportation across the country, and these can be implemented quickly. An expanded Touch 'N' Go service, subsidies for bus operations, tax incentives on the purchase of monthly transit passes, and investment in funding of public transport authorities would make a huge difference for Malaysia.

Summary

The proposals here are relatively uninteresting and less glamorous than new LRT lines or monorails in every city that asks for one. The fact is that public transportation can be interesting and glamorous and inspiring. However, before that can all happen, there must be changes in the attitude of the government and the people.

It is good to think that improved public transportation is part of the solution to traffic congestion in Malaysia. However, many people do not speak out and demand better public transportation, and do not actually intend to use the improved public transportation.

They are missing the point. We can only have inspiring, glamorous, interesting and effective public transportation if there are changes at the government level. Once the government makes the necessary changes, creates a national public transportation strategy and a National Public Transportation Department, then we will finally be on track to a great future.


MOAZ YUSUF AHMAD, a regular user of public transport, is deeply concerned that government plans to encourage the use of public transport will ultimately fail because of poor planning and lack of support from the public.

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