What is the solution for our public transport woes?

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What is the solution for our public transport woes?

Like many others, the people at TRANSIT have asked this question again and again.

Unfortunately, the answers are as tough to understand as the questions. Public transport is facing challenges throughout the world, with a lack of funding and poor organization and service being the main challenges faced.

Here is Malaysia it is the same. Aside from the lack of capital funding and operations funding, the disorganization, lack of ownership and enforcement of regulations, the poor quality of service, the corruption, the unexplained focus on LRT, and many other issues, there is also the stigma associated with the use of public transport.

And we haven’t even started talking about the relative ease of purchasing cars and motorcycles or the zest to build toll highways, roads and subdivisions – or our famous “private finance initiatives” and the results they have brought.

While much of the developed world has rejected a dream of suburban living fueled by low-cost cars and cheap petrol as being unrealistic and unsustainable, we in Malaysia continue to embrace that dream – even though it has cost us (and will continue to cost us) more than the Americans and Europeans have ever paid.

TRANSIT takes note of this letter, published last week (4 August) in the NST.  It is a good and thoughtful letter that expresses many of the problems associated with public transport.  It asks tough questions and makes good suggestions.

In short, it is a fine example of why we need to question the message that we receive about public transport.

We enclose the letter below and invite your feedback on the letter.  Please pass this message on to your friends and family and ask them to contribute their ideas as well.

PUBLIC TRANSPORT: (NST)
2009/08/04
AZMAN, Kuala Lumpur
Get a czar to run the show

THE prime minister’s announcement last week recognising public transport as one of the six National Key Result Areas (NKRAs) is highly applauded.

He has also set a target for the relevant ministries and agencies to increase public transport usage from the current 16 per cent to 25 per cent by 2012. Some might say this is a fairly tall order if one looks at the record of public transport usage over the last 14 years.

In 1995, the first modern rail transit operation began in the Klang Valley in the form of KTM Komuter (the first phase of KTMB’s double tracking project). This was followed by Star LRT and Putra LRT in 1996 and 1998, respectively, and KL Monorail in 2003. During the same period, action was taken by the government to improve bus services by consolidating the many bus operators into two main units, Park May and Intrakota (which later merged to become the bus division of RapidKL).

In the years prior to 1995, public transport usage was estimated to be just below 30 per cent, which is higher than the target set for 2012. That in itself tells the story of the sorry state of our public transport system.

What has contributed to the very significant decline of public transport usage in that period? It seems that although more public transport facilities were provided in the said period, the level of usage did not increase. We need to study and understand the factors that caused the decline of public transport usage during this period before we are able to take measures to increase it. [TRANSIT: We and many others are studying these factors and trying to understand them. Our view is that the focus on LRT has taken away attention from the bus and KTM Komuter system and building complete rapid-transit networks.]
 
Without the benefit of a detailed study, I would deduce that the decline could be attributed to two main reasons: the high availability of urban highways, and the increase in car ownership.

The intended shift from private cars to public transport did not happen. In fact, the reverse happened. Ridership of public transport increased for a short time but mainly due to “new” users instead of “converted” users from private vehicles. The shift from private to public usage was evident when petrol prices went up. [TRANSIT: We agree with this observation. However, our goal at TRANSIT is not to ‘convert’ users to public transport – instead, we wish to create more “choice riders” who are open to the benefits and conveniences that are available (or ought to be) and making good economic choices to use (or not use) public transport.]

However, once petrol prices came down, the level of public transport usage came down. This underlines the need for affirmative action to provide some form of measures to persuade the masses to convert to public transport. [TRANSIT: Determining these measures is an interesting challenge. TRANSIT has already suggested a few to RapidKL and the government – our favourite is income tax relief for people / companies that purchase monthly public transport passes.]

Many would also remember that in the early 1990s, the target was to increase public transport usage from 30 per cent to 70 per cent in 20 years. This earlier target is no longer achievable. This means that in respect of public transport usage, we have stood still for the last 14 years though we now have more kilometres of transit-rail tracks than in the early 1990s.

In the final analysis, in order for public transport usage to increase to 25 per cent, much more needs to be done than just providing extra coaches for LRT. [TRANSIT: Hear, Hear! We have been saying this for years.]

We have had so many studies done on ways to improve the public transport system over the years and many announcements have been made every time there is a new federal territories minister.

Unfortunately, the studies and announcements are rarely implemented or followed through. [TRANSIT: Hear, Hear! See comment above.]

The crux of the problem lies in the lack of a “true and passionate champion” for public transport to provide much-needed leadership to improve public transport. Highway development, on the other hand, did not suffer the same fate as there were three factors in its favour:

  • A champion to promote highway development (a good example is the dynamic long-serving former works minister) [TRANSIT: referring to S. Samy Vellu.]
  • Sufficient budget allocations which were many times higher than allocations for public transport.
  • A centralised authority — the Malaysian Highway Authority — which is responsible for monitoring issues on highway development.

In the case of public transport, there is no centralised authority. It is a positive sign that the transport minister is the lead ministry in ensuring the NKRA is achieved by 2012, but it must be noted that the Transport Ministry does not have direct and full authority over implementing agencies such as Prasarana or RapidKL.

In the “fight” between highways and public transport, the latter is always on the losing side.

To illustrate this point further: if one looks at KTM Bhd (which incidentally is a direct charge of the Transport Ministry), one has to feel for it. Lack of capital budget is a continuous issue for it, resulting in aging rolling stock, outdated technology and lack of growth potential despite valiant efforts by management and staff. [TRANSIT: Too sad and too true!]

Compared with its fellow operators under the stable of Prasarana (hence, the Finance Ministry), KTMB is akin to a neglected step brother.

This lack of centralised authority, I believe, is what must be urgently looked into if we are serious about improving public transport. With the establishment of a central authority, a true and passionate public transport champion will emerge.

TRANSIT Says:

Thank you to Azman for this excellent and thoughtful letter about the issues behind public transport.

We at TRANSIT have been working hard for the past year to raise awareness about public transport – not only about the problems but also about the solutions at hand.

We thought we had a champion for public transport in the former Minister of Domestic Trade and Consumer Affairs, Datuk Shahrir Samad. We still harbour hopes that he will one day be our champion.

In the meantime, we are stuck with the current situation – slow movement, a focus on LRT and capital projects rather than operating costs – not to mention politics and racial issues (mostly associated with the bus industry).

It is these very issues – a holdover from decades of mismanagement and politics that came to use along with the LRT projects and Intrakota – that have brought down public transport in Malaysia.

It will take time to excise the rotten flesh from the system. The shifting of the CVLB and the appointment of 3 ministers to improve public transport (Nazri in the Prime Minister’s Department, Raja Nong Chik in the Federal Territories Ministry and Ong Tee Keat in the Ministry of Transport) and the inclusion of public transport as one of the siz Key Results Areas – are all positive steps.

But they can just as easily be reversed. And that is why we also agree that we need a Malaysian Public Transport Authority, we need a national Champion for public transport, and we need them soon.

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One thought on “What is the solution for our public transport woes?”

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