April 23, 2010

Towards Better Urban Public Transport

Posted in Malaysia, Tricia's Writings at 1:41 pm by egalitaria

Again, first published in the Penang Economic Monthly.. I think the March 2010 issue.

Towards Better Urban Public Transport

Tricia Yeoh

The image of a CEO with a full business suit opting to hop on an LRT or monorail instead of taking his chaffeur-driven car is not one we would imagine, although this is common practice in countries with an efficient public transport system. Singapore, for example, has more than 60 percent of its population taking public transport, a drastic difference from Malaysia with only 10 percent. Today, only 60 percent of the population resides within 400 metres of a public transport route. Anyone residing in Penang or the Klang Valley can testify to experiencing horrid traffic jams and wasting hours weaving through a daily gridlock on the road.

There are many factors leading to the massive traffic congestion in the urban centres of both Penang and the Klang Valley today, one of which was the government’s past policy of increasing cars on the road thereby supporting the local car industry. Instead of attempting to limit private vehicles on roads, this led to the commissioning of elevated highways and additional bridges. Mandatory payments for city access during peak hours would have instead reduced the number of cars on the road. There needs to therefore be a modal shift away from private to public transport use.

Too Many Cooks

The other major problem is the multiple players involved in managing public transport in Malaysia, unwieldy and terribly uncoordinated. The Ministry of Transport (MOT) regulates the overall transportation network but is generally not involved in its maintenance or network planning. The Ministry of Finance (MOF) owns – through MOF Incorporated – the government-linked companies, Prasarana Berhad which builds or buys public transportation assets, Prasarana subsidiaries RapidKL Sdn. Bhd., RapidPenang Sdn. Bhd., and KLStarrail Sdn. Bhd., which operates the assets owned by Prasarana, and Keretapi Tanah Melayu Berhad (KTMB). If you think that’s complicated, there’s more.

The Economic Planning Unit (EPU) plans infrastructure and development, but not the operations. The Jabatan Pengangkutan Jalan (Road Transport Department) and the Police enforce laws and ensures the safe operation of buses, whilst the Commercial Vehicles Licensing Board under the Prime Minister’s Department issues licenses for buses, taxis and other public transport, regulating fares and routes. Finally, there are the transport operators that provide services under permits issued by the CVLB. There is inconsistency between planning, policy, enforcement and action. Furthermore, the current entrepreneurial model with transport operators in competition for profits is unhealthy, weak and results in poor service. Competition should exist, yes, but at the benefit of the consumer which is not currently the case.

Federal Government’s Plans

In response to the need for better public transport systems, the government did introduce the LRT lines to complement rail and bus networks but these efforts have just not been enough. Aware of this predicament, the federal government is attempting yet another new programme. Come June 2010, the Public Land Transport Commission, or better known as SPAD (Suruhanjaya Pengangkutan Awam Darat) will be formed. This is the latest measure towards achieving better urban public transport,  one of the six National Key Result Areas (NKRAs) that Prime Minister Najib Razak has set in place for his administration through the Government Transformation Programme (GTP). As for all the NKRAs, relevant stakeholders (not including NGOs) were brought together over a period of six weeks to brainstorm solutions to the country’s public transport woes, the resulting proposals of which were showcased at the end of 2009.

The GTP team, focusing on the Klang Valley initially and Penang thereafter, aims to raise the modal share to 13% in 2010 and 25% by 2012 during the morning peak period in the Klang Valley; improve reliability and journey times; enhance comfort and convenience and increase the percentage of the population living within 400 metres of a public transport route from 63% to 75% in 2010.

Although details of SPAD will be better known at its June launch, its roles are expected to be monitoring and enforcing service standards, central long-term planning, creating a sustainable operating and financial model for private operators, and implementing five of the current 11 initiatives towards improving the public transport system. It is a positive move that a central commission is formed, and perhaps a way to consolidate the overlapping roles played by the many agencies at present.

Penang Government’s Responses

Penang has 1.4 million registered vehicles and the state government was quick to take action, having the foresight to set up its own Penang Transport Council in March 2009. Its 15-membered council is made up of representatives from the state authorities, public interest bodies such as commuters, resident associations and professional organisations. Its role is to offer advice and suggestions on all state-wide transportation, establishing a system of obtaining public complaints and responding to them, and monitoring the transport system.

It has a series of short, medium and long term measures which includes the implementation of a Penang transportation masterplan encompassing land and water transportation. The six taskforces formed include traffic management and improvement, public transport, transport infrastructure, mega projects, and finance and public education.

A year after its formation, some evaluation may be necessary as to the council’s progress. Some incidents have taken place where the council failed to intervene in an incident where RapidPenang bus operators raised fares and tempers flared between them and the state government. One of the limitations of the council is that public transport operators themselves are not included into the council. Specific time frames should also be included into its short and long term measures. Prior to a masterplan, the state’s vision for public transport should also be established.

Why State Transport Councils?

The Selangor government has also responded by mooting its own transport council. In the Menteri Besar’s 2010 budget speech, he announced the intention for the state to form a Klang Valley Transport Council (KVTC), a proposal that has since been forwarded to the Ministry of Transport and SPAD and discussion is expected to ensue in the following months.

Why the need for a state level transport council if SPAD is already being formed? The Selangor government has proposed that the KVTC will complement SPAD’s efforts in public transport planning. Local governments with their proximity to the grassroots play crucial roles in ensuring policies determined at the central level are feasible. Important information is required that would help in the planning of bus and train routes. Without state level transport councils, Putrajaya essentially determines public transport policy for all areas including small localities in Penang or Selangor.

The KVTC’s role has been proposed as complementing national efforts on urban public transport, connecting these with development planning at the local level, monitor quality of operators’ service through set Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) and managing and acting upon public feedback. Similar to the Penang Transport Council, the KVTC proposal includes state and local government representatives and other transport experts, but transport operators would also be included.

This would also help avoid crises like that of Klang Sentral, in which transport operators were opposed to the state and local council’s decision to move all bus operators from the old bus station to Klang Sentral. This problem proves that proper public transport planning needs to be done together by all stakeholders.

If the KVTC does come into fruition, it is also imperative for Kuala Lumpur to work closely with Selangor as together they make up Klang Valley. Ultimately, a platform for these stakeholders to sort out problems is necessary where currently no such avenue exists to bring all parties together. Both the Penang Transport Council and the KVTC should be bodies that are able to plan, monitor, control, enforce and plan routes and service quality.

Other possibilities for both Penang and Selangor to adopt are setting up of public transport desks within each local council, where each desk is a place for complaints, feedback and suggestions. The global trend is towards decentralisation of government, and although a national co-ordination body in the form of SPAD is a positive step, local-level participation must not be ignored.

Long-Term Vision

Other countries have been at the stage we are at: Stuck. But with sufficient political will and efficient implementation, it is possible to move forward. The Public Transport Council (PTC) was formed in Singapore as a regulatory body working with the Land Transport Authority (LTA). However, Transport for London (TfL),responsible for the transport system in London, is a preferred model in London as it is an integrated body. London’s originally congested traffic conditions have improved significantly.

The federal government reports that progress has been made to date: waiting times have been reduced from 20 to 15 minutes at the KTM Komuter, and transfer times on bus routes have been reduced. These may be true, but much greater efforts need to be done in order to save both Penang and the Klang Valley from further suffocation on the road. It also remains to be seen whether the introduction of SPAD as yet another agency will reduce or in fact increase bureaucratic administration and management of public transport.

Despite being Pakatan Rakyat states, close co-operation between state and federal governments must take place to ensure public transport objectives are achieved, for the sake of all silent sufferers on the road. There are tremendous social and economic costs to the hours wasted behind the wheel each day, time that could have been used for better and more productive purposes, whether at work or spending quality time with the family and children.

1 Comment

  1. Han Min said,

    Unless a TOTAL PICTURE approach is taken, we can expect such traffic woes for the next 30 years. The encouragement of car manufacturing and low car prices does not gel with efficient transport needs of the population.
    In Singapore, one often sees local and expats in ties/coats taking the MRT during office hours.

    Total Picture means higher car prices, bus lanes, pay-per-use BUT the resultant productivity means greater efficiency and profitablity. I used to work in Hong Kong where although meetings were held across the waters flowing between HK and Kowloon, I could leave the office 30 mins before a meeting and arrive punctually. Similarly, in Singapore, executives leave their offices to arrive (JIT) just in time at their destinations. Along the way, they check mails underground on their Blackberrys and Nokias E71.

    How to achieve high income levels at the rate we are going?

    Susah lah.


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