Sunday June 8, 2008 THE STAR
By LEONG SHEN-LI
THE math is quite simple. With as little as RM7, you can travel almost anywhere on Klang Valley’s RapidKL’s buses and light rail transit for the whole day. With a monthly pass for RM135 – just a little more than a full tank of petrol for a Proton Wira – your month’s transport needs should be taken care of. The cost should be lower in other parts of the country.
But of course, the current state of our public transport obviously cannot take care of anyone’s needs satisfactorily.
Unreliable buses and trains, sardine-packed LRTs, delayed buses because of traffic jams, safety concerns and a host of other negative issues make public transport hardly desirable as an alternative to private cars.
Here are some crucial improvements needed before public transport can become a true option for people.
1. More trains and buses
It is as basic as this! Not only will service become more reliable, more trains and buses will make public transport less packed and more attractive.
No one, especially women, will trade the comfort of a car for a situation where one is pressed all over by other humans in a train, even if it costs more.
Promises were made for more LRT vehicles and buses under the RapidKL and Rapid Penang regimes. How much longer do we have to wait?
2. Get the new lines going
The new Damansara-Cheras LRT line, as well as the Subang Jaya and Puchong extensions, were announced by Deputy Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak in 2006. Till today, we have not heard about when work will start.
We do not even know where they will run. It is crucial to also think beyond these new lines.
Singapore already knows where its new Mass Rapid Transit lines will run in 2020.
3. Cash for maintenance
The KTM Komuter, after running for 13 years, is now suffering from years of “postponing” maintenance due to funding issues. The LRT system is about 10 years old now, which is about the right time for an overhaul.
RapidKL is also facing issues with keeping its buses on the road because of breakdowns. Other private companies can hardly afford regular maintenance, what more, overhauling. The Government must come to their aid.
Get the allocations disbursed quickly, get the tenders out without delay and pick the correct people to do the work. Remember, keeping enough buses on the road is not just about buying new buses. It is about keeping the existing ones in working condition.
4. Low fares through subsidies
Low fares are crucial, especially when we are putting the case for public transport in the context of rising living costs. Most people who rely on public transport cannot afford any other means of travel.
If there is a group of people who should benefit from subsidies, this should be the one. Subsidies can come from taxing private car users – either through road tax or road pricing. The World Bank says that private car users are generally “undercharged” for using urban roads and for their impact on the environment.
5. One or two companies enough
Competition in public transport is not about having many companies running the same route, it is about competing for the right to run on a particular route.
An operator is selected on the basis of being most able to satisfy the requirements of commuters and other parties (reliable service, safe buses, lowest subsidy) and once selected, it should enjoy a monopoly of the route.
The Government will have to regulate to ensure service is up to the mark. The benchmark should be the best-run route in the system.
6. One regulatory authority
It is a case of too many cooks spoiling the broth, as each cook has his own ideas and conflicting interests. Now, 13 government departments and agencies have a say in public transport.
There should just be one to plan the system, dish out the permits (to control the number of operators), organise the routes (to curb duplication) and ensure that the trains and buses run according to time.
It should also be the one dishing out subsidies. The single authority should have only one objective and no other – to ensure that the public gets good public transport.
7. Bus lanes and other facilities
Buses should have their own “track” so that they can be faster than private cars. That is the only way public transport can be more attractive than cars.
Modern bus lanes such as those in Curitiba, Brazil, and Jakarta – where they are virtually separate special roads just for buses – have made bus transport a success. And don’t worry if road users complain. The one lane taken away from them is making the movement of thousands of people more efficient. Bus lanes are also cheaper than train systems and can be just as efficient.
8. Ensure safety of passengers
It should be a basic right of commuters to be able to travel safely. An unsafe system will only turn people away.
9. Good customer information
There is no point in having hundreds of beautiful buses on the road without commuters knowing where they are going. Many rather drive than take buses because they are in control of their journey. The more people know how the system works, the more they will use the system.
10. Please walk the talk
All the above initiatives and problems have been recognised, considered and studied. Announcements are regularly made of moves to improve the system. Yet this comment still has to be written in such a tone. There may ultimately just be one paramount suggestion – don’t just talk, please get things moving!