‘More needs to be done to iron out public transport issues’

LRT at Masjid Jamek. Image: Twentytwo13

The government has over the years repeatedly urged the masses to use public transportation.

Yet, the decision makers seem confused over their agenda – as the Barisan Nasional regime approved the construction of several highways in the Klang Valley, and then Pakatan Harapan leaders in the present government supporting the move for a third national car project, which will eventually result in more vehicles on the roads.

Public Transport Users Association (4PAM) president Ajit Johl insists there is a huge disconnect among regulators, operators and the demands of consumers. He speaks about the nation’s eagerness to expand the MRT and LRT networks when local councils cannot even maintain bus stops. He is skeptical over the recently launched RM500 million Public Transport Fund.

Ajit shares his insights with Twentytwo13.

Twentytwo13: What is the underlining problem with public transportation in Malaysia?

Ajit Johl (AJ): There seems to be a huge disconnect among regulators, operators and the demands of consumers. You see the disconnect when it comes to operating issues. For example, who represents public transportation at local council level? The Transport Ministry does not oversee this. This is where we need to improve. There is no point having wonderful visionary statements only to see a huge disconnect in getting things done. Just look at the Penang Transport Master Plan (PTMP). It was submitted to the Transport Ministry but does the ministry know the ground issues? Planning (at the locality) is done at district and state levels, not federal level.

Twentytwo13: The PTMP is said to be heavily “road-biased”. There seem to be many roads and highways proposed in the plan instead of limiting the number of vehicles.

AJ: The PTMP seems more of a development project rather than a transport masterplan. A public transportation masterplan must address the volume of existing and potential vehicle owners. We should be talking about stuff like the scrap policy, where a vehicle owner gets money as an incentive to scrap his car but forgo buying a vehicle for a certain duration. The subject of public transportation should be taught in schools. It’s to ensure we have a generation that understands and appreciates public transportation. A simple school project can be to learn the cost of maintaining a vehicle. Such policies and initiatives will create awareness.

Ajit Johl
Ajit believes public transportation should be taught in schools.

Penang should look to Singapore to improve public transportation. There should be tariffs on vehicles entering the island. The stakeholders should look at BRT (bus rapid transit) with quality buses plying various routes regularly. There are many alternatives.

Twentytwo13: The Johor BRT is slated to start in 2022. Do you think this should be rolled out in other major cities nationwide?

AJ: The BRT is the way to go. The beauty of BRT is that it uses existing lanes. The bus lanes in Kuala Lumpur are not dedicated to buses, thus you see other vehicles using the lanes. We are talking about concrete blocks to separate the bus lanes from existing lanes. It can be done. In fact, it should be done. Private vehicle owners will surely complain but if you want to become a modern city and country, this is the way to go. The BRT is also a cheaper alternative. It has seen success in Bogota (Colombia) and even in Jakarta. The beauty of BRT is that it is flexible and can be re-routed anytime. How do you re-route MRT or LRT? The BRT is a progressive step. We start with buses before moving on to MRT or LRT. But here we go the other when local councils can’t even maintain bus stops.

Twentytwo13: Aren’t highways a temporary solution in addressing traffic congestion?

AJ: Yes and no. We are the only public non-governmental organisation that championed the construction of the Kinrara-Damansara Expressway (KIDEX) but it was eventually cancelled by then Selangor Menteri Besar Datuk Seri Azmin Ali. Taxis don’t fly. Buses don’t fly. If you don’t disperse traffic, taxis and buses will get stuck on the roads. But if you make it expensive to own cars, then you don’t need highways. It is a temporary solution but until and unless we correct the disconnect, we will continue to have this debate. Are we doing enough to address this debate? Now that’s a million ringgit question. Speaking about highways, rising cost comes to mind.

Generally speaking, operators often want to increase cost whether it is toll, fees or other charges but we never see the biggest stakeholder – the consumers – in such discussions.

Consumers are the only reason these operators exist.

Twentytwo13: What are your thoughts on the RM500 million Public Transport Fund launched by the Finance Ministry recently.

AJ: The government spent millions on the Bas Henti-Henti project (Interim Stage Bus Support Fund – a feeder bus service that connects smaller towns). What happened to that? What happened to the millions spent on the (now defunct) Land Public Transport Commission Control and Command Centre? We don’t know and no one can provide any answers. As for the RM500 million Public Transport Fund … (shrugs).