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Should we just make public transport ‘free’ and be done with it?

TRANSIT took note of this interesting commentary by Jema Khan, in the Malaysian Insider, which argues that if we should accept a government-run public transport system (specifically, one run by Prasarana) then public transport services should be free to all users.

This is a variation on the “free public transport” movement which is found in cities worldwide.

The basic argument for “free” public transport goes like this: Public transport, like all forms of transport, is a public good. Having good transport systems benefit the economy, so the government should invest in public transport just as they invest in private transport – paying for it with tax dollars and making the services “free” to users.

The public pays taxes and in return they get “free” access to roads. But unlike roads, public transport users have to pay user fees. And one can argue that making public transport free (like the roads) would encourage greater use of public transport which would be far better for the economy (greater mobility etc.)

But don’t take our word for it – check out the commentary below:

Free public transport, please (The Malaysian Insider)
April 25, 2011

APRIL 25 — The traffic woes that we all have to go through in Kuala Lumpur are clearly a result of poor public transport. An article dated April 23, written by Dr Sabariah Jemali entitled “The Rail Truth”, provides some insight on our current plight where according to her only 17 per cent or 1.24 million trips a day are taken on public transport whereas around six million trips a day are done on private transport.

Of the 1.24 million trips a day done on public transport, 600,000 are done on buses (made by 1,050 buses), 400,000 by LRT, 100,000 by KTM, 40,000 by monorail, 20,000 by ERL and 80,000 by taxis. I am not an expert but I find the figures provided in Sabariah’s article to be plausible and reasonable.

However, I find it difficult to support the MRT project for Kuala Lumpur which is going to cost north of RM 40 billion and will likely only be completed near the end of this decade.

If we really wanted 50 per cent of our commuters to take public transport, we need to provide the facilities for another 2,500,000 trips a day. I believe we can do it simply by tweaking our existing infrastructure.

Foremost, we must accept that public transport has to be a government monopoly where the costs have to be borne by the government for the good of society.

In the case of the Klang Valley we already have Prasarana, wholly owned by the Ministry of Finance, which is already doing the major part of the public transport.

They should be tasked with planning, operating, integrating and expanding their existing network of rail and buses. We also have the Land Public Transport Commission that was enacted by statute last year to oversee public transport operations which, in the case of the Klang Valley, would mean it has oversight over Prasarana.

Thus if we accept that Prasarana is going to have the monopoly, what does it need to do? The most important element in public transport is the buses as they can link the movement of commuters from their homes or offices to the entire public transport network.

One-thousand-and-fifty buses are not enough; we need something like 5,000 buses which are new, air conditioned, secured with lots of cameras, comfortable and preferably eco-friendly.

The buses will need to have their own bus lanes so that they can run unimpeded and be on time at their stops. Prasarana could ask that one lane in every three-lane road be allocated solely for its buses. Its buses should arrive at their stop every few minutes during peak period.

It could further plan where it stops to maximise its efficiency and interconnectivity. If you are in the “Golden Triangle”, the heart of Kuala Lumpur, you can see bus stops outside many buildings that are hardly 100 metres apart.

It is hardly reasonable for a bus on its route to stop every 100 metres! Bus stops should probably be about 500 metres apart in populated areas so that the commuter only has to walk around 250 metres at most.

Another problem is, of course, frequency and capacity of the existing public transport. Take the monorail as an example: it carries only around 100 passengers at a time and even during peak hours only comes about once every five minutes.

I understand that there were some original design flaws but they can be rectified and the monorail should be able to handle greater volume and frequencies. Double the carriages and make the intervals one minute apart and you will be carrying 10 times the passenger load that you are now.

Public transport is about moving as many people as possible in the shortest period of time. It is not a money-making proposition but it is a social good. Therefore why should we charge for it? Make it free, clean, comfortable, secure and efficient within the urban areas and ridership will increase substantially and traffic jams will be much reduced.

But how much will it cost? Let’s take SBS Transit in Singapore as an example which has a ridership of around 2.8 million per day (2.4 million bus riders a day as well 400,000 a day on rail). Its total revenue for 2010 was S$720 million (approximately RM1.76 billion) and it made a profit after tax of S$54 million.

In ringgit terms, their average revenue is around RM1.75 per rider per day and as they are profitable, we can conclude that the cost for Kuala Lumpur should not be more than RM1.75 per rider per day.

If we were to cater for around 3,500,000 trips per day to meet our goal of 50 per cent of the people using public transport then the cost would be RM6,125,000 per day or around RM2.25 billion a year.

It may sound like a lot of money but bear in mind the government is budgeting to spend RM14 billion on oil subsidies alone for 2011. Also bear in mind that RM2.25 billion won’t even cover the yearly interest cost of the RM40 billion MRT which will also not be able to solve our public transport woes in the Klang Valley anyway.

We need to think outside the box. Give a great public transport system for free within the urban areas and you don’t have to subsidise the fuel price. You don’t have to build an MRT system for RM40 billion. You don’t have to burden any income group in the city. Transport costs are zero if they take public transport.

Of course if those who are better off still want to drive into work they could cross subsidise our free urban public transport if we charge them a congestion fee to enter the city.

It is time to use our wits and not only our wallet. We will get as much publicity worldwide from our free public transport as we would from building a 100-storey building. What’s more, our own city folks will greatly appreciate it. You can’t beat free.

* The views expressed here are the personal opinion of the columnist.


So what do you think of the concept of free public transport? Does it make sense to have the public pay for public transport services through their taxes (rather than users fees) – just as they pay for their roads?

Or do you think that transport should be provided by the government but all users (public or private) should pay user fees. In this case, that would mean public transport fares and road congestion charges (like London) or “time-of-use” pricing (like Singapore).

The advantage of user fees is that it encourages public transport and private transport users to plan carefully, ensure that their trips are necessary and timely, and encourages efficiency.

Of course, user fees do raise the “price” of services that we consider as being “free” – which could actually discourage use among the least mobile. However, there are solutions for this such as providing access (such as bus passes) by governments, individuals or corporations as a social responsibility.

As always, your thoughts on this issue are very welcome!

13 replies on “Should we just make public transport ‘free’ and be done with it?”

I like the suggestion and I am hardly able to counter the arguments & statistics coming from an expert in the field. however, let me try my level best

1. is the public deterred from taking public transport b/cos it is expensive or b/cos it is inaccessible? i doubt that the buses or even the LRTs are expensive. more like the convenience of waiting for the bus at the bus stop under the rain or shine and the bus stop may be a few hundred meters away.

secondly, to get professionals/executives to take a public transport, i don’t think they would mind paying a few ringgit as long as they don’t hv to sweat wearing ties or walk too far in high heels. to make public transport free misses the point, we need to make it accessible first + timely secondly + faster compared to personal transport thirdly (bus if travelling in bus lane does not get caught in traffic jam during peak hours)

2. there is no such thing as a free lunch. if we make it free for public transport, then it has to come from somewhere. dropping gas subsidies may be an idea, but which politician actually dares to pull this off? If BN implement this, the next election the ppl vote for PKR. If PKR implement this, the next election the ppl would vote for BN back. we may like to think that ppl revolt abt romantic notions of justice / democracy, but the ppl in Egypt revolt b/cos the prices of food goes up.

Secondly, making public transport free and yet making it comfortable would be self contradictory. the money made by Prasarana may not be great, but it would still cost money to run a comfortable + safe (for women + old ppl) public transport

3. question – which comes first? making public transport accessible comes first, or making it deterrent to use personal transport comes first? the singapore experience is that making it deterrent for personal transport comes first. in the 70s there is congestion pricing, and the MRT only comes in the 80s.

whilst we would like to hv our own cars and drive anywhere that we want, not putting a price to parking / access to the city / congestion pricing, nobody is going to be weaned off their cars. it is a prisoner’s dilemma + tragedy of commons combined. again, it would take a very bold politician to do this. the case in Curitiba happens b/cos the persistence of the mayor, and it happens in Singapore b/cos democracy is not strong here

4. making it free also misses the point that buses alone does not solve the problem of transit. you would still need other ancillary support such as taxis / accessibility via bicycle etc. bus cannot cover all routes, nor does it provide a direct Point A to Point B route. to resolve all this, the suggestion of consolidating all the controls under 1 body such as suggested may be the answer

Public transport should remain a paid service.

End users tend to be more demanding if they are paying for the services. To a certain extend, there is check and balance towards the quality of the public transport.

(Perhaps just very minimal impact, but still…)

After travelling to countries with world class train transportation (Taipei, HK, Singapore, Tokyo, etc.)…

Honestly…. the novelty of riding/having an efficient “public transport” wears off. Nothing beats the driving as a means of transport.

With RM 40 Billion, i would rather the government cut
taxes on cars, build better highways and promote eco friendly cars.


Thanks for that interesting comment.

You are correct that driving can be enjoyable. At the same time, one has to recognize that the costs (economic, social, environmental, etc) of everyone driving (usually alone) at the same time (am peak) to the same place (KL town) are more than we (as a society) can handle.

Those who feel that they need to drive are already willing to pay for the privilege and can continue to do so. Those who feel that driving is not a necessity can purchase a car and drive it occasionally, carpool, use car sharing programmes like zipcar or simply rent when they feel the need to drive.

You have to admit that there is a huge difference between driving in congested traffic every day and driving a car out on an open highway.

Regards, Moaz for TRANSIT

Hopefully what WIlliam and Kirsten says will “actually/genuinely” happen in Malaysia which I strongly doubt it.

One issue I think need to be considered: are all taxpayers using the services? Klang Valley has 5 million population, which means there are at least 20 million people living elsewhere in Malaysia. Should they pay for the service, the people in Klang Valley enjoys? I don’t think so..

The “user pays” principle discourages unnecessary congestion on the public transport network. From personal experience, if it’s free, KIASU people will abuse the service. It will be less attractive to those who really need the service.

Also, market competition is necessary, if we envision an improvement of services offered. What we plan for the coming 10 years need to be reactive to changes to forecasts. Capacity, frequency, etc etc for bus services especially need to be reactive to demand. However regulation is necessary to ensure that bus lines are not redundant.

Hi Thars

That’s a good point, but you can ask the same question of roads. Assuming you are a resident of the Klang Valley, how many roads do you regularly use? And why should your taxes pay for the roads you do not use? Similarly why should residents of Malaysia (not living in the Klang Valley) pay for the Klang Valley’s roads?

Your points about how the service would be used/abused if free are important and worth considering.

Regards, Moaz for TRANSIT

Hi Moaz,

I cannot justify a taxpayer in Sarawak or Perlis paying for facilities they not only cannot enjoy, but they need as well (or maybe they dont need it).

Question: how are funds allocated for construction of new roads and regular maintenance?


While his idea of bus lanes is applaudable, the proposal of putting bus stops every 500m certainly isn’t. It is true that a bus stop every 100m is excessive as that would just translate into a max 50m walk to the farthest stop. The general guide is 400m but a city centre may need a stop spacing of 200-300m depending on the local conditions.

It is not appropriate to say that just because Singapore needs RM1.75 for every rider, the same would apply to KL. Cost is influenced by how efficiently the service is run which is in turn affected by the design of the network, among other factors. The focus should be on learning the best practices of others and see how any of it, when adapted to conditions unique to a city, could be beneficial.

Doubling of carriages and making the service 5 times more frequent may result in 10 times the carrying capacity but it would not result in 10 times more people riding it. To an operator, it means a service improvement which costs 30% more to run might only result in 18% more passengers. In addition, there is a level of optimal frequency that when a service is already very frequent, reducing the waiting time further would not have much impact to the passenger experience, and the money can be better used elsewhere.

One thing i realize is how “walk-able” it is to train stations for our neighboring developed countries.

Besides having good public Bus transportation,
a well planned pedestrian walk-way thru-out Klang Valley is critical for the success of MRT.

Uneven/non-existing walk ways, need to cross roads/highways, braving our Hot & Rainy weather, etc.. these are all major deterrence of public usage.

Koreans, Singaporeans, Hong Kong folks, etc…
walk a lot… and most are willing to walk X minutes
to their Bus or Train stations.

Why?… because it’s safe & convenient for them
to do so.

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