The ex-Chair of Prasarana once accused a reporter of provocation when being asked on viral images of LRT standees in close proximity to each other due to MCO-related service cuts. What is really overcrowding? Generally, a public transport service is designed to accommodate demand within a certain acceptable level of density threshold, typically around 6 pax per square metre. With the SOP, people are instructed to stay away at least one metre from another non-household member.
This required overcrowding threshold reduction from 6 to 1 passenger per square meter means, ceteris paribus, services have be increased by 6 fold to cater to pre-Covid trip makers. Recent RapidKL service cut announcement indicates a deterioration of service frequency by more than 80% as compared to pre-Covid times. The real question is, why the service cut is dramatic as compared to the meagre reduction in the expected population that would be working at their workplaces (i.e. 40% for private sector, and even then that precludes the more marginalized low-skill workers and manual labourers who work outside the 8-5 shift)?
Even for a 50% service cut to be contemplated, there needs to be a drastic eleven-twelfth (11/12) drop in trip demand. Acknowledging that the non-optional trip makers are likely those who come from marginalized socioeconomic backgrounds such as essential and migrant workers and seniors who don’t have access to private vehicles, there is a fundamental need for transparency in how authorities decide on a service cut figure. This is especially true if the government is even in the dark on how overcrowding looks like throughout the transit network before Covid.
There is no evidence that service cuts by public transport agencies around the world have ever successfully reduce the spread of Covid-19. Rather, agencies scramble to maintain the same level of service (by not cutting by more than 10%, with some commuter-based vehicles rerouted to boost frequencies on other grid-based services that cater to all-day all-way demand for essential workers).
From Times Magazine:Some cities have responded to the loss of passengers with service cuts, including Paris, where authorities cut metro and train service by 10% on most lines this March. In New York, the MTA cut service on two lines by 20% last spring, but the agency has avoided the swinging 40% to 50% service cuts it warned of in late 2020, thanks to federal relief funds. In London, TfL has maintained near normal service throughout the pandemic.
Agencies all around the world regularly publish their transit vehicle overcrowding status, and during Covid lockdown, it is an obligation for governments to ensure the restrictive overcrowding threshold is met (and responsively tweak services based on the tracked crowding outcomes), not by forcing service cuts and expecting crowding will stop without knowing the proportion of non-optional trip makers.
It should be the best practice of public transport authorities to regularly publish their respective transit vehicle overcrowding indicators.. Sadly, even during pre-Covid times, there is barely any form of level of service reporting from the government on rail and bus overcrowding.
The TTC in Toronto for example has even offered real-time overcrowding information through integration of Automatic Passenger Counting devices installed in their transit vehicles with real-time journey planning offered by third-party apps.
We need to learn from mistakes, and have empathy to the less fortunate. The pandemic has badly impacted transit captive users all around the globe for more than a year already. The TTC for example proactively monitors level of overcrowding on each service run, and the transit agency actually increased transit services (see below) during Covid as compared to pre-Covid in response to quantitative evidence of overcrowding that negatively impacted riders from marginalized socioeconomic backgrounds.
We are far behind when it comes to transparency. Overcrowding does occur, and the government should be held accountable to release the evidences that would prove the rationale of the service cut. Just compare the list of improved TTC bus routes above with the map below which was part of an investigation that triggered the improvement.
Probably we would never get to be as transparent, as the most affected transit users are low-skilled, non-car owning manual workers who work in sprawling hospitals, warehouses, factories and construction sites outside of the regular office hours, who we think would not fit with our ideal depiction of a nicely suited worker who gets to board on a one-seat train ride to the central business district.
Heck, the way our transit system is planned and built is biased towards medium and high-income workers working in downtown KL, forget about creating a truly connective grid of bus network that equitably serve the needs of the smaller satellite urban centres without leaving significant debt to our umpteenth generations. We are just reaping what we sow.