Our election manifesto for the improvement of public transport – An open letter to political parties

The election season is upon us again. The recent Budget 2023 fails to address our systemic public transportation problems. We call for electoral parties to advocate for real and meaningful changes based on rational evidence, not political convenience.

Over the decade, Transit Malaysia has identified these key areas of improvement and would advise that political parties consider these in their manifestos.

Primary Urban Conurbations (i.e. Klang Valley, Iskandar Malaysia, Pulau Pinang, Kuantan, Kuching) 

1.1 Good transport governance

  1. Our present and past transport ministers have recently noted that urban public transport is a joint responsibility of multiple agencies – but stop short of admitting the need for conurbation-level transport authorities to orchestrate various plans and policies into one common vision and turning it into a reality, similar to how TfL and LTA have been successful in weaning Londoners and Singaporeans off their private vehicles. We all know that MoF, MoT, KKR, KPKT, EPU, UPENs, PBTs and their subservient agencies have been waving their wands ‘shiok sendiri’ in all different directions. Since our establishment in 2008, we’ve been calling for a public transport organising authority in each of Malaysia’s primary conurbations given how these bureaucratic tangles of interests lead us to a downward spiral of auto-oriented sprawl and dependency.
  2. Building expensive grade-separated urban rail lines without robust alternatives analysis and evidence-based decision-making is fiscally irresponsible. It is oxymoronic to expect our expensively growing urban rail network to boost overall mass transit uptake when we allow more and more roads to not only be designed for speed but also widened and stacked on top of each other, hampering quick and efficient first-last mile movements of “politically unworthy” buses and pedestrians. Studies that justified our highways and rail megaprojects are opaque and stand on cherry-picked scenarios and decision-based evidence. For Klang Valley alone, billions of ringgit on annual congestion-driven productivity losses and billions more on urban rail infrastructure debts, yet to date not a cent has been invested to develop and maintain one synchronised Klang Valley transport demand model (to be fed by periodical household travel diary surveys, also totally contingent upon government funding) and one streamlined economic benefits appraisal framework that (currently non-exist) conurbation-level transport planners can refer to in putting (often private-led) rail, highway and land development proposals to test.

1.2 Level of Service

  1. Quality, reliability, and legibility of Prasarana’s bus and rail services are deteriorating by the day, understandably due to its fastly deteriorating fiscal ability to withstand post-pandemic ridership uptake challenge, on top of the recently imposed burden to offer fare discount schemes without any revenue offset from the government. Vehicles and facilities are failing to meet the standard of good repair, and urban bus and rail services are becoming more infrequent. Nonetheless, the level of service, fleet size, bus network efficiency, and bus captain remuneration have all been far from being sufficient even before the pandemic. The government has been sweeping Prasarana’s operational spending deficits under the Sukuk bond carpet, whereas other transport authorities leverage more sustainable levers such as fuel taxes, parking levies, and congestion pricing to offset mass transit subsidies. 
  2. The tens of billions of ringgit earmarked for MRT3 could instead be used to clawback all of Klang Valley’s highway concessions (and transform Prasarana mandate into all-things-transport asset owner, which gives it the flexibility to prioritise speedier “highway buses” and establish mid-route connections to off-highway local buses), more than quadruple Rapid Bus’ existing fleet size (to achieve Singapore’s level of the bus per capita), and provide the government ample time to allow ridership to build prior to introducing the right mix of cost-recovery levers.  
  3. KKR, JKR and LLM should not have the final say on the configurations of roads and highways in Malaysia’s major urban conurbations, as these agencies have caused long-term damage to first-last mile connectivity and bus network efficiency. These agencies should act subservient to the conurbation transport authorities. Our urban road networks are increasingly becoming like an F1 circuit where it is almost impossible for a pedestrian or a bus to traverse across any part of the network without making a long, time-wasting detour. With shorter pedestrian paths and bus travel times, the same bus fleet can offer much higher frequencies and capture wider catchment areas.
  4. The creation of strong transport authorities for Iskandar Malaysia, Pulau Pinang-Kulim, Kuching and Kuantan conurbations, with the ability to tap some funding from private transport infrastructure (such as parking), would allow for improved public transport level of service that supports sustainable urban growth.
    1. We have observed that the Penang and Pahang government have an interest in developing grade-separated urban rail systems in their respective state capitals. While we understand the importance of increasing accessibility in the states, we are concerned because these plans do not consider more cost-efficient and reliable alternatives such as Bus Rapid Transit systems (BRT) or even measures to improve the existing bus system.
    2. For example, the cost of developing the Iskandar Malaysia BRT system in Johor costs only RM2.56bil for 71 bus routes with coverage over 2000km compared to the KL monorail which covers only 8.9km with a cost of 1.8bil (adjusted to inflation, 1.18bil in 2000). This shows that the BRT option would be more sensible in cities like Kuantan and Penang Island in terms of cost efficiency instead of the rail system. 
    3. BRT systems benefit other cities and states, where expanding coverage and accessibility at cost-effective prices are desirable. BRT systems are very flexible and adaptable compared to trains. Existing road infrastructures can be used with some modification and it eliminates the need for the elevated route. 

Other Urban Areas

Users outside of the Klang Valley are often overlooked when discussing public transport. Buses operate on frequencies as low as once every hour during peak hours, as seen with Panorama Melaka, Perak Transit, and MyBas in Seremban. While there have been efforts to support stage bus operators, little has been done to move beyond the current car-dependent status quo.

We offer the following solutions for addressing public transportation shortcomings in small towns and cities outside the Klang Valley:

2.1 Adequate Level of Service

  1. Every town with a population above 50,000 should have at least two crisscrossing frequent bus lines that run every 30 minutes or better, with timed transfer at the hub in the town centre and routes reaching out to destinations such as hospitals, parks, schools, places of worship, and commercial areas. 
  2. The level of service for at least two crisscrossing bus routes would need to be boosted to every 15 minutes or better for cities with a population above 200,000.
  3. In towns and cities with Komuter Utara service, this means connecting the train station with downtown areas. We would also recommend connecting major public transit terminals located outside the downtowns of regional centres like Melaka Sentral with their downtowns
  4. MyBas gross cost bus service contracting program under the now defunct SPAD should be expanded to cover all towns and small cities, and not just Seremban and Kangar. 

2.3 New commuter train networks

  1. Increase the frequency of KTM Komuter Utara to benefit communities in rural and small towns and provide socioeconomic opportunities for the locals. This includes enabling children to go to school and allowing individuals to access job opportunities. We recommended providing an adequate number of trains to target a minimum of 1 service every 45-minutes.
  2. Due to the long distances involved, we encourage the study of an express Komuter Utara line to serve the busiest stations and provide an alternative to driving. The Butterworth – Padang Besar line could serve as a good candidate for this due to the length of the line (169.8 km) and the long commutes of those from further-flung towns and cities such as Alor Setar and Sungai Petani. An alternative would be to increase the frequency of ETS services to meet the needs of commuters along the rail line.
  3. In addition to improvements to KTM Komuter Utara, improvements of the KTM East Coast Line are vital for the improvement of rail public transit on the East Coast. This line is used by those living in rural areas along its alignment to access jobs and educational opportunities. As it currently exists, Shuttle Timuran only has several runs daily, and halts in rural areas have been neglected. We suggest creating a new Komuter Timur branding and forming clearer schedules. Trains should run at least every hour, complemented by the faster limited-stop intercity trains. In addition, there should be investments in rural halts to ensure that they are comfortable and accessible for all users. In addition, we also recommend reinstating passenger service on the Rantau Panjang Line between Pasir Mas and Rantau Panjang to allow for easier cross-border travel and convenient transfers between SRT and KTMB.

Basic Active Transportation Improvements 

3.1 Accessible pedestrian walkways

  1. Pedestrian infrastructures are often neglected by local councils due to the priority given to maintaining roads for vehicles. As the result, our streets are not walkable. There are no proper crossings for pedestrians, and sidewalks are not being maintained, causing them to fail.
  2. While the maintenance of shelters, bus stops, and pavements fall under the purview of the local council, oftentimes, smaller local councils lack the means to adequately maintain these public facilities, leaving them to fall into disrepair.
  3. We propose that the Ministry of Housing and Local Government (KPKT) allocate a special fund to maintain sidewalks and street furniture like benches and bus stops. This fund can be distributed to local councils as needed, with a focus on local authorities outside of the Klang Valley.

3.2 Accessibility for the disabled community

  1. It is regrettable that infrastructure for the disabled community is often neglected. Bus stops are not accessible and travelling by train during peak hours is impossible. Priority should be given to improving facilities to be user-friendly to the public, including those from vulnerable communities.

3.3 Planning Flexibility 

  1. Local councils should be allowed more leeway in planning and creating more livable and sustainable infrastructure. Small towns can serve to test novel public transport policies and ideas that can serve as a benchmark for other places to follow suit.
  2. Places like Kampar and Taiping, with their more compact built environment, can test dedicated cycling infrastructure that is more than just painted lines by the road to encourage cycling.
  3. Penang Island could also pursue a policy of limiting cars into the George Town heritage area, pedestrianising more places for heritage preservation and making them the lively, vibrant places that they can be.
  4. We propose more diversification of land use in existing rural townships to bring local economic opportunities to reduce subject migration to metropolitan cities.

We implore all political parties to take public transportation issues seriously. While many cities and countries are looking to move forward from car-centric systems to a balanced people-centric transportation system, Malaysia should get on board with that idea as well. Data shows Klang Valley motorists spend 44 hours annually in their vehicles due to traffic jams. This is very unproductive and stressful for all. Better and safer transportation systems will help to ease people’s burdens including financial burdens. Let’s fix it before it gets too late to make changes.

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