Is KL's public transport system that bad? Some parts yes, otherwise no

The Light Rail Transit lines cover the north east (Gombak), east (Ampang), south (Cheras) and west (Petaling Jaya, Kelana Jaya); all key residential areas housing most of the city's workers. ― Picture by Yusof Mat Isa
The Light Rail Transit lines cover the north east (Gombak), east (Ampang), south (Cheras) and west (Petaling Jaya, Kelana Jaya); all key residential areas housing most of the city's workers. ― Picture by Yusof Mat Isa

KUALA LUMPUR, July 26 ― The recent unpopular hike in parking fees for bays owned by City Hall (DBKL) has sparked renewed debate about one of the city's longstanding problems ― public transportation.

While the increase ― notably high as DBKL aims to discourage private vehicle access into the city centre to cut traffic congestion ― drew public backlash, critics of the new policy have resorted to the standard reason to justify their protest, namely that the preference for driving is mainly due to the unreliability of our public transport (PT) system.

But does the argument hold water? There may be some truth to it depending on which area of PT we look at.

But as far as getting into the city centre is concerned, data indicates existing PT systems as considerably comprehensive.

To scrutinise the issue further, Malay Mail Online spoke to the government's efficiency unit Pemandu to look into the current PT system within the city.

We found that while improvements are greatly needed when it comes to accessibility for some parts of Greater KL, like Cheras in the south and Damansara in the north-west, connectivity within the city centre and key surrounding high catchment satellite towns are actually well-covered.

Below we share some of our findings based on available data:

A look at the city’s rail system

Kuala Lumpur, including the city centre, is about 243 square kilometres big. Current urban metro rail systems cover around 80 kilometres, according to data provided by the Land and Public Transport Commission (Spad).

The Light Rail Transit (LRT) lines (operated by Rapid) cover the north east (Gombak), east (Ampang), south (Cheras) and west (Petaling Jaya, Kelana Jaya); all key residential areas housing most of the city's workers.

There are a total of 79 rail stations for both the Rapid and Monorail system, with a third of it covering Kuala Lumpur. The rest are placed in key corridors within Greater KL west and south west (Putra Heights extended line) leading up to the city entrance.

Posit the number of stations against the size of KL and you'll find that there is at least one rail station within a 3.7- to 4-kilometre radius throughout the city and Greater KL, definitely distance easily covered by foot.

To make things easier for workers who commute to the city via the Rapid system, government infrastructure agency Prasarana Bhd introduced the Monorail service, with 11 stations placed at the busiest districts, including two (Titiwangsa and KL Sentral) integrated directly with the Rapid systems, stretching 8.6 kilometres long, providing the necessary coverage for the gap left by the two LRT lines.

This means areas like downtown KL and less frequented locations like Stadium Merdeka (which is close to tourism hotspot Petaling Street) and Bukit Nanas, which has a station placed less than three kilometres away from Rapid's Masjid Jamek integrated station connecting the Ampang and Kelana Jaya line, and sits right across the Dang Wangi station.

Areas like Bukit Bintang or the Golden Triangle, the city's busiest shopping district, are also connected by the Monorail line. This is despite the area being less than two kilometres away from the nearest LRT Ampang line (Hang Tuah) and Kelana Jaya line (KLCC).

The observation above excluded analysis of the services provided by the Keretapi Tanah Melayu Bhd Komuter rail system which has a few stations located at high traffic areas like Seputeh and Bank Negara.

While it may not provide the best services and is in need of an upgrade, a flaw the government has readily admitted, the old freight routes remain a crucial means of transportation for those residing beyond Greater KL.

Bus services need a lot more work

While the Rapid system has ultimately become the backbone of the KL and Greater KL's land public transport system, the supplementary service ― public buses ― generally remains problematic.

The fault, however, is restricted only to suburban-urban transit which a Pemandu Urban Public Transportation official said will be undergoing a major revamp expected to be announced soon.

The introduction of GoKL by Spad, a free bus service that offers free rides to key tourist and business spots throughout KL, has made intercity travel almost ridiculously easy.

Servicing four routes that cover every square inch of the city, GoKL's presence, helping connect commuters to the Rapid systems, means users are spoilt for choices ― they have the option not to walk, or walk for about four kilometres at most to their workplaces or homes.

It's much healthier to walk, of course.

Currently, GoKL operates 34 buses with a headway frequency of five minutes. Spad data shows GoKL services 50,000 passengers a day and it is expected to increase the number of buses in the future as the Mass Rail Transit (MRT) system's induction is expected to increase PT traffic significantly higher.

According to testimonies from frequent GoKL users, the bus service is top notch with passengers not having to wait beyond 15 minutes to get a ride even in peak hours.

But private bus services ― as well as feeder bus services ― to link commuters to the Rapid system throughout Greater KL remains a bane.

Lacking resources (drivers and investors due to the routes being unprofitable), Rapid has failed to beef up a crucial aspect of the rail system and the inefficiency of the feeder bus services has turned residents away from using the LRT despite their close proximity.

However, not all locations suffer from poor bus services. Those residing in the north east (Gombak area), east (Ampang area) and south (Cheras area) are still content with RapidKL buses servicing routes directly to key locations in the city.

The headway frequency is a decent half an hour, and it is known to be more or less punctual. Malay Mail Online found that even professionals residing in these highly populated areas, including lawyers and auditors, are fine with taking the bus to avoid the heavy congestion.

"I take the bus from Ampang Point to the KLCC stop and walk to my office at Jalan Yap Kwan Seng on days when I do not have to attend Court. It's RM1 per trip for a new, air-conditioned RapidKL bus. It’s cheap compared to the expensive toll and the petrol I’ll have to spend getting stuck in traffic. If it wasn't for my profession's late working hours, I would take the bus or LRT everyday," said Leelian Kong, a lawyer.

Tying things up neatly, well almost

Mapping out the present rail (LRT lines, Monorail and Komuter) system and putting them together with the private bus routes, data shows existing PT networks cover all highly populated residential areas in KL and Greater KL well.

So for workers in the city, especially those who are based in offices and don’t need to go out, there is no reason not to hop on to the closest Rapid rail system.

Most of the rail lines are already well-integrated. The free GoKL bus service makes it even easier to move around the city. Once the Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) system is in place, all high catchment locations in all directions will be connected and covered.

The only problem is the first mile. Getting to the LRT stations is a hassle, especially with a limping feeder bus service.

But all this can be easily rectified by simply driving or riding a bike to the nearby LRT stations, which, as mentioned, are already located in key densely populated corridors, instead of driving straight into the city to work.

A recent Malay Mail Online report indicated that some who are in close proximity to the Rapid rail system still prefer to drive.

Pemandu, in its urban rail development masterplan, noted that the existing three rail lines are currently carrying as many as 450,000 people a day, with more expected now that the Putra Heights line (another high catchment area covering densely populated Puchong and nearby satellite towns) is in operation.

And 70 per cent of those who commute via the Rapid system have admitted that the services, with a headway frequency of three to five minutes during peak hours, are satisfactory, according to a survey by Spad last year. A strong statement of approval right there.

Predictably, the same survey showed the majority of those who expressed dissatisfaction with the public transport system are those who do not rely on them, or have scarcely used them.

This does not mean that everything is peachy. The masterplan identified the lack of accessibility for some high catchment corridors like Damansara and Greater Cheras.

But the construction of the MRT, with the first line consisting 90 stations connecting Kajang (south east) to Sungai Buloh (north west), and to be fully integrated with the LRT lines, is expected to address that gap.

But despite marked improvements in the PT system, Malaysians still refuse to take public transport. Official data shows modal share for PT remains at a poor 20 per cent, compared to 60 per cent in Singapore and around 55 per cent in London.

Pemandu Urban Public Transportation unit senior manager Shahrul Azhar Shaari said workers actually have the option to use the existing PT networks to get into the city, and that increased modal share on PT by a mere 20 per cent can cut congestion “significantly.”

“Existing rail systems are already extensive and the main corridors are already covered or are in the process of being covered people can drive and drop to the station,” Shahrul told Malay Mail Online.

Why the congestion charge is necessary

As Ajit Johl of the National Public Transport Users Association pointed out to us recently, Malaysians have a very skewed sense of what defines efficient PT: they expect the bus or train to drop them right at their office or home, or in some cases, even their toilet.

Expats who live here have pointed out numerous times in travel blogs or forums that Malaysians don't like to walk. An expat can walk for about three kilometres from Jalan Ampang to KLCC to do grocery shopping. That idea would be preposterous to a Malaysian.

We don't have that culture here. The excuse given is always that the weather is cooler in Europe, or the public transportation system is far superior, that Europeans don't have to walk far.

This is baseless.

European countries do have summers, and yet they still walk. As for their public transportation, not all train stops are at your doorstep, they still have to disembark and walk to wherever they're going.

Traffic data suggests Malaysians still prefer to drive despite living in areas close to the Rapid rail networks. This attitude, along with other condescending views like calling PT low class or only for immigrants, contributes considerably to the worsening congestion in the city which is why DBKL was prompted to raise the parking fees for spaces it owns.

It's not the be-all end-all solution, Mayor Datuk Seri Mohd Amin Nordin Abdul Aziz said, it is the start of a long battle to cut congestion.

Shahril said even as connectivity improves, the push for a shift in ways Malaysians commute won't be as easy. The Pemandu officer said Malaysians need that nudge to get them off their butts, similar to what cities like Singapore, London or Stockholm have done ― force citizens to use PT by making car ownership expensive.

“I think with Malaysians, we need that last push.”

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