Decentralise, subsidise for better public transport, state rep says

Public transport is currently under federal management headed by its infrastructure arm Prasarana Bhd and regulator, the Land Public Transport Commission. — Picture by Choo Choy May
Public transport is currently under federal management headed by its infrastructure arm Prasarana Bhd and regulator, the Land Public Transport Commission. — Picture by Choo Choy May

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KUALA LUMPUR, Sept 20 — Malaysians have long grumbled about the country's public transport system, a loss-making business that has undergone both private and public management.

After several failed privatisation attempts by the previous administrations, the present government had no choice but to bail the operators out.

Now, public transport is under federal management headed by its infrastructure arm Prasarana Bhd and regulator, the Land Public Transport Commission (SPAD).

But critics believe rigid centralised planning is actually causing most of the problems. For example, how can someone in Kuala Lumpur with little understanding about Ipoh or Johor Baru traffic draw up an efficient plan for those cities?

So naturally the calls for decentralised planning have grown over the years.

At a forum discussing public transportation here yesterday, panelists said giving local councils autonomy to manage public transportation — under federal guidance — could help improve efficiency.

"Decentralisation can help increase usage because the state government or local councils understand the local situation better," Selangor Bukit Gasing assemblyman Rajiv Rishyakaran said.

"For now SPAD deploys buses [in other cities] according to their route plans when it is actually best decided at the local level," he added.

The reasons are self-evident: local councillors would have "more passion" to improve things and be more responsive to local complaints. This makes for a more effective management and an efficient system.

And this is especially important for managing buses which are notoriously known to be among the least reliable form of public transportation and also the least profitable.

Rajiv said currently the bus system is primarily managed and planned by Rapid, a subsidiary of Prasarana. There are also private operators like Metrobus but these companies only service profitable routes, leaving many commuters outside their network stranded.

"Currently the network planning is done by private companies so the planning is profit-oriented," Rajiv said, adding that even as proposals for improvement have been submitted by councillors from his constituency, Prasarana was hesitant since the plans were deemed unprofitable.

"They were concerned about the bottomline," he said.

Rajiv proposed subsidising operators as a solution, similar to the system practised by countries known for efficient public transport systems like Singapore and Sweden.

Under this scheme, the government will pay public transport operators a fixed income to incentivise punctual and good services. This also means paying bus operators to service unprofitable routes.

"So some routes they may make money some they may lose, but at least the money is spent for the public good," Rajiv said.

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