OCTOBER 3 — Ratan Tata had a vision. During his stewardship of the Tata Group, he sought to produce a car that was to be sold at 1 lakh (roughly around RM5,892). However, the Tata Nano was met with lukewarm response and didn’t revolutionise the automotive industry as some people predicted.

Mr Tata was driven to manufacture affordable cars to make them more accessible to the poor. He was motivated to do so when he saw the ubiquitous phenomenon of more than two persons on a motorcycle. It is heart wrenching to see sometimes two or three toddlers precariously clinging to the backs of their father just to get to school on time.

As much as we go on about how dangerous this is, to most who are economically marginalised, it is a practical necessity and a reality.

The same phenomenon that Mr Tata witnessed in the streets of Mumbai is not unfamiliar in Kuala Lumpur. Families have to take a huge gamble every day because the government has failed in its core responsibility to provide access to public transportation.

The solution to the problem of getting around places lies not in making private automobiles cheaper. That has many downsides as increasing the amount of automobiles on the road will only lead to the propensity for more accidents to happen and cause massive traffic jams.

The realistic solution is to broaden the reach of public transportation.

Improving, but still wanting

Public transportation has been identified as one of the key areas of the National Key Result Area (NKRA). RapidKL has been commissioned with operating the bus and rail systems in KL.

The government has recognised that rail is an essential component of public transport; this can be seen in their investments in the MRT and the electrified railway project from KL to Padang Besar.

The KTM Komuter, notorious for its long waiting times and inefficient service, has made great strides. Now, there’s only a gap of 15 minutes between trains.

It is positive that finally the government has done something to improve public transportation after decades of neglect. The years of prioritising Proton and constructing endless highways ought to end. It’s time to recalibrate our priorities to ensure that people hop onto a bus instead of taking the car.

Yet, despite the progress made it is still not enough. People still elect to take their own private vehicles instead of public transportation. During rush hour, traffic jams are notorious, with a sea of red brake lights engulfing major highways.

Kuala Lumpur still fails the public transportation litmus test: can you go anywhere within the parameters of the city in reasonable time by using only public transport? The answer for KL is clearly no.

The LRT, monorail and KTM reach limited areas. Buses, which have a more extensive network, are less reliable because of the lack of frequency and punctuality. Of course, the blame is not solely on the bus network; traffic jams contribute to the lack of punctuality of buses and serve to only lengthen this vicious cycle.

The causes of this are partly structural, partly cultural. It’s structural because the government is still failing to make public transportation a viable alternative to those who own private vehicles. Companies are also unwilling to offer incentives to employees to take public transport.

Town planning is also poor as one most certainly needs some sort of private vehicle to get around. Recognising that the tropical climate is not the best climate to be walking about in, more pedestrian walkways should be built.

Despite these improvements, we’re still far behind. The breakdowns at the LRT are far too frequent. There are no bus schedules, thus it makes it difficult for a person without Internet access to plan journeys. The 15-minute interval at the KTM is too long a time to wait, as those with cars can go a considerable distance within 15 minutes.

I used to take the bus to work. But the U88 from Kota Damansara to Bangsar (the only bus to Bangsar from Kota Damansara) would take two hours during rush hour as compared to half an hour by car. The trade off is either time or cost, both equally unpleasant.

Public transport should also be cheaper. It is sickening to see the amount of subsidies spent on petrol, which benefits the middle to rich class when such sums could have gone to subsidising the cost of public transport and invest more in its maintenance and expansion.

Companies should also do more to contribute. They should devise incentives for car pooling, and if they offer seasonal car parks, employees should be able to monetise it to fund the costs of public transport.

Less fashionable, but safer           

Cars should not be seen as a symbol of status in the sense that an acquisition of one would mean that one has achieved the middle class dream. Instead it ought to be seen as a pollution churning machine that incinerates one’s savings due to the costs involved in purchasing and maintaining it.

Private vehicles are way more dangerous than say, trains. While trains derailing are not unheard of, on a balance of probabilities, there’s a higher chance of private vehicles colliding than the former happening.

We hear about people perishing in ghastly road accidents, something we hear in the news almost weekly, I’m struck by how meaningless these deaths are because of human miscalculation. We’re accustomed to such stories so that it’s not shocking anymore; we’ve become desensitised to it.

It’s a pity that this government chooses to invest in roads and a national car instead of something, which has been proven in the first world, to have benefitted the collective.

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.