By Salahuddin Hisham
WHEN construction of the Empire State Building began on the island of Manhattan in 1930, New York City had in place a city grid system meant for public transportation as far back in 1811.
Kuala Lumpur only seriously looked into public transportation in the late 1990s. Instead of having construction built around planned transport route, roads and building were constructed first before public transportation was put in place.
It is for this reason that the current mass transit system appears haphazardly built.
Here lies the short-sightedness and lack of forward thinking of past administration in planning for public transportation. It was only considered after the policy to promote car ownership resulted in traffic congestion in Kuala Lumpur and only expected to get worse.
Though the Proton car project was meant to spearhead Malaysia’s drive into industrialisation that started in the 1980s, the car ownership policy failed and emulated similar transportation problem experienced by the US.
In the US, the car ownership policy has eaten up much of the government subsidy and came with long-term economic cost!
The car ownership policy put the country stuck in a vicious cycle. More cars on the road require more car infrastructure, thus less funds and construction for mass transit. Commuters have no choice but to use their own cars. In turn, it resulted in more cars on the road, a demand for more car infrastructure and congestion.
Valuable economic time wasted for the hours stuck in traffic jam daily. There is the high occurrence of stress, and stress-related illnesses. The number of cars on the road has resulted in air pollution and high CO2 emission.
The cheap oil prevailing in the US after World War II promoted car ownership. The sprawling suburbs only added more need for private transportation. It became the main reason highways leading to and within cities like Los Angeles are clogged all day with traffic.
A similar trend of events is happening in Malaysia.
The car ownership policy tailored to artificially meet an indicator of wealth came with large amount of subsidy channeled for cheap oil, highway construction, and Proton.
There were economic benefits and acquisition of technology and management skill derived, but in the long term, and it is happening now, it became an inconvenience and discomfort for the public and city dwellers.
The excuse to not plan for mass transit then was that it was expensive. Resources were needed for other economic priorities.
If a cost benefit analysis is to be undertaken today, the economic surplus will likely be limited and artificial. If the rising cost of living and billions lost to bailout and keep Proton afloat is considered, it is not a surprise that it turns out negative. Public transportation would have been more beneficial in the long term.
The past administration would have done better had they seriously planned and built the nation’s transportation and logistical network, particularly in the area of public transportation. It should be done before pursuing high growth and physical development became uncontrollable.
Current administration has better foresight to seriously look into public transportation to build new train line, and put the linkages together. As Malaysia becomes part of China’s One Belt, One Road Master Plan and site for the recently launched Digital Free Trade Zone initiative with Jack Ma, logistics will be the future economic growth sector.
However, the public transportation system should not remain focus for the city centre. It is important that the public transportation network extends to suburban areas and smaller towns – generally, it should be a nationwide plan.
Failing which, the public will still resort to private means of transport.
Unless public transportation is made available and convenient, commuters will not consider the public transportation option. Till commuters use it, only then can the public transportation be improved. It is a chicken or the egg comes first situation.
The suburbs in the US are too dependent on private transport that the traffic jam in the city could be found in the suburbs. It defeats the purpose of suburbs for a better and less stressful living.
A similar trend is emerging in the Klang Valley. Insufficient public transportation from homes to train stations has resulted in traffic jam spreading to roads leading to train stations. More cars are making it difficult to get parking space in nearby commercial centre.
It may not be politically popular but it is a matter of time that government works to discourage private car ownership. Land is becoming a scarce resource and allocating land for parking lot is uneconomical. Roads and highways cannot be made wider anymore.
When public transportation infrastructure is put in place, car ownership must be considered a luxury to discourage private transportation in the city. The tax revenue raised from automobile and highway should be put into a trust fund meant to improve public transportation
Planning for public transportation requires forward thinking and long-term comprehensive planning. It should not be put in place only after problems emerged.
When a financial weekly still continues to pick on the planned East Coast Rail Line (ECRL) project, it is not only bad intention for political reason but indicate that regressive thinking on public transportation still prevails.
Seeking public feedback should not be viewed as bad planning or appropriate feasibility studies not done yet. It is to ensure public interest and concern is taken into account. It is the experience from the construction in one of the Klang Valley rail lines.
To use the argument that the RM55 billion project serve 51 per cent of the size of Peninsular Malaysia but only 16 per cent of the population of Malaysia, lacks understanding and foresight on transportation.
Penang takes up only 0.79 per cent of the land area of Peninsular Malaysia and 5.3 per cent of the population of Malaysia. It is one of the lower economic growth states in Malaysia and potential economic growth limited by size. Yet, it is seeking funding from the federal government for a RM50 billion Penang Transport Master plan project.
Though it is a political argument, it does stress the need for a comprehensive nationwide transport system, particularly public transportation.
ECRL will not only move people but cargo from port to port. It will be a strategic advantage for our ports over Singapore.
If the main shareholder of Malaysian Airline System (MAS) had the foresight to strategically pursue cargo air transport over people transport, and stayed the course on the investment in Hann Airport near Frankfurt, Germany, there would not have been a Malaysia Airline Berhad (MAB).
Furthermore, ECRL will develop the less-developed east coast states of Peninsular Malaysia. It will encourage the population to stay and prosper the area instead of coming to West Coast cities to work and cause more traffic jam.