Prophecies of doom on traffic hell
Sim Kwang Yang
Apr 22, 06 1:01pm
�The City of Kuala Lumpur is going to die. Very soon, the city will be an
That ominous prophecy of doom has not issued forth from any radical social
critic or alarmist NGO activist. It is the warning from Mohd Ali Mohd Nor,
CEO of bus operations for Rapid KL, as quoted by the writer Danny Lim in
the April issue of the magazine Off the Edge.
He is merely stating the obvious, about something which does not seem all
that obvious to many politicians and city planners. Over the past few decades, the city of Kuala Lumpur, together with Penang, Johore Baru and other burgeoning urban centres in Peninsular Malaysia, have exploded in a
process of exponential growth on all fronts.
Such continuous rapid urbanisation is bound to stretch the ability of the
local governments in providing basic amenities like housing, education,
health care, sewage disposal, garbage collection, and recreation. But in
terms of affecting adversely both the way and the quality of life of the
residents, none can compare with the eternal traffic congestion that is now
on the point of strangling our nation�s amoebic sprawling metropolis.
For many many years now, there has always been the feeble voice of sanity
calling for improvement of our public transport system to no avail. A
former PM, who had the foresight to coin the catchy slogan �Vision 2020�,
did not, could not, or would not lend his considerable weight towards an
effective long-term strategy in providing cheap efficient and sustainable
public transport in our major cities. Was he blind to the possibility of
turning our cities from cauldrons of impressive growth into �economic
His emphasis was instead focused on the creation of our national car in the
80s, either out of what was considered to be economic necessity, or a
matter of national pride - or both.
Unable to break into the cut-throat international automobile market in any
significant way, the survival of the national car project has had to rely
heavily on the already competitive but limited market at home.
Heavily patronised by the government, and protected by all kinds of tariff
and non-tariff measures against better cheaper import, the national car has
managed to capture a large share of the automobile market in Malaysia.
Nevertheless, in an era of pressure for free and open international trade,
the survival of the national car is far from certain. But that is another
The excellent articles in the said edition of Off the Edge have made some
very pertinent revelation.
Apparently, even as far back as in 1964, the first KL Transportation Study
recommended capital- intensive road building projects, while paying scant
attention towards developing public transport in the city. Essentially,
that strategy has not changed over the past 40 years. In fact, with the
arrival of the national car on the Malaysian roads in the 80s, the frenzy
of road and highway construction had been accelerated with a vengeance.
A 2004 paper on Transport, Urban Structure and Lock in the Kuala Lumpur
Metropolitan Area by Dr Paul Barter of the National University of
Singapore, showed that Klang Valley has a much higher level of expressway
length per person (68 m per 1,000) than many other Asian cities. (Singapore
has 44 m per 1,000 people.)
A national scandal
The magazine reports that car ownership rose in the Klang Valley from 113
per 1,000 people in 1985 to 209 in 1997 and to an estimated 263 in 2000.
Nationwide, there are something like 16 million registered motor vehicles
of all types, for a population of 25 million or so. Every working day, 1.5
million cars and other vehicles crawl their way into KL city centre for
work and other related purposes.
Figures are lifeless numbers. The toll in terms of both road fatalities and
wastage of the human soul caught in the eternal jam is quite a national
From my latest address on top of a hill in Cheras, it would take me one to
one-and-a-half hour to reach the city centre on a good day. The same
journey of eight miles or so will take me less than 10 minutes on the highway.
Like many of you living a transient existence in KL, I would rather leave
the car at home and take the public modes of transport instead. But believe
me, having been a part-time and then full time resident of this so-called
�City of Light� for over 25 years, I have yet to see any faint flickering
of light at the end of the tunnel, as far as using public transport is
For some strange reasons, the bus service that KL has to offer has remained
definitely third-worldish for decades. You know the usual complaints. The
buses are never on time, and it seems that the companies running them have
yet to pick up on the modern concept of a schedule. They are filthy,
smelling of diesel, dilapidated, and prone to breakdowns. During peak
hours, the jostling and the elbowing among the passengers, especially
between the sexes, positively violate all civilised standards of decency.
Pick-pockets are rife.
One can never tell which bus goes to what destination via which route. I
have tried to enquire from fellow travellers waiting listlessly and
interminably at bus stops. They are equally baffled.
Naturally, one seeks help from bus drivers. Apart from the rare few good
bus drivers, that occupation seems to have attracted only sullen gruff
insolent and surly characters! They must have been paid peanuts, and
therefore revert to the species from which Homo-sapiens have evolved!
You would think that one could opt for calling a taxi by telephone from the
comfort of one�s home. Alas! The call taxis does not work that way. But we
should leave the phenomenon of third-worldish taxis in Kuala Lumpur to a
separate treatment. It deserves that much.
I know if I continue in this vein, I would just be another citizen among
millions who moan and whine about the excruciating pain of moving from
point A to point B in the Klang Valley everyday. Here, the shortest
distance between two points is always a torturous detour through hellish
traffic. I ought not to gripe so much because I am a retiree living a
reclusive existence, while millions of my fellow Malaysians have to go
through their daily ordeal on the road out of necessity.
Finally, to ward off pressure from the public when subsidy for petrol and
diesel was withdrawn, the government has announced that the saving of RM4.4
million would be spent on improving public transport in the country.
At least, a public recognition
It does not matter that the so-called saving was practically wiped out
overnight by the latest round of price hike on the international oil
market, thanks to the American sabre-rattling against the Iranians. It
matters even less that the country probably needs RM44 billion or more and
a period of 20 years to whip our public transport system into first world
At least, there is now some kind of public recognition that the problem
exists, and the realisation that something has to be done about it.
In the past, neglect over public transport has been the result of a
development programme that has favoured ethnic consideration rather than
economic class. People compelled to use the unsavoury public transport
system are those from the middle-lower income group. They are the worker
ants in the colony who have little political clout, social capital, or
access to the public media.
No matter how bad the public amenities for transport are, these commuters
simply have to grin and bear it, in typically third-worldish stoicism. And
they would dutifully vote in the same party into government, election after
election, irrespective of the glaring reality that perhaps, the close
alliance between political and business interests has contributed in no
small measure to this traffic hell in which they find themselves.
Where democracy, or the semblance of democracy in Malaysia, has failed to
serve the real needs of the people for proper public transport,
globalisation and macro-economic forces have finally arrived to bear upon
our political class to look at the problem with new eyes.
Climbing from a level of USD40 or less a few years ago, the price of crude
oil has risen to USD70 per barrel to date. Experts are predicting that oil
prices will stabilise at around USD100 per barrel in the near future.
Malaysia simply cannot afford to encourage her drivers to burn away petrol
on the roads anymore. An efficient public transport system is one way to
alleviate the urgency of balancing the books for the government and the
country as a whole!
In any case, when the city of Kuala Lumpur should grind to a halt, a
situation that has been predicted for years, foreign investment would
indeed take flight. The horrendous complications are legion. Indeed, this
city of car lovers � like Malaysian cities elsewhere - may yet turn out to
be an �economic graveyard�!
The writings are on the wall, as the clich� goes. Improving the public
transport system is the one government aspiration that deserves public
support, despite my cynicism about the ability of politicians and
bureaucrats in solving any real problem.
As for the distant but certain prospect of exhausting the world�s energy
resources, well that is one spectre that people would keep out of their