By Wong Shu Qi

Today in Malaysia, 78% of households own a car while 66% own a motorcycle. As such, it is no wonder that our roads are always congested, regardless of how many highways we build. Consequently, many people are pressing for an improvement of public transport, notably the Mass Rail Transit (MRT) system and as evidenced by the perpetual construction scenes dotting the capital city, the government itself is parading MRT as a solution to urban congestion.

Yet, is the costly MRT the way forward for our traffic problem?

We in Malaysia are mentally accustomed to associating public transport with MRT. Maybe it is because MRT is a prominent feature in Hollywood films in major cities, such as New York, London, Tokyo and Hong Kong. Hence, most Malaysians have a good impression of MRT as an efficient public transport system. And it is actually not difficult to understand why. MRT operates on fixed rail, has a high carriage capacity, travels on high speed at about 80km/h and is usually on time. Contrast that to being caught in a massive city traffic, MRT has become the quintessential public transport option in the world.

In Malaysia, for better or worse, we have an alphabet soup of different varieties when it comes to rail transport system. We were first introduced to KTM Kommuter in the mid-90s and LRT a few years after that, then came KL Monorail, and of late, MRT, and BRT. The transit map is as confusing to many people including Malaysians as the bevy of acronyms representing the type of “trains” snaking through, in and out of the capital city daily.

MRT, LRT, BRT

Without going into discussions of the categories that are overly specific, suffice to say that the difference between MRT and LRT is one of capacity. Being underground or elevated rail is immaterial.

The former caters to at least 25,000 to 80,000 passengers per hour, which make it only available and sustainable if the city has at least 1 million commuters population. The latter carries 3,000 to 30,000 passengers per hour. In an extreme case like Manila, a single light rail system caters up to half a million commuters.

On the other hand, BRT uses bus as coaches that move on a dedicated lane. Our first BRT system will be launched in Subang in 2015, although it is an example of how not to do BRT. We will discuss why in the latter part of this article.

The primary objective of a public transport system is to ensure mobility, allowing people to go to work, school, recreation, seek medical services, social activities and others. Thus, at the core, traffic flow must be optimised especially at peak hours to enable the volume of commuting taking place. A city cannot function well if its inhabitants are always caught up in traffic jams. In such a city, the cost of logistics would be higher, air pollution worsened and the quality of life significantly diminished.

As such, city planners should design cities based on the Transit Oriented Development (TOD) model, where mobility is encouraged via transit and non-motorised transportation.

Nevertheless, planning must match the local context. No single solution suits every city. Dense and highly populated cities such as Hong Kong, Singapore and Taipei have successfully implemented the MRT system. Portland in the United States and Melbourne in Australia have efficacious LRT; while Bogotá in Columbia and Brisbane in Australia are good examples of BRT implementation.

The key to a successful public transport system is not the scale of the project but whether it suits local needs while encompassing the three elements of accessibility, punctuality, and safety.

Do our Malaysian cities need MRT?

The question before us then, is what sort of system do we need to maximise mobility in our towns and cities?

In comparison with other cities in the world where MRT is successfully implemented, the Malaysian population spread is sprawled out across low-density residential areas. In cities with good MRT, a station may serve tens of thousands of population; while Johor Bahru in Malaysia, an MRT station may only cater for fewer than 10,000 residents within a radius of 1km.

Do we really need a high-capacity transit system? MRT commutes at least 25,000 to 80,000 passengers one-way per hour. To ensure that the system functions optimally and not end up as another white elephant, we need at least one million commuters everyday. This is definitely a challenge even for larger Malaysian cities such as the Klang Valley conurbation.

Moreover, the Hong Kong Mass Transit Railway is the only MRT system in the world that can breakeven with ticket sale. Even successful MRT systems in Singapore or Taipei need advertisement or other sources of  income to mantain their profits.

MRT costs exponentially more to build than BRT. This inevitably has to be funded by taxpayers and in the Malaysian context, may end up severely under-utilised. Even if it is built, sustainability will remain a major challenge.

Finally, in our context where the population is largely sprawled across low-density residential areas, MRT must be complemented by a good feeder bus system; the “last mile” challenge. If commuters have to walk more than a kilometre to and from MRT stations, they are more likely to opt for private vehicle instead.

BRT as a cheap and effective public transport option for Malaysian cities

For our cities, we need a public transport system that is able to extend deep into the sprawling suburbs, economical to build and maintain, as well as easily scalable or adaptable to the changing centres of our ever-evolving cities. All these factors considered, the expensive MRT may not be the best option for us.

In contrast to the MRT, BRT is a cheaper alternative because it does not require fixed rail and special train coaches. The system is essentially buses running on a special lane on existing roads; in normal cases, the cost of building BRT is only one-tenth of the cost of a MRT system. In this aspect, the Subang BRT which is set to run on an elevated bus lane defeats the point of it being a cost effective and low capital expenditure public transport alternative.

A bus ferries 40 passengers reduces at least 20 vehicles that clog the road. It justifies the need of a special bus lane taken from existing road instead of building elevated bus lane. The problem is nevertheless the negative perception against buses due to their infamy by poor punctuality and long waits. This will start Malaysians off on a lower starting point of confidence over BRT.

We should look to the pioneering BRT systems in Brazil’s Curitiba, or Columbia’s Bogotá, if we need a model for reference. Similar to these cities in the developing world, all our cities are changing rapidly. The crowded central business district today may not be the central business district in 20 years’ time. Hence a flexible system like BRT which can easily adapt to the changing nodes and routes of changing cities should be the foremost option when considering what type of public transport to have.

Buses are cheaper than train coaches, special bus lane is not as costly as fixed rail, and routes can be changed following the urban development. These are the reasons why BRT ought to he the winning and sensible choice.