opinion : Praba Ganesan

Campaign public transport to fill up our trains

Praba Ganesan

OCTOBER 12 — I’m almost always the only rider in the bus — from the new feeder bus service fleet — to the nearby MRT station. Granted, I plan my travel to avoid peak traffic hours.

The driver fails to hide a sigh of relief as I pay the fare, as if to communicate my boarding gives meaning to his short loop drive.

Streams of cars convoy thousands of people per hour out of my taman as the near-empty bus joins them in the direction of the station.

Some definitely need to drive, most probably have reason to drive with their passengers, but how private vehicle occupants numbers dwarf the buses’ load exponentially must be cause of concern.

It concerns me plenty. I don’t want to lose the every 15 minutes bus service, and return to the dark past of Cheras. For, in the long run, it would be inconceivable to continue frequent services if the take-up rate is deplorable.

Then it might be 30 minutes, or worse an hour with drivers waiting for a reasonable load rather than discharging their roles with existentialist angst.

The buses feed the trains, and trains feed buses as commutes are completed. This interconnectivity is justified by volume, but more pressingly, sustained by volume.

It dawns on me, as I hope it dawns on executives in charge of our transportation, that the line from Hollywood’s Field of Dreams, “If you build it, he will come” is not actual fact but intends to be aspirational.

In reality, if planners want people to ride trains, they have to work hard at it, do things like plan. People, as all successful organisers wake rudely to in their early years, require cajoling.

Structural fault-lines

The Serdang MP Ong Kian Ming raised valid arguments last week, and cannot be rejected offhand.  His views — of course partisan — were incendiary to some and to most at least a lightning rod of dissatisfaction towards the present government.  

He spoke about the overall dip of commuter numbers in the valley over the last two years, paying attention to drops after launch or refurbishment or extension points of the various Komuter, LRT, BRT, monorail and MRT services. 

The numbers are telling, and he speaks with grounds for displeasure.

He further — his condescension regarding the progenitors of the remapped transport networks duly noted — asks important questions of whether overall connectivity, reliability and price rationalisation in relations to fares, charges, parking costs and capped monthly transport cards can improve the fit and fill the affordability gaps.

Let’s commend his incisive dig at the system, rather than his motives.

It is always welcome when our elected officials speak of public transportation, even if warning shots are volleyed at their opponents. We expect the same from Ong’s opponents, to counter the public relations factor while addressing the concern, and if possible throw the blame back in the opposite direction. 

Both sides scoring political points while engendering the discussion over public goods.

Hurrah!

This is the quintessential benefit of adversarial politics done right. When self-interests collide and as they should, a good system leverages those self-rights to produce gains for the electorate.

Malaysians should urge the Serdang MP to continue his vigil.

The Singapore example

By the 1980s, life was a box of fines in Singapore. The jokes about fines were loathed and celebrated by the island’s population. Malaysians were fascinated as appointed inspectors diligently issued summonses for spitting, jaywalking, littering and misusing public amenities. 

The idea these overzealous officials wait outside cubicles to verify toilets are flushed was offensive and invasive in equal degree to many.

Yet, the fines were dished out, and failure to adhere lightened wallets. It worked. Even if Singapore’s zombie-like love for rules is a source of ridicule for Malaysians.

Today, over-enforcement experiences are tall tales told by older folks. The younger Singaporean probably found it an exaggeration that big brother watches over constantly, and by the way, can’t process a time Singaporeans were largely uncouth. Then they cross the border or see misdemeanours among new arrival migrants, and comprehend that civility and orderliness is not a natural outcome.

Humans are creatures of habits, but market forces by themselves don’t produce improved habits.

People need to be nudged, often, and congratulated for doing the right thing to reinforce the behaviour.

It sounds ludicrous that so much fanfare is made of individuals doing what is ultimately to their own benefit, but that’s how progressive societies are nurtured.

Campaign, now

Forty years of haphazard transportation in vast swathes of Cheras renders my people distrustful of public transport and rather rely on private vehicles.

I have not been approached electronically or by traditional means to commute. There is the artwork on the bus Jom Bus (Let’s bus) and a hashtag to gratify hipsters.

All of the city’s transport comes under one organisation, Rapid KL, yet there is no active campaign. I hear good things about the MRT’s Facebook page, however more is necessary.

Resident associations and village committees have to be charmed, and moved to endear their population to factor public transportation actively into their lives.

The concerns raised by the MP notwithstanding communities require winning over.

People have to be made guilty when bypassing the MRT and called out for their hypocrisy — why complain over the years about bad public transportation and when it is here, only to ignore it?

Folks in Petaling Jaya have had 20 years of LRTs and speak casually about availing them. It takes time, but that period can be quickened in the south by efforts to normalise commutes.  

It is repetition and constancy of message.

There are electronic solutions too. Increase travel information from across the services, reliable and real time details, which will reduce the trust deficit.

There are mind-set spins to be made. In regular hours, a drive from Cheras to Petaling Jaya avoiding the city centre — which the MRT does not — may be 15 minutes shorter, but there is a glaring difference. Driving requires concentration, while commuting allows recreational activities like reading and surfing, and also to finish up the odd report. There is also the absence of stress. This has to be communicated to potential targets.  

There are generational divides, a number of senior citizens may not organically incline themselves to new services because they are different and perhaps operate along different routes. My late mother would panic for the first few months when routes are reprogrammed. She’d get it, but it would take time. The Klang Valley just reorganised its public transport, many routes have changed. Telling and reassuring people are not the worst thing to do.

There are all kinds of small gestures possible too. From staff members thanking those choosing to commute at the turnstiles to training bus drivers to communicate better, the individual efforts add to the whole.

Don’t underestimate the need to breed cultural acceptance. If it is cool for social influencers, it may be for the rest too.

Are the above obvious? Of course they are, the campaign would not mention out of the box advantages. The boons are self-evident to the observant, what is necessary is to canvas continuously.

There is so much to do. So many opportunities to turn our public transportation into gold.

It is not just about building tracks and stations, and buying trains and buses.

The people won’t just sleepwalk to empty MRT stations. Ask them nicely, and Rapid KL might be surprised with the outcome.

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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