On sustainable transport 20 years ago

We said this about TRANSPORT 20 years ago (2001 Seminar on Sustainable Transport in Malaysia). The problems PERSIST and have WORSENED.

For us to enjoy our constitutionally guaranteed right to freedom of movement, we need a sustainable, efficient and affordable transport system. It must enable all of us — regardless of wealth, status, gender and disabilities — to meet our need to travel to our workplace, home and for recreational and social activities efficiently, at a reasonable cost, through a sustainable use of resources and without serious adverse impacts on the environment.

If we evaluate the Malaysian transport system using the criteria of sustainability, efficiency and affordability, we can only conclude that it has failed to meet the transport needs of our people and is in a state of crisis. This crisis is part of the larger urban crisis due to overcrowding, poor housing and social amenities, pollution, crimes, alienation and fractured social relations.

The failure of the authorities to bring sustainable development to the rural areas, and the location of industries, businesses and services in a few cities and their satellites have produced a large-scale migration of people from the rural areas to these cities. The resulting city sprawl has meant that homes, schools, workplaces and recreational facilities are scattered over a wide area requiring people to travel long distances, and make several trips, to perform their daily tasks and social activities.

The policy of directly or indirectly encouraging the use of private motorcars and motorcycles to meet the transport needs of our people has had severe effects on the quality of life in the cities and on the economy and efficiency of urban transportation.

The roads in our major cities are choked with motor vehicles. In 2000 there were reportedly 10.5 million registered motor vehicles, 9.4 million of which were privately owned. This total represents an almost threefold increase (or 192%) over the 1987 total of 3.6 million vehicles. For the same year, Singapore, with a population of 4 million and 3,099-kilometre road network had 692,807 registered vehicles while Penang, with a smaller population of 1.2 million and 2,000-km road network, had 1,122,064 registered vehicles.

Thus, it is not surprising that traffic congestion has become a daily feature in our major cities. People in Kuala Lumpur waste two to four hours on the roads on working days. The idle hours spent stuck in traffic jams lead not only to the loss of valuable resources such as petroleum, but also to the loss of productive hours at work or quality time at home with the family. The economic cost of such congestion runs into millions of ringgit.

Our transport system has created what one sociologist referred to as the “rivers of death that run outside our doors”. Travelling on our roads is full of risks and is unsafe. People are killed, maimed or injured in road accidents. In Malaysia, there were about 250,000 reported accidents in 2000, an increase of 320% since 1987. Within that year, about 6,000 people were killed and 44,000 injured — 10,000 seriously — compared to 3,300 people killed in 1987. The loss of 6,000 human lives is a major tragedy to which the authorities should give urgent and serious attention.

It is the poor who constitute the majority of road accident victims. About 60% of all fatal accidents involve motorcyclists, 17% pedestrians, and 7% cyclists. Many poor people opt for motorcycles as their means of transport due to the unavailability of an efficient and affordable public transport system. Road accidents are the number one killer of those aged between 3 and 35 years old. In economic terms, the government has estimated that RM6 billion is lost each year in road accidents through repairs, insurance claims and medical bills.

Our addiction to the auto culture is a major contributing factor to the pollution of the air we breathe and the destruction of our environment. In the Klang Valley, 70% of the air pollution is contributed by motor vehicle emissions. The number of motor vehicles in this area has been increasing over the years and the total number of vehicles as of 1998 is 3 million.

The poisonous gases emitted by motor vehicles have contributed to acid rain and smog-choked city skylines. It has resulted in increased asthma cases and heart diseases. Our cities are getting hotter as a result of global warming, one of the major causes of which is vehicle emissions.

Development, without regard to our environment, heritage and tradition, has been responsible for the despoilment of our urban landscape. Beautiful green towns and cities with open grounds, human-scale buildings and rich architectural gems have given way to ugly metropolises with dominating skyscrapers, megamalls and ugly transport infrastructure. In Kuala Lumpur, the beautiful historic Masjid Jamek building by the bank of the Klang River and the charming Railway Station heritage building are now hidden by elevated grotesque concrete flyovers and LRT structures.

The solution to the problem of traffic congestion has been to build more roads, flyovers, interchanges, bridges and toll plazas but the problem still remains. Tons of concrete have been poured onto thousands of acres of previously fertile agricultural land, rendering it barren. Between 20% to 30% of urban land has been used to provide roads and other infrastructure for the motorcar. In 1995, Malaysia’s road network measured 61,380 kilometres. Five years later it had increased by 7% to 65,880 kilometres.

Enormous resources have been expended in providing infrastructure facilities for car owners. During the period 1995 to 2000, RM12.3 billion was spent by the government and RM7.9 billion by the private sector on roads — a total of RM20.2 billion. The amount spent by the government accounted for 60% of its total infrastructure costs. The government plans to spend another RM14 billion on road infrastructure during the period 2001 to 2005.

On the other hand, our public transport has been neglected and is in a deplorable state. Many buses are old, run-down and smoky. They do not adhere to any time schedule. It is common to see children and workers waiting for a long time to catch buses to their schools, workplace or to return home. In the rural areas, where there is hardly any reliable public transport, people are forced to travel by motorcycles which are inherently dangerous. The billions of ringgit spent by the government and the private sector on roads and infrastructure for the motorcar could well be spent on providing an efficient and affordable public transport service which would benefit millions from the lower income group.

While giving primary importance to the development of an extensive road network, the government has failed to develop our rivers and our seas for the transport of people and goods. Historically, maritime transport had played an important role in fulfilling our transport needs and it is time we revived it to form part of an integrated transport system.

The absence of a comprehensive and integrated National Transport Policy linking the issues of land-use, transport and the environment has been largely responsible for the skewed development of the current transport system based on the private motor vehicle. Transport projects have been implemented by the authorities generally without prior public consultation. It is the government’s industrialisation policy based on Big Business — the car, van, truck, and motorcycle makers, the road builders, the toll operators and other big players connected to the transport industry — which has influenced the choices made for our transport system.

We need to rethink our transport policies and move towards a people-oriented and ecologically sound transport system. We need to address these important issues:

  • Formulation of a comprehensive, integrated and sustainable National Transport Policy with adequate input from the public.
  • Good governance and transparency in the development and implementation of transport policies, plans and systems.
  • Development of an efficient, affordable, accessible and safe public transport system which should form the main component of sustainable transport in Malaysia.
  • Prominence given to non-motorised modes of transport such as bicycles, walking and trishaws.

In this statement, we attempt to provide an overview of the current status of our transport system together with some recommendations to alleviate the problems affecting it. We trust that this will contribute to a greater public awareness of the need for sustainable transport and also influence policy makers and planners to devise a better system of transport than what we have today.

Booklet available: https://consumer.org.my/product/changing-directions/