Is MRT the ultimate solution for urban congestion in Malaysia?


There is currently 78% household owns a car while 66% owns motorcycle in Malaysia. The more motorists, the more congested it is regardless how many highways we build. Yet, is the costly MRT the ultimate solution for urban congestion in Malaysia?

Public used to associate public transport only with MRT when we discuss the urban transport infrastructure. It may be because MRT is the prominent scenes that always appear in Hollywood films whenever it is taken in metropolitans like New York, London, Tokyo and Hong Kong.

Most Malaysians have also a good impression on MRT regardless if they have been living abroad and using the public transport system. It’s actually not difficult to understand the reason of MRT being the favourite public infrastructure. It’s operating on fixed rail, high capacity, higher speed (80kmh) and should be puncture. MRT is almost the essential public transport option in most of the metropolitans around the world.

However, the Malaysian government didn’t go for it when the Klang Valley started to build fixed rail public transport; we opted for LRT at the beginning and only began to build MRT recently. Besides that, we have just about to use Bus Rapid Transit (BRT), a system that is not well understood and received by public.

Actually, MRT stands for Mass Rapid Transit, it is not necessary be built underground but it is catering for at least 1 million commuters. On the other hand, Light Rapid Transit (LRT) is basically also the urban rail system that caters lesser commuters. It doesn’t matter if the rail is elevated, on the ground or underground, the difference between MRT and LRT is capacity. On BRT, that is a system that uses buses as coach with special bus lane to avoid traffic congestion caused by too many private motor vehicles.

The main purpose to have public transport system is to assure the people living in a city go to school and work on time. The core issue is the traffic flow smoothly at peak hours when people go to work, school and back home. A city would not function well if people are always wasting time on traffic jam due to too many private vehicles. The cost of logistic would be higher, air pollution would be worsened, and quality of life would be lower.

Put simply, we have to make cities as Transit Oriented Development (TOD), make the public transport functions well then can only we have sustainable cities.

Nevertheless, it must be suit with the local context when the policy maker makes the selection on system. No single solution suits all cities.

Hence, we should not forget there are also some other successful examples of not using MRT system. For instances, Portland in United States and Melbourne in Australia that use LRT; while Bogotá in Columbia and Brisbane in Australia are good model of BRT.

The key issue of a public transport system is whether it suits the local demand but not the scale of the project. Puncture, convenient and safe are the three elements of having a successful model of public transport system.

Therefore, high capacity MRT may not able to sustain in all Malaysian cities as we are having sprawling urban development. In comparison with foreign cities that a MRT station serves more than few ten thousands population, our population is sprawling in low-density residential area.

In a sprawling city like Johor Bahru, MRT station may only serve fewer than 10,000 residents within 1km2.Yet, the cost of MRT is 10 times higher than BRT. Who pay the bill? The taxpayers.

More importantly, Hong Kong Mass Transit Railway is the only MRT system that breakeven with ticket sale. Even successful MRT system in Singapore or Taipei maintains their profit with advertisement or other incomes.

In other words, it’s easier to build a MRT system than maintain.


The last mile

Besides the cost issue, we need to take demand as consideration. Do we really need a high capacity transit system? MRT commutes at least 20,000 to 80,000 persons one-way per hour. To make the system well functioned and not a white elephant, we need at least one million commuters.

Currently, Malaysia population is 30million. It is expected that more than one-third population will be residing at Klang Valley in 20 years. We are now having MRT construction and hopefully there will be a lot more residents giving up their private vehicles. Though we are having more high-density residential projects in Klang Valley if compares with Johor Bahru, Ipoh and Penang, yet, a large number of residential areas are still low density and sprawling.

Hence, the MRT system requires a good shuttle bus system that connects MRT station with commercial and residential areas located more than 1km away. Otherwise, public would eventually opt for private vehicles. The last mile is the key issue.


Does Johor Bahru need a MRT?

Then how about MRT in the Iskandar Malaysia? The rapidly developing economic zone expects to have 3 million populations by 2030. Meanwhile, it has larger land bank and lower density per square kilometer compare to Klang Valley.

It was written in the Iskandar Transportation Blueprint 2011 that two public transport systems would be implemented by 2030. They are BRT and Komuter.

Quite a number or people hence question, why don’t we extend the Singapore MRT since we are already going to have Thompson line RTS extended from Singapore? The 6th Singapore MRT line will be the only line connects the Republic with Johor Bahru, where the terminal has yet to be finalised.

However, any MRT station in Singapore serves up to few ten thousands population in their HDB area, while our high-density residential area within Iskandar Malaysia, for instances, Taman Ungku Tun Aminah, Bukit Indah or Taman Molek is mainly occupied by landed property. In other words, a MRT station in Iskandar Malaysia may not even cater 10,000 commuters.

Furthermore, a town planning that lack of shielded pedestrian walkway and well-planted road trees, will make even fewer residents to take public transport especially when their houses or destinations are located more than 1 kilometer away.


Why BRT?

We need a public transport system that able to extend deep into the sprawling residential area, and not a fixed rail that we can’t change the route though our town center has always been changing. The expensive MRT may not be the best option unless the last mile problem can be solved.

How if there is an unmatched system to the city? Dismantled will be the only solution. Sydney monorail was dismantled because it didn’t take local residents to anywhere they want to go. It was a public transport that serves only tourists. Eventually, the government decided to acquire and demolish it.

In comparison with costly MRT, BRT is a cheaper system that doesn’t require fixed rail and special coach. Even a bus will be cheaper than a MRT or LRT coach.  BRT needs only special bus lane. Yet, the current BRT system that Sunway is constructing in Subang area with elevated bus lane can’t be the best model.

We have to look at the first BRT system in Curitiba, Brazil or Bogotá, Columbia if we need a model to learn. As mentioned earlier, a successful public transport system has to be on time, convenient and safe.

BRT can be an on-time public transport system with dedicated bus lane. On the other hand, BRT can go into residential area without be fixed on rail. Last but not least, bus station should be able to be as safe as MRT station with enough lighting at night, 24 hour CCTV and ticket purchased before entering platform.

Most importantly, BRT is not as costly as MRT if we tend to change route in the near future. As a developing country, all our cities are changing rapidly. The crowded CBD today may not be the CBD in another 20 years time span.

Then why is the Malaysian government so keen to build rail system transport? One must not forget that most of the huge infrastructure projects are vendor driven. That is the reason of Kuala Lumpur having three different rail transport system which don’t connect with each other currently.

To make the final decision on which system to be used in our cities, the citizens must have their own views. MRT is a good solution, but we may have better one for our cities.