Efficient bus network critical to break traffic gridlock

IT’S a truism that Kuala Lumpur is a car-centric city. Over the years, the capital city has seen structural planning developments, constructing highly complex integrated road network systems including the Western KL Traffic Dispersal System, Damansara-Puchong Expressway, North Klang Valley Expressway, and New Pantai Expressway. This in addition to the 60-year old Federal Highway that links the western end of the Klang Valley (as represented by Klang and, by extension, Port Klang) with the KL city centre. 

However, the integrated road network systems principally cater to private transport – as embodied by the toll booths. This means that our public road transport capacity has been subordinated – in terms of policy priority or focus – to private ridership. 

Inner and outer suburban areas are locked in between free-flowing roadways that create a natural geometric barrier that forces the buses to ply around the commuting paths that are disruptive to an efficient grid-based public transport system. 

Instead of re-thinking how public transport could better integrate and synchronise with private transport, both federal and state governments choose to emphasise building new expressways, such as the Petaling Jaya Dispersal Link and the Damansara–Shah Alam Elevated Expressway, and elevated inner and outer city rapid rail transits to address problems resulting from the neglect of the most basic first-and last mile connectivity. 

This isn’t to say that new expressways and the Klang Valley Integrated Transit System aren’t critical to service the growth of commutership and ridership in general. 

But there are no efforts to ensure the new expressways don’t “crowd out” but instead “crowd in” public ridership.

Traffic congestion has worsened since the country announced the shift to Covid endemicity on April 1. According to the TomTom Traffic Index, the streets of Kuala Lumpur are 10% – 30% more congested today (depending on the period) than they were in 2019 during the pre-pandemic times. 

Crowding in public ridership requires new expressways (toll free or not) to have dedicated bus lanes, for example. 

It also entails buses enjoying free-flow lanes – for example, with the use of radio frequency identification, or RFID system – without having to stop, touch or point the smart tag to go. Arrangements could be made with concessionaires for a discount or the government could give a subsidy with the rest of the cost transferred to the passenger. 
Improving the bus network system in Klang Valley

People choose to drive into the city, despite the billions poured into our public transport system, simply because the system is not a convenient or comfortable alternative. 

On December 1, 2015, the Land Public Transport Agency revamped the bus network system by reorganising the existing bus routes into eight corridors. 

The corridors were designated according to the main trunk roads connected to the Kuala Lumpur city centre.

The main bus service provider in the Klang Valley is Rapid Bus, which commands a fleet of 1,400 RapidKL, Go KL, and MRT feeder buses. There are 179 routes that integrate with Klang Valley’s Rail Systems.

As stated earlier, the major obstacle to an efficient bus network in the Klang Valley area is the gridlocked traffic caused by geometric barriers that were put up during the construction of the roads. 

Buses are subject to the same roads and lanes as private vehicles and this harms their efficiency and punctuality.

Recently, Rapid Bus and DBKL launched a bus lane pilot project on the Jalan Ipoh corridor. The bus lanes run only on weekdays from 6am to 8pm.

However, the bus lanes ended being used for parking, forcing the buses onto the other lanes.

A practical solution to this is to establish permanent bus lanes in the Klang Valley areas where the bulk of the congestion lies. 

Although the gridlocked nature of the roads in Kuala Lumpur remains the biggest obstacle to bus lanes, other countries with even worse traffic conditions have succeeded in building and using them.

The TransMilenio bus rapid transit (BRT) is the only form of public transport in Bogota, Colombia. Bogota is known to have one of the world’s heaviest road congestions.

TransMilenio consists of several interconnected BRT lines, with raised floor stations in the centre of a main avenue (truncal). Passengers typically reach the stations via a bridge over the street. Usually, four lanes down the centre of the street are dedicated to bus traffic. The outer lanes allow express buses to bypass buses stopped at a station.

Instead of building more highways, Penalosa closed down lanes to give space for the buses to operate.

The result? 

A 135-minute bus journey of 30km in 1998 now only takes 55 minutes by TransMilenio. 

To mitigate worsening traffic conditions and over-reliance on private vehicles, Emir Research suggests that the current administration revitalise the Greater Kuala Lumpur/Klang Valley Bus Transformation Plan that was introduced as an initiative under the National Key Results Area– Urban Public Transport scheme. 

Buses are under-utilised because of their inadequacy, unreliability and inefficiency.

The bus network comprises mainly feeder buses, which routes don’t reach many suburban areas in Kuala Lumpur and the greater Klang Valley.  

To illustrate how the public transport in the form of a BRT can be promoted, the real-world situation can be simplified for representation purposes – by appealing to an imaginary and hypothetical equilibrium, where supply meets demand.

For example, an individual who rides the bus to work is able to save a substantial amount of his/her income as opposed to driving (marginal private benefit, or MPB). But this benefit is balanced by the fact that he needs to wake up earlier as the commute takes longer than by driving (marginal private costs, or MPC). This point is shown at Q1 in the diagram. 

However, social efficiency occurs at Q2 where the marginal social benefits (MSC) equals marginal social costs (MSC). Marginal social benefit/cost is equivalent to the marginal private benefit/cost plus the external benefits/costs of a product. 

External benefits of consumers opting to ride buses may include reduced congestion. External costs, for example, are the formation of large crowds at the bus stations.  

Society would benefit from increasing output until Q2.

Towards that end, under the Greater Kuala Lumpur/Klang Valley Bus Transformation Plan, a BRT feasibility study had identified 12 bus corridors that would be used as the main reference point. 

The full plan was expected to be executed in two phases starting with the Klang-Kuala Lumpur being the pilot corridor whereby the BRT route would pass through three main roads in Klang Valley with 39.5 km of designated busways and bus lanes with 27 stations constructed along the Federal Highway, which acts as the main connector between the two areas. 

However, the plan was cancelled and we are left with an inconsistent and inconvenient bus system instead.

The cancelled BRT network would have complemented and supplemented the existing rail transit system at the time by providing an alternative to address the first and last mile connectivity problem. 

A revitalised and enhanced BRT would see the supply curve shift to the right as the new routes would mean an influx of new buses for consumers to ride. 

To further incentivise the usage of buses as a means for commute, the government should also ensure that the current low My50 rate of a RM50 per month for unlimited access to LRT, MRT, Monorel, BRT, Rapid KL buses, and Jom Naik MRT feeder buses be tax deductible.

With a revamped BRT network, the market can now function at its most socially optimum output where MSC equals MSB at Q2 and P2. 

A fully functioning and efficient public transport system shouldn’t heavily rely on rail as the main proponent of alternative transport. 

The initial Bus Transformation Plan would have cost around RM2 billion, a mere 7% of the budget allocated to the development of MRT3.

This for a 12-corridor network that would have seen improved connectivity and efficiency around Kuala Lumpur and the greater Klang Valley.

There is a need for a better BRT network, especially now when congestion is looking unlikely to improve.

Take a cue from South Korea, which has one of the best public transport systems in the world where an aggregate total of 4 billion citizens use bus networks per year. The country achieved that by focusing on developing routes exclusively for public transport.

The bus system should be developed in a way that doesn’t only complement the existing rail transit system but also serves as a parallel public transport partner as the alternative to private vehicles. – June 11, 2022.

* Jason Loh Seong Wei and Rosihan Addin are researchers at independent think tank Emir Research.

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