A recently-tabled bill makes it possible for a congestion charge to be implemented for cars entering Kuala Lumpur’s city centre. But critics say a reliable and efficient public transport system needs to be in place first.
WITH the tabling of the Land Public Transport (LPT) Bill in Parliament recently, Malaysia has taken the first step towards the introduction of an area congestion pricing (ACP) scheme in traffic-snarled cities around the country.
This congestion toll system, similar to the Electronic Road Pricing (ERP) in Singapore, and the Congestion Charge (CC) in London, England, makes users pay to use roads in the city centre to reduce traffic jams and to promote more efficient use of roads.
This Bill goes hand in hand with another, the Suruhanjaya Pengangkutan Awam Darat Bill (Land Public Transport Commission, SPAD) which empowers the formation of an authority in charge of all matters related to public transport, be it road or rail.
Moaz Yusuf Ahmad, advisor to The Association For The Improvement Of Mass Transit (Transit) explains the purpose of ACP.
“Roads are valuable because there is a limited amount of space in the city. Drivers willing to pay more will have the option of using the roads, but it is not meant to prevent people from driving into the city centre. Rather, it is to discourage them from driving alone, encouraging people to car pool, or to use alternative transport,” he says.
Moaz adds that charging a premium for using roads in the city makes sense.
“If a house in the city costs more than that in the suburbs, the cost of the roads should be higher as well,” he says.
Goh Bok Yen, a transport planning consultant, says that at a basic level, it encourages people to switch to an alternative other than driving.
“The existing road space can be used more effectively and will make better use of the urban road system,” he says.
London and Singapore are considered to be good models of a congestion charge system, and its basic goal has been achieved. In February 2004, one year after London introduced the CC, Transport for London estimated traffic levels during charging hours showed a reduction of 18%, with a reduction of 30% in cars.
This also led to a significant gain in bus reliability, and London buses experienced up to a 60% reduction in disruption caused by traffic jams.
The point to note is that a congestion toll – if properly implemented – can be effective.
Moaz says that cars coming into the city centre are typically of single or low occupancy, and the average number of people in a car is a paltry 1.08.
“If we have an ACP, it would immediately reduce the (number of) cars coming into the city centre. If we increase the people from one to two per car, we can reduce the number of cars by half, and that would make a big difference,” he explains.
The price of deterrence
A pertinent question is the amount that will be charged. In Singapore, the ERP rates vary from 50 cents to S$4.00 (RM1.17 to RM9.30) per road travelled, while London’s CC is £8 (RM39.28) per day.
Goh believes that the quantum charged should be reflected by the price of the substitute available.
“It is like the elasticity of demand. If you have a very good substitute, people will switch to it even though the ACP price is not high. The resistance of people is reflected by availability of public transport,” says Goh.
There is also the question of where the collected funds end up.
London collected £325.7mil (RM1.6bil) in congestion charges in its 2008-2009 financial year, and after deducting all operating costs, had a net profit of £148.5mil (RM729.1mil). This sum was spent entirely on improving transport in line with the Mayor of London’s transport strategy.
Which is why Goh is strongly against privatisation of any local ACP collection system.
“It needs to be pumped back into the roads and the public transport system. If you privatise it, then profits will be channelled away. In Malaysia, we have a painful experience of road tolls. Every time a highway is completed, people should be happy, but these days everybody complains about it. We do not want that repeated for the ACP,” says Goh.
Moaz believes the sharing of information is crucial.
“It is frustrating not to have information, especially in the IT age, We have to inform people how the system works, what it is for, and tell them where the money is going. If we do not do that, people are going to object and think it is just another money pit,” he says.
However, what both London and Singapore share is a vital feature that makes a congestion toll system possible – a comprehensive, efficient and reliable public transport system. This is practically a prerequisite before a congestion toll can be implemented.
Goh says the basic requirement that has to be fulfilled is for motorists to have a viable, alternative mode of transport.
“Is public transport in KL today a reasonable substitute for a private car? It is not, and we are very far from it. It needs to have the elements of comfort, reliability, frequency and safety.
“You want something that can substitute for the whole journey in a reasonable manner. If we implement ACP before reaching that level, we leave the commuter no alternative but to drive and pay,” he says.
Goh adds that before the CC was implemented in London, the public transport system was at a very high standard and carried up to 70% of the commuters to work every day.
“Here, only about 18% of commuters use public transport. But looking at it in a positive light, we have a huge market for public transport,” he says.
Moaz, however, says the public should be aware that public transport will never be as comfortable and convenient as a private car.
“It will never reach that standard but it will give different advantages a private car will not give,” he says.
Comfort is a consideration, but Moaz says this is not the most important factor.
“People know they may have to stand, and sitting space will be cramped, but they are willing to sacrifice that personal comfort,” he says.
The most important factors, in descending order, are reliability, frequency, comfort, speed, information and the fare, he stresses.
The underlying fact is that there are simply not enough buses, trains, routes, accessibility from the house to the station and from the station to the destination to make public transport attractive.
“If we want congestion pricing, we must take a great leap forward in improving the public transport system. At the moment, it is premature to talk about it. What it really needs is a complete revamp of the system.
“Right now, we have not reached an acceptable level of public transport. The recent improvements (in the form of RapidKL and others) are just playing catch-up. What we have done is getting to a level we should have been five years ago,” says Moaz.
Goh agrees, saying that the public transport system should have been improved long before the rapid growth of private vehicle ownership.
“We have not done much for public transport until the last five years, but we have been talking about it for more than 25 years,” he says.
Goh believes that an ACP on its own is not sufficient to solve traffic problems – what is needed is a multi-faceted approach.
“For example, at one time Singapore was targeting low occupancy vehicles, and later high-occupancy vehicles too, and now everyone pays – even motorcycles or public transport vehicles.
“It also wanted to constrain vehicle ownership to restrict the number of cars on the road. They went another step further by having off-peak hours and weekend cars, and those are the ones with red plates,” he says.
Moaz also believes that ACP by itself will not accomplish the goal of reducing the number of cars on the road.
“That is only one solution, and we would have liked to see other initiatives included in the Bill. For example, there should have been a package of incentives to encourage people to take public transport,” he says.
Apart from improving pubic transport, Goh says, there is a need for alternative routes around the city centre.
“Right now you may have to go through the city centre if you want to get to a particular destination from another. We should have a choice of roads but the linkages are missing,” he says.
He also thinks the proposed roads indicated by the Draft KL City Plan 2020 for ACP is too restrictive.
“The ACP outlined in the plan is constrained mainly to the central business district. It should be an area similar to the area surrounded by the middle ring road (Jalan Tun Razak). Also, with a defined boundary it will be easier to administer,” says Goh.
Moaz goes further and looks at the Commission itself.
“One of our biggest concerns is that the SPAD will be a re-organisation rather than a total reform of public transport. They are combining the Commercial Vehicle Licensing Board and the Department of Railways, which handle all commercial transport on roads and rail respectively, into one organisation.
“Structurally it is better, but is it going to make real changes in the public transport system? If there is no reform, it will just be structural and nothing will change on the road,” he says.
Moaz says what is needed is something like the London model, which is called Transport for London (TFL).
“Say we call it Rapid for KL, and it will not be operating a service but instead focuses on managing the system. Companies like Len Seng or Metrobus would work for them, and the RapidKL bus and LRT services could be spun off as individual companies and work for the company. So Rapid for KL would be the single brand and face of public transport for Kuala Lumpur,” he suggests.
Optimistic for the future
Moaz says the new Bills do represent a step forward in reducing Kuala Lumpur’s traffic woes. “Creating the SPAD is a step forward, and it could take us to a major leap in public transport if they are willing to push for it.
“But if the SPAD does not push and take the lead on this, it will be 20 years of the same. Without a total reform of the public transport system, it is premature to talk about ACP,” he says.
“Under the current system, we are limited by a bureaucratic set of rules. Unless we can get past that we will not be able to achieve the quality of service and information required,” adds Moaz.
Goh says all factors such as public transport, alternative roads and other matters need to be achieved before ACP is implemented.
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