An efficient public bus network – critical in connecting the nation

But the shift in emphasis on public transportation infrastructure should already move from rail to the bus networks.

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Published in Astro Awani, Malay Mail, The Malaysian Insight, Focus Malaysia, Business Today, Asia News Today, and theSundaily, image by Astro Awani.

Phase 1 of MRT 2 (Putrajaya or also known as the Sungai Buloh–Serdang–Putrajaya/SSP) Line) is now completed and started operations on June 16, 2022 whereas Phase 2 – which connects Kampung Batu to Putrajaya – has been tentatively scheduled to open in January 2023.

As it is, MRT 3 has yet to commence works. 

By 2030, there would be an “outer” ring rail link or “loop”/circle line for Kuala Lumpur that intersects with the existing Sungai Buloh-Kajang (SBK) Line (MRT 1) and MRT 2. This provides for greater connectivity for commuters and travellers both in Greater Kuala Lumpur as well as within the capital city. 

But the shift in emphasis on public transportation infrastructure should already move from rail to the bus networks. 

Improved connectivity all around Malaysia – and not just Greater Kuala Lumpur/Klang Valley – should be the main focus of upcoming public transportation projects. 

By right, buses don’t have limitations. It’s we who place the limitations – on the bus network. 

Whereas, on the other hand, rail has intrinsic constraints – such as the inability to service all/every populated area (high and low) and access remote destinations. This is due to the grid (track) system that prevents/pre-empts network density and accessibility on a cost-effective basis. Closely related to that is, of course, the flexibility and agility in terms of the pick-up and drop-off points which makes the bus network inherently superior to rail, especially when it comes to first mile-last mile connectivity. 

We need a paradigm shift and new vision. 

One in which the rail and bus network systems are only differentiated by the type of operation – i.e., road and track, respectively – and availability. In other words, we need the rail and bus network systems to “converge” in the other respects such as ease, convenience, comfort and sophistication, thus making both modes of public transportation as “partners” or peers in the parallel services. 

Towards that end, we need to elevate and upgrade the image of the bus network system to be on par with the rail. 

At the same time, we also need to go further than just integrating the journey routes of the bus network with the rail transit via feeder buses. 

We also need to rethink a BRT network system in which buses deployed along “primary routes” can integrate with buses operationalised for “secondary routes” for first-mile and last-mile connectivity. In other words, these primary route buses would, in effect, serve as feeder buses, and therefore, seamless “integrators” (for the transfer of commuters and passengers) for secondary route buses.

In EMIR Research article titled “An efficient bus network – critical in breaking the traffic gridlock” (June 10, 2022), we suggested that the previously cancelled Greater Kuala Lumpur/Klang Valley Bus Transformation Plan (BTP) be revitalised and revamped according to the recent public transportation developments.

Based on the BTP model, it’s envisaged and envisioned that there should be a “central spine” – which is the Federal Highway – for inter-city commuting and travel. There would be dedicated bus lanes on both sides. 

There’s also a need for dedicated lanes – where possible – for the secondary routes (although it won’t be possible for all roads). 

Towards that end, EMIR Research would like to recommend several policy measures to improve on the bus network system in Malaysia.

  1. Upgrading bus stops, constructing more terminals, etc.

Firstly, as stated earlier, there’s a need to upgrade the bus network system to be on par with rail transit infrastructure. 

We need to ensure that all bus stops in the city centre (throughout the country) are upgraded or redeveloped into becoming mini-terminals in their own right. These mini-terminals should be covered with glass – to provide protection (e.g., installation of indoor CCTV, buffer from dust and noise) and comfort (e.g., air-conditioning that’s centrally controlled via artificial intelligence/AI) – as well as accessible via automatic sliding doors. They would also have their own hotspots for wi-fi connectivity for enhanced convenience. 

At the same time, inside the mini-terminals would be the electronic boards containing the schedule of routes and bus numbers alongside real-time information of journey times and estimated time of arrivals (ETAs). 

There should also be a one-stop or single app by Rapid KL, for example, that will enable quick registration for travel passes and access to routes and other info that are contained in the electronic boards inside the mini-terminals except perhaps real-time information, and not least which serve as a digital or e-pass in its own right (low contact). 

Later, selected (i.e., high volume) mini-terminals could only be accessible via QR code scanning or placing a smart card (which would include our National Registration Identity Card/NRIC) on the reader. 

To ensure additional space and enhance the appeal of the bus network system, the mini-terminals could multi-storied – to allow passengers and commuters to have an “upper” view. Access to the above-the-ground floor of the mini terminal could be via a mini-bridge (that’s connected to a sloping pavement bordering a road) or a staircase platform if directly from the outside. If from the inside the mini-terminal, then it’ll be via an escalator.

Bigger space mini-terminals that are not only multi-storied could also have snacks and drinks vending machine, ATMs (automatic teller machines), automated external defibrillators (AEDs) for emergency uses, and even toilets (including for people with special needs), etc. 

The glass and wall of the mini-terminals can be rented out as advertising space alongside utilised for public service announcements (PSAs) and messaging – thus earning additional income for local authorities. 

Towards that end, we need to ensure that there’s a mini-terminal in every strategic and major/prime location in the capital city and Greater Kuala Lumpur. 

In addition, there should be a mini terminal at every interval along the “central spine” of the BRT network system, i.e., Federal Highway.   

As such, we also need to ensure that the mini-terminal along the Federal Highway is connected to a bus stop for secondary routes via a mini pedestrian bridge. 

  1. Replicating the BRT network

Secondly, we need to replicate and duplicate the Sunway BRT system – Malaysia’s first – in selected inner-city areas of Greater Kuala Lumpur and beyond (standalone) as well as for seamless inter-city connectivity in supplementing and complementing the “central spine” of the Federal Highway.

Costing around RM634 million, the 5.4km elevated that circles the Bandar Sunway area. 

The total cost of establishing the TransMilenio BRT network costed approximately USD1.761 billion (RM7.1 billion) for a 114.4 km integrated bus network that spans across the whole city. 

The budget allocated for the MRT3 project (RM31 billion) could have been used to build four BRT networks with the same quality as the TransMilenio BRT network. 

Or by using the cost of the Sunway BRT as reference, it’d be 43 elevated BRT networks spanning 232 km. 

To be sure, a BRT doesn’t have to be elevated and the execution should be adjusted/modified according to the spatial context. 

Notwithstanding, ideally, an integrated BRT network should have a mixture of elevated paths and dedicated bus lanes on existing roads, including the construction of median (i.e., middle-of-the road) pathways/corridors.

Certain routes in Kuala Lumpur leading into the city centre like Sprint and the NPE can potentially have median lanes for buses – in addition to cities like Putrajaya and Cyberjaya. Whereas, the LDP, for example, would have dedicated bus lanes albeit not necessarily uninterrupted on either left or right with certain distance allowance given for non-buses before making the switch. 

Where bus lanes are unsuitable, elevated pathways should be constructed with examples potentially including cities like Ipoh, Johor Bahru and Kuching. 

To reiterate, rapid transit for metropolitan (i.e., Greater Kuala Lumpur/Klang Valley) commuting and travel should shift to the BRT network system when the entire MRT network system is in place. 

The bus network should be able to make the transition to become the central spine of public transportation itself – in tandem with the introduction and streamlining of eco-friendly and green initiatives such as electric power and hydrogen as sources of fuel. This would reduce carbon emissions emanating from roads and expressways and also in line with our aim to be a carbon neutral nation by 2050. 

Having a systematic and integrated BRT network is the key to a highly accessible and connected public transportation service for urban Malaysia. 

Jason Loh Seong Wei and Rosihan Addin are part of the research team of EMIR Research, an independent think tank focused on strategic policy recommendations based on rigorous research.

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