Contradictheory: Could an e-hailing bus system work?

Why can trains in the Klang Valley run to a relatively accurate timetable but not buses? — Filepic

Reading about the Transport Ministry's latest public transportation proposal that earned brickbats from netizens gave me a sense of déjà vu. Minister Anthony Loke said that the ministry is looking at e-hailing for public transport (among several other transportation solutions): “At the moment we are looking to review our regulations to allow buses to pick up their passengers and send them to their destination instead of to the bus stop” ("Transport Ministry to consider e-hailing bus proposal", The Star, Oct 24).

I mean, that’s cool. I also suggested something similar in this column once. Almost.

On Jan 15, 2017, I wrote a piece that lauded the convenience of the Klang Valley's MRT system while bemoaning the cost. I argued that for RM50bil, instead of building an urban train system (which I enjoy using, by the way), we could have instead invested in a publicly funded version of Grab that picks up and sends people door-to-door on demand. ("A driverless road to the future".)

The only difference between this idea of mine and b-hailing (that’s what I’m calling an e-hailing system of buses, so future editors of Wikipedia please correctly credit me for it) is how many passengers each vehicle can carry. If it’s a closer to a minivan, we’re looking at six to eight people, and it could still easily go door-to-door as in my original vision.

You could also conceivably imagine an 8m long 20-seater mini bus, but that or anything longer would have to pick up and drop passengers at designated bus stops. This would only make sense if you increase the number of stops so that every home is, at most, a five minute walk away from one.

You could then use artificial intelligence to work out an optimal route, taking into account the changing weather, traffic, or special events. Each bus stop could have an IoT (Internet of Things) device like a camera or a heat sensor that could report how many people are waiting for a bus. And the buses could be self-driving, which would hopefully mean an improvement in road safety.

There are all these benefits to putting a project like this in place. The digitisation of the bus system is possibly the sort of public sector project that could jumpstart the private sector industry, which would hopefully spin-off other innovations.

So what’s the problem? It’s the same reason why I use the MRT and LRT more often than I do the Klang Valley's bus system: predictability and reliability.

If I am trying to get to a meeting or cover a function, it’s good to know that an MRT train is scheduled to arrive every seven minutes, and more importantly, that it actually does it. The feeder buses are not too bad either, although occasionally I have to wait longer than the 15-minute frequency that is advertised.

But with many of the other buses, I have frequently waited half an hour before just giving up and calling for a Grab car. It’s happened often enough that even when the bus looks like the more optimal route, I consider taking the train.

Why can trains in the Klang Valley run to a relatively accurate timetable but not buses? Presumably it has a lot to do with there being more buses than trains, and 600 vehicles to maintain are just harder than 60. But then I remember that I used to take buses when I was in Britain, and the buses I took ran close enough to the time table that it was worth my while to run to the bus stop some mornings because, odds were, I would miss the bus if I was late.

What about the next best thing, knowing how long we have to wait for the next bus?

Well, we have that available at some stops in Kuala Lumpur. The digital board at the Bangsar South (sorry, Kampung Kerinchi) LRT station is particularly useful because it means I can decide if it’s worth my time to take one bus directly home that’s nearly at the station instead of two trains.

Problem is, I’ve had mixed experiences. Once, a board in the middle of KL told me the bus was six minutes away for nearly 20 minutes. It’s less a useful information board, more a time dilation machine.

What’s my point? Getting buses to run on schedule and implementing an information system that accurately tracks waiting times for buses, these are both solved problems in transportation. It’s not like it hasn’t been done before. But we struggle at doing so.

So why do we believe that a new project implementing cutting-edge technology will necessarily work better? It’s perhaps a truism in Malaysia that if you throw enough money at a problem, it becomes too expensive to fail. That perhaps people believe that the only projects worth doing are mega projects that take centre stage.

I think the government has the right idea in using technology to be more productive. But instead of trying to push the most cutting-edge stuff, why not simply make sure the technology we already have works?

I’m not saying we shouldn’t invest in new technologies, but let’s also consider the more practical, less sexy ways of making the buses run on time. I don't mean to sound like a broken record, but look at what Singapore has managed without resorting to science fiction technology, ranking second best in a McKinsey study of urban transportation systems last year (Hong Kong was first).

Would it be better than a RM50bil MRT project? As much as I use and love the trains, probably not, Already, there are murmurings that Prasarana – the company that owns and operates the country's urban rail services – is losing money each year, which means the government might believe it’s not a good use of money ... which means they might be considering improving the bus service in the most eye-catching way possible.

Which sounds a lot like déjà vu.

In his fortnightly column, Contradictheory, mathematician-turned-scriptwriter Dzof Azmi explores the theory that logic is the antithesis of emotion but people need both to make sense of life’s vagaries and contradictions. Write to Dzof at The views expressed here are entirely the writer's own.
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