SARAWAK set up its own Transport Ministry in a minor Cabinet reshuffle in August, with Datuk Lee Kim Shin named as its minister and Datuk Dr Jerip Susil as his assistant minister.
The ministry, as Lee explained in his maiden winding-up speech at the Sarawak Legislative Assembly earlier this month, is responsible for policy-making, planning and developing urban transport, urban traffic management and river transport.
Its vision is to spearhead the development of an integrated, safe, affordable, reliable, efficient and eco-friendly public transport system in Sarawak.
There's no denying that we need good public transport and traffic management, especially in Kuching where traffic jams have become a daily nuisance to be endured.
According to Lee, a study on urban traffic in Kuching estimated that the number of vehicles would reach 449,200 by 2030 from 317,400 in 2015. The city's population and vehicle registration are growing at 3% and 8% annually, resulting in greater traffic congestion and longer waiting times at some junctions.
To address this, he said the ministry was working with the Public Works Department and Sarawak Multimedia Authority (SMA) to implement a smart traffic light system in Kuching. This includes a digital countdown at traffic lights before they turn red or green.
A bus rapid transit (BRT) system is also in the works, with a so-called Blue Line from Kuching Sentral to the Waterfront proposed for implementation next year.
Speaking to reporters after his speech, Lee highlighted some other proposals by his ministry, including setting up a public transport committee to get feedback from stakeholders and carrying out a study next year to formulate a master plan for an integrated public transport system.
All this sounds promising, but as a reporter put it during the press conference, the question is how soon the ministry can solve Kuching's traffic problems.
Lee responded that the ministry was still new, with limited manpower and resources, but would be working with the relevant agencies and city councils.
"I need to coordinate them, bring them together and come up with a solution on urban traffic management, like introducing intelligent traffic lights. That is ongoing.
"Next year, we are going to propose that all our traffic lights in Sarawak will have a digital countdown system to discourage people from running a red light. We are working with SMA on a smart traffic system with a control centre and surveillance.
"The next thing will be building the bus rapid transit. We are also looking into the automated rapid transit system," he said.
Dr Jerip, the assistant minister, added that people in Kuching must learn to use public transport when it is available.
"At the end of the day, if they are not keen to use public transport, the same problem will still arise.
"That's why one of our visions is to ensure that public transport is efficient and reliable. But the mindset of our people has to be understanding that yes, it's going to take time and they must be willing to use public transport when it is available in order to reduce traffic congestion."
To this, Lee said this was why the ministry was setting up the public transport committee for feedback. "We want to get all stakeholders to solve the problem together. It has to be two-way traffic between road users and the ministry."
These are worthy aims, but the ministry needs to keep in mind its goal of providing public transport that is affordable, efficient and reliable if it wants people to use it.
The public might have to change their attitude towards public transport, but at the same time public transport has to go to places where people live and take them to places they need to go to in a timely manner. In other words, it has to serve their transport needs in order to work.
The stakeholders to be engaged by the ministry's committee should include city dwellers, members of the public who would actually use public transport, to find out where they need to travel to, in order to plan routes that make sense for passengers and commuters.
As Lee said, it is two-way traffic and the public shouldn't be left out of the equation. They are the public in public transport, after all, and their interest should come first in planning a system, so that it doesn't risk becoming a white elephant.
Efficiency and reliability are the key words the ministry has to remember and live up to in order to fulfil its vision.
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