REMEMBER the big blue Sri Jaya stage buses?
In the 1950s, they plied the streets of Klang Valley, before the BMWs (Bas Mini Wilayah, as they were sarcastically labelled) stole the show in 1976 with their ability to travel the city's smaller roads.
"The mini buses gained notoriety as a sardine can, since conductors earned based on ticket sales. They would holler for passengers to go deep into the bus so they could pack in more people," said MRT Corp strategic communications and public relations director Amir Mahmood Razak.
Like many of his generation, the 45-year-old has seen public transport on this side of the Federal Territories evolve over the past four decades to arrive at its present form.
It has come a long way since passengers had to dangled out of over 400 pink mini buses that zoomed from station to station, much like modern delivery bikes for fast food operators.
In efforts to revamp public transportation, all buses were eventually replaced with the Intrakota models and the CityLiner. But despite its sleek and modern looks, the former suffered low ridership.
"Remember, this was a time when private car ownership was rising in Malaysia, with Proton and Perodua riding a crest of growth as Malaysians became more affluent," Amir explained.
Reason for urban rail
In 2010, Pemandu's NKRA Baseline survey showed that public transport users are most satisfied with LRT services.
However, the Land Public Transport Master Plan revealed a drop in the mode share of land public transport during the morning peak period.
Mode share, which is the percentage of trips made via a particular type of transport mode, went from 34% in the 1980s to about 12% in 2008, a low showing compared to cities such as Singapore (63%) and London (55%).
And with insufficient network coverage and poor public transport integration, a strong car culture has taken root locally, even in the habits of public transport users - next to the LRT, they preferred using taxis to get around town.
As of Dec 2012, there are 22.7 million vehicles plying the streets. With a population of 28 million Malaysians, this equates to one car for every 1.2 Malaysians!
Part of Amir's job is to educate the public on the need for the MRT. One effective tool he has is an arresting aerial image of a road congested with cars.
"When stuck in a jam, we don't see the picture of hundreds or thousands of cars all arranged in one direction, going nowhere.
"It's a powerful picture. It makes you realise that one, it is a massive problem, and two, you are part of the problem!" he explained.
Of course, this congestion is largely caused by the state of public transport in KL.
Currently, the public transport network in the Greater KL/Klang Valley region includes over 278km of rail, with 115 stations and a daily ridership of over 464,000 passengers per day.
However, reports from 2013 indicate only 5% of the population use public transport during the morning peak period.
Hong Kong, which started its rail system in the 1970s, sees a 90% mode share of land public transport use today, with more than five million people riding the Mass Transit Railway (MTR) daily.
"They have taken their MTR to such heights that it's one of the few systems that can actually make money. They even operate systems in Australia, the UK and China!" said Amir of the large network, which can take passengers right up to Shenzhen in China.
"Malaysia has taken the world's best models and, where it fits, adapted it to our own system. MRT Corp believes it has a winning product in the Sungai Buloh-Kajang (SBK) line," said Amir.
Alleviating the Federal Territory's traffic gridlock problem is no easy task.
Public transport is only a viable alternative if the network of urban rail and bus services reach far and wide, with efficient and affordable services.
So far, the MRT construction's main challenges include constructability, integration, and most pressingly, the retro-fitting of an urban rail system into a built-up city.
"You have to manoeuvre existing road and highway networks, buildings and the like. Going underground is an option, but costs have to be considered," he added.
Once the SBK line construction is complete, public response will be key in ensuring the MRT's success in alleviating KL's road congestion.
"MRT lines alone won't do it. All players must play their role. If the public embraces the MRT and other urban rail systems as their transport of choice, the Government will have no choice but to build more, won't they?" he asked.
And for large-scale adoption to happen, integration is key.
Amir explained that both ends of the SBK line - Sungai Buloh and Kajang - will integrate with the KTM Komuter. It will also integrate with the LRT Kelana Jaya line at Pasar Seni, the LRT Ampang line at Maluri, and the KL Monorail at Bukit Bintang.
Then, KL Sentral will provide integration with all urban rail systems, including the KLIA Ekspres.
"The end goal is to ensure that we integrate everything; not just the lines and routes, but also payment systems," said Amir.
Today, the MRT is at more than 35% completion: "Three Decembers from now, you will be doing your Christmas shopping on the SBK line, and going to open houses riding the new Siemens trains designed by Florida's BMW Designworks, USA."
But with many already accustomed to the comfort and convenience of private cars, getting the public to leave their cars at home is the next challenge.
"I firmly believe that if we can make the market see how taking urban rail can help with time management and reducing the cost of operating a private car, we can get people to use public transport," he said.
The business of buses
"If we were in the business of football, we would want to be Barcelona FC. If it's rugby, then it's the New Zealand All Blacks. Simply because, we want to be the world best," said Amiruddin Maaris, Prasarana's group director, infrastructure development.
After more than 11 years in operation, he believes that Syarikat Prasarana Negara Berhad (Prasarana) is right on-track in transforming the city's public transport system to world-class standard.
Established by the Government to transform the country's public transport services, Prasarana began its operations in September 2002 with the initial takeover of the LRT systems, followed by bus operations in the Klang Valley and the monorail system.
"These services were later restructured to operate under a single entity – RapidKL. Naturally, we have come a long way in terms of the standard of public transport services," said Amiruddin.
Having said that, he admits there is plenty more the nation needs to do together to carry the standard to world class status.
In running its businesses and working to upgrade the public transport industry, Prasarana undertook various efforts, including initiating an internal transformation exercise, by introducing a two-year roadmap (Go Forward Plan, GFP) in 2011.
"It's something similar to the GTP (Government Transformation Plan). We took similar aspirations and directions to develop our own roadmap for progress in the group," he said, adding that Barcelona and the All Blacks were able to become world beaters because they had strong foundations and were blessed with immense talents.
While further strengthening foundations within the organisation under the plan, Prasarana also undertook other major initiatives, including the launch of the LRT Line Extension Project (LEP); introduction of a common ticketing system for its rail networks; integration of stations at strategic locations; as well as building and upgrading infrastructure such as multi-level Park n' Ride complexes.
"Take the RapidKL rail integration, for instance. People can commute smoothly without the need to exit stations to change lines. Covered walkways and overhead bridges also provide convenience and comfort," said Amiruddin.
In January 2013, a five-year roadmap of GFP 2.0 was launched as a follow-up programme with stronger focus on longer-term directions as it looks beyond its primary role of quality public transport services.
New initiatives were introduced, which included a corporate restructuring exercise that established four strategic business units.
"While we want to continue to lift the standard of public transport services, we also want to strengthen our financial footing and reduce our dependence on the Government on monetary aid. The corporate restructuring is designed to allow us to do that," said Amiruddin, who is also the chief executive officer of Prasarana Integrated Management and Engineering Services Sdn Bhd (PRIME), which is responsible for the group's public infrastructure projects.
To him, the single biggest challenge in wooing more people to use public transport is instilling public confidence in the system's efficiency and benefits.
"That would relate to the subject of services' reliability and connectivity, which is something Prasarana has been working hard on since its inception," he said.
Key projects to transform public transport services in the Klang Valley include new buses for Rapid Bus, mid-life refurbishment of trains and new 14-car models for the LRT Kelana Jaya line, fleet expansion and station upgrading of KL Monorail, and the construction of a new bus depot for RapidKL.
Asked about the reliability of buses, he said bus drivers currently faced many constraints in trying to keep to their schedules.
"In most cases, traffic jams in the city are created by irresponsible drivers. They encroach our bus lanes; they park their cars on the road shoulders, sometimes making it impossible for our buses to pass through; they park at bus stops at LRT stations to wait.
"This affects the traveling of our buses, their journey, and the bus schedules. In the end, it's the commuters that suffer. Perhaps the authorities should be stricter on these offenders," he explained.
As for the trains, people often try to enter and hold the closing doors open.
"It is all up to having the right mind-set. If we can do this, I would say that we have overcome our biggest obstacle and would be just baby steps away from becoming world-class. In terms of facilities, we are already on track," Amiruddin said, adding that Prasarana also conducts continuous benchmarking efforts to ensure its services and facilities are contemporary and up-to-date.
Man on the street
But with the rapid development of these networks, is enough focus being placed on the building of a holistic public transport network?
Moaz Yusuf Ahmad, advisor to The Association For The Improvement Of Mass Transit (Transit), does not think so.
He finds that connections between rail, bus and streets are being completely ignored, with LRT lines following rivers and Tenaga Nasional Berhad (TNB) corridors instead of roads.
"That's great for easy construction, but terrible for encouraging public transport use because few people live or work along rivers and TNB corridors," said the 34-year-old.
While much more progress can be made, creating a regional public transport organising authority for the Klang Valley will allow a comprehensive roll-out of improvements.
To him, the public transport system in the Federal Territories is failing users because services were built in a "disconnected and disjointed manner".
"There is ad hoc implementation with an emphasis on new technology rather than efficiency, low cost and high convenience. Our systems are costly and not well planned," said Moaz.
However, the system has seen improvement over the past 40 years.
"The KTM Komuter network took an existing rail service and made it more efficient and accessible.
"Komuter trains are infrequent because of the signalling system and bottlenecks through KL, but for a fraction of the cost of the MRT, we could build a frequent KTM Komuter network that has the potential to serve more people than the rest of the rail network," said Moaz.
He cited a 1985 study, which proposed a mass-rail-transit network for the Klang Valley.
It started with the KTMB rail corridors and included the old Ampang rail spur, which eventually became part of the STAR/Ampang LRT. If the proposal had been fully implemented, the Klang Valley would be served by only one KTM Komuter network, instead of a KTM Komuter, two LRTs, a monorail and the MRT.
Also lacking in Malaysia's advocacy scene, says Moaz, is a commitment from the Government to bring stakeholders together via a consistent process.
"We want a system where advocacy groups have a permanent seat at the table, with representation from all stakeholders. In Singapore, the public transport council decides on fares and bus routes based on data from the Land Transport Authority," he said.
Moaz also urged Malaysians to take matters into their own hands and petition their elected representatives for a better public transport network following international best practices.
"Push them to ask tough questions about public transport services, planning and development, and accountability and transparency, Stop the centralisation of public transport, the perpetuation of bad laws, and ad hoc policy," he added.