HITCH YOUR WAGON

Malaysia 2017 | TRANSPORT | VIP INTERVIEW

TBY talks to Mohd Azharuddin Mat Sah, CEO of the Land Public Transport Commission (SPAD), on boosting the transportation network around the country and how to best deal with peer-to-peer taxi applications.

SPAD was established under the Land Public Transport Act in 2010. What have been your major achievements since then?

SPAD has had some tremendous achievements, especially compared to the period before 2010. Public transport was a fragmented industry with 13 agencies involved in planning without any coordination. Based on success models from abroad, like LTA in Singapore and Transport for London in the UK, we realized we needed integrated planning and SPAD was thus established. Our mandate was to not only be the regulator, but also the planner and executor of all the key infrastructural projects in the country. Malaysia has undertaken a rapid pace of urbanization, developing from a rural society to an industrial nation. The rate of urbanization has increased tremendously from the 10% figure 40 years to nearly 70% today. These new dynamics impose challenges in terms of mobility management and addressing the issues of traffic congestion. In 2016, we will complete a major program for LRT extension of both the Kelana Jaya and the Ampang line, which will add capacity of up to 300,000 passengers per day. MRT 1 will be completed by June 2017, which is a significant achievement as it connects northwestern Kuala Lumpur all the way to the south, spanning 52km and connecting major demand corridors. We are already planning MRT 2, another 52km line, and are conducting a study for a third line. The Greater Kuala Lumpur rail is the backbone of our public transportation network, and we are investing a great deal to make this happen. We develop a major transformative infrastructure project to help mobility across Kuala Lumpur. We plan it, we receive ministerial approval, and we set up agencies to ensure development and operations. Our role is major planning and regulation; we ensure that the work is done in accordance with the guidelines and technical specifications.

What are the objectives of all these rail projects?

In addition to reducing congestion on the roads and increasing mobility, there is the sustainability aspect of public transportation. We see the MRT as a green project as it takes cars off the road. In addition, we need to take the “first and last mile" into consideration; you cannot have world-class infrastructure without a world-class bus or taxi service. We also improve bus services in suburban areas to link housing estates to rail stations. In total, we have invested MYR100 billion in public transport in Greater Kuala Lumpur: that is in the last five years and the next five years. That includes MRT 1 and 2, the just completed double-tracking project from Kuala Lumpur to Ipoh, the projected double-tracking from Johor to Kuala Lumpur, and the high-speed rail (HSR) to Singapore. Greater Kuala Lumpur is the nucleus of the country, but we need to connect to other urban centers as well. The HSR to Singapore is a game changer; it will fundamentally change the dynamics of how the two cities interact and how the two countries will open up investments, business, mobility, and tourism. Traveling to Singapore from Kuala Lumpur currently takes about five hours via air, and with the HSR that journey will be reduced to two-and-a-half hours—arriving 30 minutes before check in, a 90-minute journey, and 30-minute arrival procedures. We learnt from Japan, France, and Spain that it helps to develop cities along the corridor, which is extremely important for us. The west of the country has always been more developed and the eastern states need our attention for development. We are currently studying a new East Coast rail line to link the ports via this new rail initiative. This will spur a multiplier effect on our projected infrastructure developments. Buses have always been a neglected part of the public transport systems, lacking proper planning. The government has now assured its commitment—resources, people, and funding—to ensure there is an efficient bus service to connect with the existing train services. Projects in Kangar, Perlis, Seremban, and Negeri Sembilan have seen a 30% increase in ridership since we started. The BRT is the most exciting project with elevated bus terminals along the most congested highway in Kuala Lumpur. The BRT can fundamentally change the way people see bus services. We hope to see ridership in public transport double in the next five years.

The Kuala Lumpur-Singapore line is a cross-border project between SPAD and LTA. How is this cooperation working out?

It is going well; we deliver what we promise. The negotiations started a few years ago and it is a complex case because of the technical aspects, the financing, and the mapping. It is also important to note that 90% of the line is in Malaysia, and we had to ensure that we came up with an equitable arrangement in terms of financing. We agreed on a bilateral committee, overseen by SPAD and LTA, to ensure that the project will be executed properly.

How are you addressing new developments on the taxi markets, with peer-to-peer taxi applications like Uber and GrabCar?

The taxi industry in Malaysia needs to be transformed. It needs to change to reflect changes in technology, as well as consumer interests and to be able to provide first class service. There have been many complaints from both tourists and locals about our current taxi service. Uber and Grabcar have jumped into this market, with their commute sharing technologies. The key question is how to be fair. At the moment, they use unlicensed cars and are, therefore, excluded from taxi regulations. This is a common problem around the world, with taxi drivers protesting everywhere. We have four principles of looking at this. The first is that we embrace technology, no matter if it is disruptive. We welcome competition and we support new players coming into the market. We also believe in a level playing field; what you impose on taxi drivers must also be adopted by any other new service, such as Uber or GrabCar—they must follow the law. The fourth is that we must be fair to taxi drivers and take their complaints seriously. If this business model is indeed outdated, then we should change it. Based on those four principles, we will look for solutions for regulations in the taxi market. It is not our job to provide services, so the business model, the fares, and services are up to the industry. SPAD will develop the regulatory framework, maintain standards, and listen to issues in society.

What is your role in regards to the responsibility of “right of way" in the context of land use?

Our first priority is rail alignment. The law enables us to acquire the land that the government has allocated for rail lines. We also talk to operators to ensure they include transit-orientated development in their construction plan that will enable us to capture the value of the land appreciation or even potential revenue in the future. It becomes endowment revenue, as we have learned it is possible to carry the costs by fares eventually. We increasingly look at such transport development: a mixed urban development is needed around rail stations. In the context of Kuala Lumpur, the urban sprawl is not ideal because it still encourages the use of private vehicles, which we try to reduce. Integrated development is key here: if the development is 5km from the rail line, then there needs to be a connected bus network. We refer to this as “the demand, pull factor." We try to pull people into using public transport, improving the infrastructure. There is the push factor as well, like the price of parking. We need to join forces and develop policies to make public transport economically attractive. But, before we impose new conditions and congestion charges, we need to ensure the system is world class.

What is your agenda for the year ahead?

Malaysia has achieved tremendous growth in the last five years, greatly supported by development in public transportation. I would like to see our current projects come to fruition in a safe and reliable manner and for us to start operations flawlessly. We need to gain the confidence of the greater public. I want to ensure that our planned projects, like the HSR and the East Coast Railway, will enter the next phase of development, and become finalized. We need to work on a sustainable financing model—we are building billion-dollar projects in the next five years and need to ensure that there are returns to the government. We have to remain competitive to induce people to use public transportation so we have to look at transit-orientated development and recoup the government's investment. For example, with the HSR, the mandate is not only developing the rail system but development around the stations as well. I see the SPAD initiative as part of an inclusive government, because not everyone can afford a car; saving money by using inexpensive public transportation increases disposable income.