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Do We Really Need Wider Highways?

Whenever traffic congestion matter crops up, the common and obvious solution that will be suggested is to build wider roads. The question here is does it solve our traffic congestion problem? In the long run, the answer is “No”, if it is not implemented with other traffic management measures. The problems in traffic management cannot be seen from a single perspective because it is a multi-faceted problem. It requires a holistic and integrated approach in finding the solutions. A single solution can bring a host of other new problems. For example, when a one-way traffic flow solution is implemented to address congestion in a city centre, it removes the need for traffic lights at some junctions and make the traffic move faster. However, we are now faced with the problem of providing safe crossing locations for pedestrians.

The fundamental questions we should ask before proposing solutions is who are we trying to help? A lot of people tend to look at it as trying to make motor vehicles move smoothly but we forgot that the reason we have all the traffic on the road is mainly to move people (and to a lesser extent, goods) from one place to another. The real problem we are trying to solve in traffic management is moving people from a place of origin to a destination. A quick look at the 2016 statistics from the Ministry of Transport (MOT) of traffic on 14 selected (counting) stations on trunk roads in various parts of Peninsular Malaysia, it shows that for the composition of passenger vehicles ranges between 60% to 75%. In some places like Lagos, Nigeria, it is reported to be about 92%. The MOT data I believe does not include traffic using the PLUS and other expressways. We can argue that the bulk of traffic on our roads are passenger vehicles.

The severe traffic congestion along our inter-city highways occurs mainly during holiday periods over extended weekend breaks and the balik kampung for annual festivities. In other words, during peak holiday periods. It is not a daily occurrence. Investing in infrastructure to build wider highways may not be the ideal solution. In the long run, wider roads tend to induce more traffic and we will have worse congestion. Widening roads merely address the need to accommodate more vehicles, namely passenger cars, travelling in the same direction at the same time. It does not address the issue of moving a lot people between destinations efficiently. There are many alternatives available. The main reason why a lot of people drive when they visit places away from their normal place of residence is the lack of available means of transportation at their destination, namely, public transport. The main reason why a lot people drive their own vehicles to travel to their destination during peak holiday periods is also due to insufficient capacity of the available public transport. The commonly used means of public transport are express buses (roadbased transport), trains (track-based transport) and aeroplanes (air transport). Public transport is more efficient in moving people because it can carry more people in one vehicle compared to private vehicles.

For long term solution to our traffic congestion it would be wiser to look at alternative ways to transport people between their destinations. Currently we have a well-developed road-based public transport services for inter-city travels but for travels within a towns, cities and localities there are still a lot to be improved. Improving public transport in towns and cities and ‘discouraging’ usage of private vehicles, particularly during peak periods, should be given a very high priority for managing local traffic. We now have a good basic network of LRT & MRT for commuting within Klang Valley but the last mile coverage still needs further improvement.

For air travel we also have a good network and service coverage which are affordable to the masses. The one aspect of public transportation that we have not improved by leaps and bounds over the past decades in terms of network coverage and frequency of service is the railway. KTMB has introduced the inter-city ETS train service which has proven to be extremely popular. However, the network coverage and frequency of service has not expanded much. The regional coverage of train services is still lacking. Although we have almost hourly trains between KL and Ipoh, frequency of service beyond them is still insufficient. It is still difficult to take a train to Penang Island via Butterworth. The infrastructure is already there for regional train network services but only along the main trunk lines between Padang Besar and Johor Bahru; and between Gemas and Tumpat. Regional train services are now available in the Klang valley. We can expand them further to create regional & local services from capital cities of each state. There are existing lines and railways reserves to create these regional lines that are not being utilised. We have only recently started the train services to Subang airport. There is a potential to further extend this line to connect to Sungai Buloh MRT/KTMB.

There is a need to develop train services in other parts of the country. In the Netherlands, one can travel to any part of the country by a combination of by trainbus-tram-bicycle combination. In Japan they have retained many local train network for local travelling in smaller towns. There is also the potential of introducing the train+car or train+bicycle services or even transport cars by train together with the passengers. This reduce the need to drive long distances. Passengers can get off the train and then drive their own car. With the RO-RO car ferry service, people willing to pay to take car on the ferry to Langkawi, so why not a train?

Before we invest heavily on the infrastructure to widen our highways or build new ones, let us consider the all alternative options first. The priority should be to increase the frequency and network coverage of train services first. Expander rail services network coverage from existing regional stations, such as Butterworth-Ipoh, Butterworth-Sungai Petani-Alor Star, Butterworth-Kulim, Ipoh Lumut; Ipoh-teluk Intan; Tg Malim-Tk Intan-Lumut, Seremban-Port Dickson; Gemas-Melaka, etc. Then we should also look at expanding regional train services in the east cost from Tumpat all the way down to Mersing. We should look at improving public transport connectivity in towns & cities outside the Klang Valley. We may need a “tuk-tuk” equivalent services, if Grab or taxi services is not popular or available. We should also consider expanding (self-drive) car-sharing initiatives like GoCar & SoCar for local travel as a complement to the inter-city public transport. If we have a good coverage of alternatives public transport and car-sharing services in smaller towns and cities, we might even find that there is no real need to expand our existing highway network.

Finally, before we start building wider roads & more highways, let us review our traffic management system. We believe a lot of the road and traffic congestion in towns and cities can be reduced by merely adjusting the timing and sequence of the traffic lights changes. And towing away the illegally parked cars along the main thoroughfares.


Malaysian Institute of Planners
19 August 2019
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