The DASH Highway has been open for a few weeks now. A few months before that, it was the SUKE Highway in the eastern crevices of Kuala Lumpur. Both highways sold the premise of relieving congestion issues across the Klang Valley. Waiting in the wings is the PJD Link which is currently facing opposition from PJ residents but is pushed by both federal and state governments. While marketed to the public as a solution to traffic woes, countless studies have shown that building more expressways does not solve congestion.

Underlying this is “induced demand”. If you build more highways, congestion relief is only temporary before more vehicles will occupy the newly-built roads. Then, we are back to square one. Over the decades, commuters in the Klang Valley experienced this when highway after highway was developed with the promise of providing more direct connections and relieving existing congestion. Decades later, we are still being fed the same fantasy as Klang Valley commuters getting stuck in hours-long traffic to and from work.

Malaysia’s love for highway development is accompanied by pro-private vehicle policies such as petrol subsidies and the sales tax exemption for car purchases during the pandemic. Last weekend, political parties ran free petrol campaigns for motorcycle users, mainly across Melaka and other constituencies across the country. The cost of encouraging private vehicles runs into the billions; this year alone, the government subsidised an estimated RM 30 billion in petrol subsidies.

So how do we address congestion? The solution is shockingly simple, but one that the government appears to have significant challenges in addressing: public transportation. Pre-pandemic, public transport services were already having challenges in being reliable. It has since gotten worse in recent years. Feeder bus frequencies are inconsistent and sometimes non-existent. Train services break down an average of 9 times monthly. Klang Valley residents want to get on public transport, but it is failing them. So they turn to their cars and motorcycles.

It is not just public transportation that is the problem. It is also access to public transit services that become makes adopting public transport difficult. Klang Valley’s urban fabric is designed to be hostile to pedestrians. This is because developers and local councils adopt pro-car sensibilities in developing roads. A bus stop could be a 10-minute walk from home in theory, but the obstacles to get there are enough to turn one off. This, and unreliable feeder bus services, further makes adopting public transit unattractive.

However, it is unfair to blame public transport operators alone. While they provide the service, which certainly could be improved – much of public transit and its success also relies on government policies that make the ecosystem conducive. Feeder bus services cannot be reliable when they run on the same roads as private vehicles, with no dedicated lane to speed them along. Train carriage maintenance will lead to more breakdowns if the government is unwilling to set aside an adequate budget to upkeep its rolling stock.

Similarly, the government cannot promote pro-private vehicle policies while encouraging public transport use. There is a contradiction in both these policy objectives, especially if the government is serious about achieving a 40% modal share for public transport by 2030 – a very unlikely goal given the current state. This pro-car thinking also extends to road development, the core of our discussion on how highway projects are approved without consideration for long-term consequences. But to focus on the granular, pedestrian pathways are also overlooked.

Pedestrian pathways across neighbourhoods, townships and cities are badly-designed. They are often challenging for those who can walk and extremely hostile to the disabled. A thoughtful, observant walk in one’s local neighbourhood will expose the many inadequacies: broken footpaths, inconsistent heights, sharp slopes, and so on. Local authorities have expressed interest in adopting the 20-minute city concept that is trending globally but have done little to show their commitment towards it. This is not surprising since local government funds are limited, and adhering to universal design standards to make a township walkable is expensive.

We are left with roads designed primarily for cars, not people. Town planners and local councils approve structure plans without considering those who live and use those spaces. This runs in concert with governments and developers who are more than willing to build more highways as a misguided solution to a problem they created. In the end, we return to the problem of congestion and long, stressful commutes that come with it. It doesn’t also help, that post-lockdown, employers en masse are unwilling to adopt flexible working arrangements, which they piloted during the pandemic, and pushed for their employees to return to the office.

In short, the government has to see the problem within a larger ecosystem instead of treating it as individual problems.

Can Klang Valley’s congestion problem be resolved? There is still time to course correct. For one, the government can fund operating expenditures for public transport services to increase frequencies, expand coverage and increase fleet maintenance. Carving out dedicated bus lanes across urban townships, the city and even these highways would do wonders for public transit adoption. Jakarta’s bus rapid transit (BRT) that cleaves congestion across the metropolis is the best proof for convincing those in cars to ride the bus.

There is also an imperative for local councils to redesign townships and neighbourhoods to be more accessible – this may encourage more people to walk or use pedestrian pathways, and set the environment fertile for micro-mobility services. This also means signalling to developers that pro-car designs are not welcomed, nudging developers to develop more pedestrian-friendly designs in the townships they seek to profit off.

In adopting ecosystem thinking, the government needs to scale back on pro-car policies. Petrol subsidies, as a part of this, is not economically sustainable long-term, stressing billions on our annual national budget. This amount could be used to improve public transport coverage and services, as well as improve pedestrianisation nationwide across Malaysian cities and townships. This urban mobility expenditure will still cost substantially less than subsidising petrol nationally, with long-term sustainability.

To solve a problem, especially one as systemic as this, we cannot build more of what created the problem in the first place.

This article has been published in The Malay Mail.