How much does it cost a working individual to get around? The answer depends on where you live. Choosing where to live takes into account multiple factors, but very often, it has to satisfy one’s balance between access to work, public and commercial amenities – and for parents, education options for their children. It’s one of the reasons why buying or renting a house is a big decision. Property developers and salespersons will consistently market their properties as being within accessible distance to either a major highway or train station. This tells you a lot about how important transportation is in deciding where to live.

Housing and making people pay more to travel

What has the government done regarding public transport and housing, and how does it relate to the cost of living? The MRT rail project so far has taken cues from Hong Kong, where stations are built on the promise that its surrounding neighbourhood will eventually develop. Build it, and they will come. A 2018 study by Cent-GPS, however, tells a different story. The study found that housing developed near the MRT Sungai Buloh-Kajang Line is unaffordable for those in the M40 and B40 income bracket, typically sold above the RM500,000 mark.

In the end, those who could benefit most from access to public transport are pushed further away. Some will resort to driving their motorcycles and cars to the train station and completing the rest of the journey by train, but many others will commute the whole way through. Buses, by and large, continue to be unreliable despite operators attempting to digitise their services by showing estimated time-of-arrival (ETA) information. Even though commuter passes such as MY50 allow all-access travel across the Klang Valley, how many are willing to get on public transit?

A 2019 study by The Centre showed that commuters pay more for rental/mortgage or e-hailing services, depending on their residence’s distance to the closest train station. A similar China study found that 45 minutes was a tipping point; commuters travelling more than 45 minutes were willing to pay more to move closer to work, while those travelling less than 45 minutes were willing to commute longer for better jobs or homes. Certainly, there is enough evidence that accessibility and cost of living are closely linked.

By and large, owning and maintaining a private vehicle costs more, something many urban Malaysians are forced to do by circumstance. Consider monthly petrol costs, parking fees, loan repayments, annual road tax, insurance renewals, and vehicle maintenance. Compare how much one has to pay for using their car or motorcycle versus purchasing an RM50 monthly public transit commuter pass. Significant savings could be unlocked for urban Malaysians if public transport was simply designed to be accessible through both affordable housing and a properly-designed first-last mile ecosystem.

How poorly designed first-last mile access forces costlier decisions

One approach the government has been taking is planning ToDs (Transit-Oriented Developments) in the recent MRT developments. Theoretically, ToDs would allow people to live and potentially work within the vicinity of a major public transit point – without needing to own a private vehicle. We commonly see this in developed cities like Tokyo, London and Hong Kong, where housing, commercial and business developments centre around train stations.

A key component of ToDs is pedestrianisation, making access to the closest transit point a safe and accessible experience. In Malaysia, however, little attention is given to developing a proper first-last mile ecosystem, particularly in making pedestrian access safe for all.

Pedestrian pathways are often poorly designed and cannot be safely used by the elderly, women, children or PWDs (Persons with Disabilities). In extreme but common cases, there are no pathways, and individuals often have to walk on the grass or, worse, the road. By unintentionally bad design, users would rather avoid the unpleasant first-last mile experience and prefer to take private transport or e-hailing to the closest bus stop or train station, and in most cases, the whole way to their destination. An option which costs more. This doesn’t yet consider the efficiency of first-last mile services like buses, which do not operate at predictable or frequent-enough intervals.

A better urban transport ecosystem to help with cost of living

So far, the government’s major urban-related solution to cost of living issues is to offer subsidised commuter passes. But it’s not enough to make commuting affordable. Especially if travelling by public transport isn’t accessible, whether through poorly-designed pedestrian access or having to live so far away that the time spent travelling doesn’t justify taking public transport to work. The government needs to recognise that urban transport and mobility need to be approached as an ecosystem, each part corresponding to one another.

Developing affordable housing near public transit alleviates cost of living. Designing safe and accessible first-last mile ecosystems helps users save money when they can easily get to bus stops or train stations. Investing in making bus services efficient and frequent presents individuals with cheaper transport alternatives. Best practices exist in many cities elsewhere, cities where we send government officials and experts to study and return home to implement what is observed.

It’s been over two decades since the first rail line began operating in the Klang Valley. Many more rail lines have opened up since, connecting different parts of the region. But governments and developers have spent so much time on these megaprojects and the returns necessary to justify its costs, that they’ve neglected to focus on what public transport is meant to achieve: accessible travel for all. If this Madani government is serious about tackling cost of living, address these three basic things in the urban ecosystem: affordable housing, pedestrian access and reliable first-last mile services.

This article has been published in The Malay Mail.