New Means of Public Transport That We Do Not Have to Wait for


Ride-sharing platforms provide options while we await improvements to public transport.

In 2010 the modal share of public transport was 3% in George Town, and 8% state-wide. Eight years later, those figures are still the same.

The ideal is 40%, which begs the question: why are so few using public transport?

After all, incentives for the use of public transport are not insignificant. A bus ride from Batu Lanchang to town costs RM1.40. Parking a car would almost certainly cost more than that, and public transport users are relieved of the stress of finding a vacant lot.

But because bus users spend more time in traffic and face infrequent and unpredictable bus times, making scheduling day-to-day activities challenging, taking the bus, more often than not, is not feasible to many.

Taxis, on the other hand, offer an alternative but are beset with high fares and safety concerns. This started to change in 2014 when MyTeksi was launched in Penang.1 That company aimed to improve the safety and convenience of taxi rides. Having partnered with taxi companies, it was “seen as an effort to revive the industry”.2

Anthony Tan, group CEO and co-founder of Grab.

And it did revive it. Within five months, MyTeksi raised taxi bookings in Penang by 500%.

Then came Uber and Grab, with their radical proposal for ride-sharing. This new breed of companies do not operate nor maintain any cars of their own. Instead, drivers share their private vehicles with paying passengers – hence the term “ride-share”.

These services are priced far lower than normal taxi rides, and riders can view prices before booking, order a ride with a few taps, and are shown the driver’s identification details as well as customer ratings.

The disruption was a welcome one – 80% of Malaysians now prefer ride-sharing to conventional taxis. For the foreseeable future, ride-shares will only involve four-wheeled vehicles. Motorcycle ridesharing, though an interesting concept that is popular in Indonesia and Vietnam, was unfortunately illegalised by the Ministry of Transport for safety and regulatory reasons.

Metered taxi drivers did not kindly take to ride-sharing services, and as the latter grew, they ate into the market share of taxi companies. More people are getting into hired cars now at the expense of taxis, resulting in violent confrontations between taxi drivers and ride-share drivers, and persistent calls for the government to illegalise ride-sharing companies.

How much does ride-sharing decrease congestion, though? Researchers at MIT discovered that a fleet of 3,000 four-seaters is enough to serve 98% of New York’s taxi demand, instead of 14,000 taxis in the city at the moment. The gains in efficiency increase as the number of seats per vehicle increase. Currently, however, Grab, the largest and most popular operator of ride-shares in Malaysia, does not permit riders to carpool in Penang. GrabShare (Grab’s carpooling service) used to be offered in Penang. One cannot help but wonder if it was the unpopularity of carpooling that got it axed.

Ride-sharing has the potential to ease congestion if properly utilized and functions most efficiently when complementing medium to high-capacity vehicles like buses, LRTs or monorails by serving the first and last mile of a journey.

This is exactly the vision of Ken Yeoh, founder of LinkBike. LinkBike is a bike-sharing service subsidised by the state government, and is meant as a form of public transport. According to its website, LinkBikes “serve as short distance transit vehicles to reduce or replace motor vehicles, avoid traffic congestion and reduce environmental pollution.”

Twenty-nine docking stations are now scattered all across George Town and the free-trade industrial zone. Anyone can ride by releasing a bike from a station and then returning it to another station when done. Its largest incentive is free travel for the first 30 minutes of each session. With the yearly membership pass priced at RM30 and rides costing RM1 per hour after the free 30 minutes, LinkBike is one of the most economic ways to cover short distances.

Ken Yeoh, founder of LinkBike.

“LinkBike’s aim is to serve the first and last leg of a commuter’s journey. The spotlight of the Penang Transport Master Plan is the LRT. When I look at it, I have one question: how are you going to get to the LRT stations? (You) drive there, walk, or have a feeder bus that picks people up and drops them at the LRT station. Now we Malaysians have the habit of driving. If each LRT station can serve 500 people, for example, then what happens if every person drives his or her own car? Five hundred people, 500 cars, correct? Where are you going to put your cars? You need ample space, multi-storey car parks. Who is going to run it?” Yeoh lets the question sink in.

But what if we had bicycles to bring people to LRT stations? All that remains is to have docking stations dispersed at LRT stations and in residential areas.

Still, high-capacity vehicles like LRTs are at least six years away. At the moment, the bikes are utilised mostly by tourists, with the daily number of rides averaging highest during the summer months of July till September. Short-term memberships of one or two days are the most popular packages.

Locals have not been missing out on the action, though they have found a different use for LinkBike. The station at Karpal Singh Drive, a scenic stretch along Penang’s coast where joggers and lovebirds alike frequent, has the highest ridership. Penangites seem to be using the bikes there for leisure rides with family and friends. The new stations placed at Intel’s buildings, meant to help employees commute within Intel’s sprawling campus in the industrial zone, are seeing an increase in rides as well.

For now, ride-sharing and bike-sharing services are waiting to complement public transport: both high-capacity ones that are yet to be built, and medium-capacity ones like the Rapid buses.

While waiting for the infrastructure and improvements to arrive, behavioural policies – cost-efficient and immediate ways to encourage public transport – could be implemented. Some of these creative measures include mentioning walk time to the nearest bus or train station, reminding people of the true cost of private transport, and allowing employers to provide bus or train passes as part of the salary, with the possibility of opting-out. Singapore’s Health Promotion Board, for example, cleverly tapped into the power of incentives by rewarding Singaporeans with retail vouchers according to the number of steps they take. This way, traffic jams can be alleviated – one step at a time.

Yap Jo-yee is blessed to call Penang home. Unfortunately it also means that she can’t decide between roti bakar, tosai or dimsum for breakfast.

1The Star, 12 Sep 2014.
2The Star, 5 Jun 2012.

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