E-hailing bus services in Malaysia? Not such a crazy idea after all, say experts

Soo Wern Jun
The e-hailing bus service would work well for specific routes such as to the airport or tourist areas. — Picture by Choo Choy May

KUALA LUMPUR, Nov 18 — To have bus services available on call via e-hailing may not be such a crazy idea despite the brickbats against Transport Minister Anthony Loke since his suggestion recently, transport experts have suggested.

Urban land-use and transportation expert Goh Bok Yen said the idea in itself is not new, suggesting that it is just a modern iteration of demand-responsive transport services, such as hailing buses by telephone in the United Kingdom.

In addition, Goh said Malaysia is in dire need of this type of bus service to cater to areas that have poor access to public transportation.

“This idea is not new. In Scotland, about 30 years ago, they had something called ‘Dial-a-Bus’ which serviced residents within a community,” he related to Malay Mail.

“The ‘Dial-a-Bus’ picks up people and goes to places within a housing area and sends them to their pre-booked destinations.

“We need this here, to complete the public transportation hierarchy below the existing public transportation available,” he added.

The former urban planner who has worked for an international firm in the United Kingdom explained that this option will help connect rural areas here which are too far from any form of connectivity.

“The existing public bus services now do not cater to these housing areas; hence, groups of communities are deprived of a public bus service.

“If the government wants to do this, I suggest it follows the module which has been adopted by the UK, where the bus service is handled by people who belong to the respective communities,” he said.

Last month, Loke had expressed an interest in studying the possibility of introducing an e-hailing service for public buses but did not elaborate further.

Goh added that to ensure the project is cost-efficient, the government could offer subsidies to these communities to run their own e-hailing bus service.

“It is too expensive for the government to invest 100 per cent in this project. So, what it can do is to subsidise certain areas of the operational costs, like petrol and maintenance.

“And because these buses will be driven by people known within a community, residents will be more confident in terms of safety and at the same time, it will draw communities closer,” he said.

An e-hailing bus service will allow commuters to plan their journey better. — Picture by Choo Choy May

Currently, the e-hailing bus service in the UK operates on a module where it meets the needs of those who have difficulty assessing public transportation or for the disabled.

Law Teik Hua, who is with the Road Safety Research Centre at Universiti Putra Malaysia, also supported the idea. However, he said it will only work if it is treated as a complement to public bus companies.

“Otherwise, it will create unnecessary competition among the existing players,” the professor said.

“For example, if the government really decides to go ahead with it, the e-hailing service could serve as a last mile connection to places which are not accessible by other modes of public transportation. Otherwise, it sounds a bit strange to me.”

Law also warned that if the e-hailing bus operates like current e-hailing services for cars, then it will end up competing with companies like Grab Car.

But rather than coming up with another form of bus service, Law said the government should consider revising the routes offered by Prasarana Malaysia and operated by its subsidiaries, such as Rapid KL.

“The e-hailing bus cannot take over Rapid, because Rapid already has fixed bus stops. Rapid buses are also too big. It cannot adopt e-hailing concept because it won’t be able to access areas with narrow roads. 

“Instead, why not revise the Rapid bus system by offering a more systematic public transportation system?” he asked.

“Also, they need to think of how they can do better to encourage more people to take the bus. What’s in it for users who are already driving?” Law suggested.

Ajit Johl, head of the Public Transport Users Association (4PAM), while agreeing that the e-hailing bus concept is a good idea, however, cautioned that the service may be more suitable for a niche market, such as the tourism industry where destinations are specific.

“If they are going to a specific point like the airport where there is volume, then it makes sense.

“I believe they have done their research and they see a market in certain segments, like that tourism segment,” said Ajit, referring to Putrajaya.

As for 4PAM, Ajit said as long as the e-hailing service complies with regulations and passenger safety is not compromised, it is all for more public transport providers.

“But I still believe that this should be done mainly for specific locations — airports and main city centres.

“We have more tour groups coming to Malaysia, but the 44-seater-passenger-bus may not be as flexible, quick or nimble in manoeuvring city centre roads.

“It must be operated with a smaller bus. A minibus concept would be ideal, but not buses like the Rapid buses,” he said.

An ideal size would be a minibus. RapidKL buses are too large and take up too much space on narrow roads. — Picture by Choo Choy May

Taking a leaf out of Selangor’s page

Meanwhile, a closer example to the concept is Smart Selangor Delivery Unit (SSDU) which attempted to introduce a semi-e-hailing concept for buses, and is currently operating a free bus service which ferries passengers within the state of Selangor.

By utilising a mobile app called Selangor Intelligent Transport System, commuters can plan their journey through ‘live’ arrival and departure bus schedules.

The idea which started in 2012 has managed to hit its 20 per cent mark — that is removing 20 per cent of cars from roads — and aims to reach a 60 per cent target by 2030.

SSDU’s deputy director Fahmi Ngah said the team wanted to encourage the use of public buses and make catching one easier in the state through an integrated system that includes ride-hailing services.

“But commuters still had to go to a bus stop to hop on the free bus service. That’s why we wanted to rope in e-hailing services to help ferry people to areas with the free bus,” said Fahmi. 

The SSDU were in discussions with an e-hailing service provider last year, but the project did not take off due to the technology constraints faced by the provider.

In the context of the Transport Ministry’s idea of e-hailing buses, Fahmi said the government first needs to get other public transport providers to share respective travel information before it explores the idea of e-hailing buses.

“Currently, such information isn’t available to the public, and this is one of the reasons that is deterring them from taking public transportation. That is why they prefer to drive,” he said.

But before such a service can be offered, Fahmi said the government needs to put in place a certain level of infrastructure.

Next, he said the government must find a way to consolidate all this information and park it under one app, so that commuters can plan their journey according to the type of transportation preferred.

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