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Connectivity, mobility and sustainability

Public transportation needs improving (all pics © Lainie Yeoh)

NO amount of investment in infrastructure for transportation and logistics has been able to cope with the pressing demand for fast and efficient transportation for people, goods and services.

Despite the accelerated advancement in information and communication technology, there is an increasing number of workers who continue to be on the move over longer distances than ever. The same can be said about the movement of goods and services by air, over land, and by water.


The key to addressing this demand would be an additional investment not so much in widening more roads and highways, but in improving connectivity. This means alleviating bottlenecks at busy road junctions, improving public transport and putting in place an integrated multi-modal transport system that can ensure sustainable mobility.

One good way to understand “sustainability” whether at the personal or policy level is this. Sustainability is about “using one’s income, not abusing capital, for one’s daily expense”. Hence, as defined by the Brundtland Commission, for any development to be sustainable, it must “meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”.

Additionally, sustainable development hinges on three pillars. It must be socio-environmentally acceptable, enviro-economically viable, and socio-economically equitable.

Transport sector worst culprit

gas pumps

The transport sector is the largest consumer of energy. The main sources of energy supply are crude oil, petroleum products and natural gas. As the largest consumer of fossil fuels, the transport sector doesn’t just pollute the air. It also accounts for the bulk of greenhouse gas emissions that cause global warming and climate change.

In Malaysia, for instance, this sector accounts for 40.5% of the total final commercial energy demand, about 661.3 Peta joules (PJ) in 2005, and  911.7 PJ by 2010 (Ninth Malaysia Plan, 2006-2010). The transport sector takes the lead over the industrial sector (38.6%), and the residential and commercial sector (13.1%).

The environmental problems caused by the transport sector are further compounded by heavy vehicular traffic and traffic congestion, particularly within city centres and along major roads leading towards city centres.  Studies by the Department of Environment, Malaysia, with the technical assistance of German GTZ, have shown that the degree of emission, or pollution, is doubled when the average speed of vehicles is reduced by one-half of the recommended cruising speeds. This means that when cars slow down, they emit and pollute more. These studies also point out the importance of maintaining smooth traffic flows and reducing traffic congestion and bottlenecks.

Loss of productivity

It is also obvious that traffic problems have caused massive losses in productivity not only at the individual level. These losses also have national significance as elaborated by Soo Ewe Jin in a 24 Aug 2009 article in The Star on the hidden cost of commuting to work.

A person commuting in Kuala Lumpur could easily use up at least two hours, as transport time, per working day. Over a year, he or she would have spent 52 days on the road, and thus, the loss of about 20% of one person-year in productivity.

Based on a Malaysian’s average income of RM26,000 per year, and for a working population of one million in the Klang Valley and its environ, the opportunity losses would amount to about one fifth of the total personal income of RM26 billion per year.

Responses thus far

There has been no lack of intentions and planning to overcome the problems relating to transportation and infrastructure in Malaysia.  As stated in the Ninth Malaysia Plan, “[m]easures will be implemented to improve multimodal public transport, particularly in urban areas, to reduce traffic congestion and air pollution” and “[p]ublic transport facilities and services will be graded and further integrated to encourage a modal shift from private vehicle usage to public transport.”

Graffiti of transport via bicycles and skateboards

Nonetheless, the planning of cities, townships and suburbs is equally crucial in preventing and minimising the impact of traffic congestion and urban air pollution. It would be ideal if city and urban dwellers have options of travelling between home and work, first by walking; second, by cycling or riding electric-motor-bikes; third, by public transport, and last, by private vehicles.

Ideally, a city could be designed into a compact grid system. Avenues, at 100 metres apart, say, running in a north-south direction, are planned for business, commerce and industries. Streets at 50 metre intervals, running perpendicular to the avenues in an east-west direction, for residences. Many cities in the US such as Washington, DC are indeed laid out in this way.

Additionally, all tall buildings should be connected with five-metre pedestrian walkways, in order to provide additional foot paths and thus, expanded space for business and shop lots. A city or township, with such a compact plan, would be a lively place to live in, and very convenient to work in. It would be efficient, productive, and the least costly for residents.

Speed will be everything

Connectivity is also a prerequisite to a city’s future expansion and sustainable growth. As more commuters need to cover more space or places within a short period of time, the provision of super-fast means of transportation, for instance by MagPlane on magnetic levitation, ought to be forthcoming in the next five-year Malaysia Plan.

Future property development should also treat the existing rail lines, for instance, not as backyards, but rather as front yards. Along these tracks, there would be ample space for the installation of solar photovoltaics, as the next major source of renewable energy. These would help brighten the prospects of the national economy, and provide a chance at achieving a sustainable future. favicon

Datuk Abu Bakar Jaafar is a mechanical engineer by profession, environmental scientist by specialisation, and maritime expert by current pre-occupation. He believes not many have spoken up enough for Mother Earth and for our common good and that it is high time to speak up again. He was director-general of the Department of Environment, Malaysia from 1990 to 1995.

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One Response to “Connectivity, mobility and sustainability”

  1. At present, [there is the] Waxman Markey Act, a new global warming bill that’s going through Congress. This act establishes a cap and trade system on carbon emissions, which some think will lead to a greener economy, more jobs, and cheaper energy bills. Others think it won’t amount to much — consumers will still need pay-day loans for their electricity bills, and energy companies will be pocketing cash as it creates another industry bubble, which will only lead to consumers having to pay more out of pocket and more government programs that will need taxpayer funding.

    A global warming bill of some kind was due eventually, but more people needing a cash advance for utilities isn’t a great idea.

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