What is the point of spending tens of billions of ringgit on light rail transit, mass rapid transit and KTM Komuter lines – and to a lesser extent the Rapid Bus fleets – when the missing piece of the jigsaw, first and last-mile connectivity, remains unresolved?
We will need top-down and bottom-up approaches, including political will, to resolve this issue. In view of the upcoming general election, we need a mobility and public transport manifesto as a much-needed guideline to overcome this problem.
To discover some solutions, I took part in a recent Malaysian Urban Forum Roundtable with the catchy title “First and Last Mile Connectivity, A Continuous Challenge”.
For a start, let’s define the terms:
- First mile – the journey between a commuter’s gate or guardhouse to the nearest bus stop or train station
- Last mile – the journey between the commuter’s last bus stop or train station to the gate, guardhouse or lobby of his or her final destination
Hence, the first and last-mile connectivity challenge.
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To find solutions, we will first need to talk to commuters. Luckily, an expert shared with me the result of a Malaysian survey: “Walking less than 400 metres is bearable in open space and walking up to 800m is also fine, if shaded by trees or roof. If it involves more than 800m, a bicycle, even a Grab car or even a micromobility device will at least be required.”
Micromobility devices are small vehicles that can navigate highly populated urban areas for short trips of only a few miles and travel at low speeds. These vehicles do not rely on internal combustion engines; many are powered by electric motors. Like bicycles, wheelchairs and prams, they need clear seamless pathways to travel on.
Given that walking more than 400m is often unbearable, especially in the heat or rain, several innovative ‘technopreneurs’ have introduced possible options to improve first and last-mile connectivity.
Of course, we have had more reliable and sustainable modes – a pair of legs (also known as bus no. 11 in the local slang!) and the boring low-cost bicycle, a century-old invention. But in recent times, fun and fancy modes, including micromobility devices, have been cleverly introduced.
Unfortunately, all these modes of first and last-mile connectivity are unable to fly: they will need to travel along seamless pathways. If you are lucky, you might be able to walk on safe shaded walkways, which are common in cities like Singapore.
But in Kuala Lumpur, pedestrians get challenged by five-foot ways that are often blocked and by stone and mud tracks, for which they need to wear boots or stronger shoes. Often, they may end walking or skirting along the edge of the road, fearful of uncaring motorists.
We also need to consider wheelchair and pram users and the needs of the elderly. They often have to negotiate high kerbs, dangerous grills, missing drain covers, uprooted concrete slabs, overhead bridges and non-functioning lifts.
So what are the sustainable solutions to improve first and last-mile connectivity and the pathways that people use?
There are top-down and bottom-up approaches.
In the top-down approach, urban planners and architects are calling for more detailed town planning with more bite.
This will include mandatory regulations (similar to uniform building bylaws for first and last-mile connectivity) to enable struggling local councils to impose requirements for much-needed first and last-mile pathways in new development projects and rejuvenation projects.
Such requirements will empower thoughtful designers who have experienced the hardship of poor last-mile connectivity. They are likely to come up with holistic designs and will also be able to supervise correct execution.
Tighter regulations will strengthen enforcement to remove obstructions and obstacles along the pathways. There is no point in having conducive pedestrian walkways, which are then blocked by cars, motorbikes, stalls, tables, chairs and e-scooters.
To increase public transport usage, we need to look wider than just the operators, eg Prasarana.
In Singapore, the Land Transport Authority plans, coordinates and supervises operators, local councils, car use and tolls.
We need to empower users in a bottom-up approach. Who is responsible in Malaysia for such an approach? Is there a one-stop centre for users to provide feedback? In most cases, the one-stop centre is their prospective or current state assembly member and MP.
The Penang Transport Users Association (PeTUA) has a survey for bus users to rate their bus journey. The public can provide feedback using this online form.
Such online feedback can provide valuable insights. The results will highlight areas for improvement, such as first and last-mile walkways, bus shelters, frequency of buses, passenger comfort and travel times.
Another way would be for residents from the same area to come together and ask their existing or prospective state assembly member and MP to prioritise the improvements required as part of their manifesto, irrespective of which party or coalition they belong to. Tell them this will be part of the criteria they will use when voting in the upcoming general election and when evaluating them annually for future elections.
Thanks to all the participants at the forum roundtable for their input and the moderators for keeping the solutions simple yet sustainable.
At present, much of our first and last-mile connectivity is broken and needs considerable improvement before the various public transport systems can see more effective utilisation.
So, let us empower the users to provide important bottom-up feedback for planners and designers (so that they can come up with more holistic first and last-mile solutions) and to insist on the political will to complete the jigsaw.