Discover more from Reece Martin
A big metro system with few riders?
Kuala Lumpur's RapidKL is intriguing, often more for what it lacks than what it possesses.
Kuala Lumpur probably has the biggest disparity between the size of its rail transit system and the amount it’s been discussed in the world. With the better part of 200 stations and well over 200 kilometres of rail, KL has a very respectable rapid transit network — it’s properly big!
And yet, you rarely hear about it, and perhaps more interestingly if you look at the ridership numbers — which are better measured in 100s of thousands a day rather than millions — one might wonder if the locals have heard of it either!
I’ll admit for a long time this confused me: why was such a big system seemingly ignored both by commentators and by locals, who were not getting on it in great numbers? The reality is that when you learn about any topic you tend to develop heuristics that map similarly to different things within that topic — these heuristics capture the “by-and-large”, but they also often miss local context by their very nature.
The usually applicable heuristics to large transit systems, particularly those with modern tech like automated trains and screen doors, indicate that such cities likely have a strong transit culture and a lot of very good planners (cities that widely use screen doors or have aggressively retrofitted them include Hong Kong, Singapore, and Paris — all obviously good transit cities!), both things are typically needed to politically justify a large transit system and actually create it. But, as Kuala Lumpur shows this is not always the case.
The truth is the world of transit has changed a lot, and the reality is that emerging or highly-wealthy locales don’t necessarily need a great local expertise in public transport to buy the latest and great in transit technology. It’s also become common for governments in much of the world to spend big on public transit seemingly just because it’s what the “great places” (the Hong Kong, Singapore, and Paris’ of the world) would do.
A friend brought up a great comparison to me with regard to KL that helped frame things — Dubai. Dubai has a metro and tram system that, while modest, is still far better than for example most American cities. But you wouldn’t necessarily expect it to get tons of use, and everyone pretty much knows Dubai has an impressively-equipped public transit system (the tram has screen doors) because they have the money to buy nice things!
A lot of the same things apply to Kuala Lumpur, although it’s obvious that there is a lot more real transit value in RapidKL and the other rail transit services in KL than in Dubai. (It’s also worth noting that despite neither being overwhelmingly dominated by it these days, both Malaysia and the UAE have historically been major oil producers — remember who the Petronas Towers are named for!)
Now, much like in Dubai, the transit system doesn’t move an enormous number of people because its creation and planning were not done out of necessity (which probably reduces the fit between actual transit travel demand and the system), and because the city doesn’t entirely have it’s rapid transit because of need — much of it is a want. What comes with this is that good land use is not inevitable (unlike some cities, very high continuous density did not necessarily force the creation of rapid transit) nor are a shortage of alternative transport options — which in KL mainly means cars.
These factors — a rapid transit system that is extensive but which is not really made necessary by strict restrictions on auto mobility or high-density — doesn’t mean zero ridership. What it does mean though is a system that gets far less riders than you’d expect based on heuristics derived from successful transit systems. Of course, when you don’t need the transit and you don’t have a lot of experience with it, you might make engineering and planning decisions that don’t exactly help transit use — like slow winding alignments.
So, the TLDR is that KL has a good seeming public transit system (one that is large by numbers and quite modern) because it built its system in the modern era, and did so at least in part as a statement about its values and aspirations.
Now, while this is obviously a bad state of affairs — and having a big highway and public transit system is deeply inefficient — I am not actually very negative on it! Looking at North American cities struggling to implement transit, I can’t help but feel that its a lot easier to fix things that can be managed in a decentralized way like land use and an excess of road capacity than to build rapid transit when you haven’t done a lot of that. Real world examples like LA seem unlikely to get good at building rapid transit anytime soon, but KL densifying around transit stations, clawing back road space, increasing tolls and congestion charges and more seems very doable.
Kuala Lumpur has the transit, and while it’s not always perfect, I think it can be the foundation of something very good with more density and supportive land use as well as more restrictions on cars.