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Saturday, June 4, 2011

Beating traffic congestion

Driving in Kuala Lumpur during rush hour, when people are going to office or going home, one cannot help noticing that the number of cars heading in one direction is matched by the number of cars heading in the opposite direction. People seem to live at one end of the city and work at the other end. The amount of petrol consumed and the number of hours wasted must be phenomenal. How does this come about? Is there a solution?

Improvement of public transportation could reduce the number of cars on the road but the new cars registered every year seem to cancel out the reduction. Restriction of cars from certain parts of the city by imposing a fee for entry during peak hours has been considered and abandoned. These solutions do not seem to work in Kuala Lumpur. Taking taxis is not a pleasant experience because taxis are often old and dirty and the drivers seem to be a grumpy and choosy lot. They avoid certain destinations at certain times of the day, which are usually the very destinations that you need to get to in a hurry.

Actually somebody, whom I will call CK, has found an interesting solution to the problem. CK was a manager in a large foreign manufacturing company and the division under him was famous for the loyalty of its staff. The staff turnover rate in his division was the lowest in the company. There was no need to keep retraining new staff and there were hardly any disruption due to staff quitting.

What was his secret? It was not something you will find in any management book. When he recruited, he selected only people who lived in other towns, not in KL. When they came to KL to work, they would be in a totally new environment and would have to look for accommodation. Naturally they would look for accommodation close to their place of employment, preferably within walking distance. In time, they would get married and buy a house in the same area. Then their children would go to school in the same area. They would be less likely to change jobs and move away.

If your enterprise is located in Cheras and you hire somebody from Kepong, at the opposite end of town, you will create an unhappy commuter who has reason to quit upon getting the first alternative offer.

I saw a somewhat similar principle applied in Singapore when I visited the Marina Bay Sands project while it was still under development. This was a megaproject employing thousands of foreign workers, who would have caused great social disruption in Singapore had they been obliged to find accommodation all over the city. The employers were obliged to house all the workers in quarters nearby so they could walk to work. Food was provided in large comfortable canteens within the project areas. I was told this was the norm in all big projects in Singapore. In this way there is minimal human congestion caused by megaprojects.

Another innovative way to reduce traffic congestion has been tried out in Santiago, Chile and Beijing, China. This was to allow cars with odd-numbered plates and those with even-numbered plates to drive on alternate days. In theory, this should halve the number of cars on the road. But in Santiago, everybody began to keep two cars, one with odd-numbered plate and the other with even-numbered plate. The car population doubled and congestion got worse. The same idea was applied in Beijing during the period of the Olympic Games, and it worked better. The time period was too short for people to consider getting two cars.

In Bangkok, they have motorbike taxis and it has become a common sight for executives in coats and ties to ride pillion in order to get to their meetings on time.

In the Philippines in the 1970s, they gave up getting to meetings on time. The first time I attended a seminar in Los Banos, which is an hour's drive from Manila, I turned up early and thought I had made a mistake about the date and time. Then a few locals turned up. Slowly, the hall filled up. Students came first, then junior academics and junior civil servants, then professors and senior civil servants. Finally, the minister who was to perform the opening ceremony arrived, two hours late. He started his speech with a joking apology, blaming the traffic in Manila for the delay. However, the participants seemed to have timed their arrival very accurately according to their social rank. It looked like a well-practiced pecking-order display, in which everybody knew when to arrive except the foreign participants.

That display, involving about 200 people, would have wasted 600 man-hours. If every minister and provincial governor repeated this every working day, the effect on national productivity would have been calamitous. This was during the early days of Asean, when President Fidel Marcos ruled by decree and the Philippines prided itself as the most advanced country in Southeast Asia. Makati district in Manila had the most modern shopping malls in the region. The streets were filled with big American limousines.

Unknown to us, the country was already beginning its decline to the bottom. The proliferation of time-wasting habits may have been a major cause.

Botanist and researcher Francis Ng is the former deputy director-general of the Forest Research Institute of Malaysia. He is now the botanical consultant to Bandar Utama City Centre Sdn Bhd and the Sarawak Biodiversity Centre.

By The Star (by Francis Ng)

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