Make Sarawak’s LRT inclusive and accessible

IT is such an exciting time for Sarawak where public transportation is concerned. First, there was the news about revamping stage bus services. Around the same time, Chief Minister Datuk Patinggi Abang Johari Tun Openg announced the development of an LRT system linking Kuching, Samarahan and Serian.

An efficient public transport system comprising trains, feeder and stage buses improves mobility of the people, increases business opportunities, and provides better access to employment. At the same time, it reduces traffic congestion and energy consumption, and consequently produces less pollution for a cleaner and healthier environment. Abang Johari’s recent push for the usage of electric-powered buses is certainly a step in the right direction.

Even though I am based in Kuala Lumpur, I am excited at the prospect of being able to move around conveniently in my wheelchair when the public transport system in Greater Kuching becomes fully operational. I relish the idea of being able to visit many more places of interests with ease and in comfort. I am sure my disabled peers feel the same way too.

The government should not miss the opportunity in doing it right the first time by making it fully accessible to everyone including disabled people, senior citizens, parents with prams and children. Building the infrastructure from the ground up makes it easy to incorporate these features at the conceptual stage.

There is no need to look far for best practices in rail services. Klang Valley has ample examples of what works and what doesn’t. Although the rail lines are generally declared as disability-friendly, small barriers that don’t normally affect non-disabled people can pose great challenges to disabled people.

Even the new Sungai Buloh-Kajang MRT line is not fully accessible. A height difference and a gap between platform and train at a number of stations make it impossible for wheelchair users to board and disembark independently and safely.

The casters of my wheelchair got wedged in the gap between platform and train while I was disembarking at the Sungai Buloh Station. Likewise, my front casters have fallen into such gaps a number of times when disembarking from the KLIA Transit at KL Sentral.

Those times when the accidents happened, I was nearly thrown off my wheelchair. If not for the quick reaction of fellow commuters who held me up and pulled my wheelchair out from the gap, I would have smacked my face against the floor of the platform. These are safety hazards that could cause serious bodily injuries and irreparable damage to the wheelchair.

An efficient and accessible public transport system is more than just the hardware like trains and stations. Human support to ensure people who need assistance to board and disembark must be made available. This is especially important in cases where height differences and gaps cannot be resolved. Station staff trained in assisting wheelchair users with portable ramps must be deployed for this purpose.

The most crucial aspect in developing a usable public transport system is to recognise the diversity of the ridership to ensure no one is left behind. That is why it is imperative for the owners, developers and operators of the public transport system in Sarawak to engage all stakeholders from the very beginning so that every need and precaution is taken into account.

All stations must have accessible features that include elevators, tactile guide paths, priority counters, wider ticket gates, audio and visual information system, and accessible toilets. These facilities make it safe and convenient for disabled people and everyone else.

As for the trains, designated coaches must be clearly marked to indicate they have priority seating for disabled people, senior citizens, pregnant women and parents with children. Dedicated wheelchair bays should be allocated as well to ensure disabled people riding the trains have sufficient space to manoeuvre and park safely.

From the perspective of a commuter in a wheelchair, not only the stations and trains have to be accessible. The connectivity from end to end must be seamless. This calls for regular feeder and stage buses to serve housing estates and commercial areas for easy connection to the stations.

Even more important is the first and last mile, from home to bus stop or station and vice versa. Walkways leading to bus stops and train stations must be safe for pedestrians and disabled people. Priority must be given to build and upgrade these paths. Otherwise, commuters will be stranded once they get out of the stations or can’t even get to the stations.

I have mentioned safety and accessibility in this article numerous times. It is because the current street environment in Kuala Lumpur is severely lacking in these features, causing great difficulty for disabled people who want to use public transport. There are interruptions and breakages in connectivity at various points. They make it almost an impossibility to use public transport here.

Feeder buses to the nearby MRT station have been plying the housing estate I am living in. I have problems boarding these buses because there are no proper walkways leading to the bus stop which is not built for the buses to deploy the ramp for boarding. Consequently, I have to drive to get to the MRT station. In the end, I prefer to drive all the way to my destination to eliminate the hassle of having to transfer in and out of the car so many times.

Sarawak has an excellent chance of showing how a fully inclusive and accessible public transport can be. This possibility should be capitalised on to catapult Kuching into becoming a city with world class infrastructure that is people friendly. As long as the development of the public transportation system is people-centric and people-focused, I am certain this can be accomplished.

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