I REMEMBER when I had my very first car, it was a banged-up second-hand seven-year old Opel Kadett 1100CC, and I had bought it with my first few months’ salary, with Mum and Dad having chipped in to top up the balance.
It was $1,200 and the year was 1970 – I urgently needed it for my first job at the Borneo Company and to qualify me for the generous petrol, or the so-called transport allowance.
It took just under five minutes every morning to get me from home to the then-Thomson Road BCL Kuching Head Office (now the site of the Kuching Hilton Hotel).
The cars belonging to the staff were probably less than 20 and there was a proper rear and side car parking spaces provided.
I reckon the car population was not that many then; by the time I had bought a new Vauxhall Viva in 1972, my licence plate was only KB 5235.
Today, on a good day it still takes five minutes to drive from home to Kuching Hilton, but during the peak hours (when the schools and offices break) I could be looking at four to five times that time lapse.
After all, progress had to arrive here too!
Today, every road junction in Kuching becomes more and more jammed as the traffic increases with the growth of population and the increase in the number of vehicles.
Did you know that Kuching had one of the highest car ownerships in Southeast Asia – almost as high as in the US? If you include motorbikes, it would be among the world’s highest.
The reasons for such high private ownership are threefold. There is virtually no public transport system, although the current state government under Premier Datuk Patinggi Tan Sri Abang Johari Tun Open has just launched the innovative hydrogen-powered Autonomous Rapid Transit (ART). We await with bated breath to see it succeed, or at least assist to lessen the load of private vehicles on the busier roads.
Secondly, car ownership comes very near the top for the average consumer after getting a job, getting married and owning a house, and the car companies and hire-purchase finance firms make it virtually as easy as just filling in a form and sign on the dotted lines to get relatively low-interest rates for reasonably-priced lower-end cars and bikes for lengthy repayment periods.
The price of petrol, being heavily subsidised, is very cheap and is among the lowest in the region, affording almost everyone to own and maintain a car.
Therefore it would be safe to say that the number of cars and motorbikes will only increase with the passing years, and we will have to ensure that all the bottlenecks and issues of jams at certain busier-than-usual junctions are speedily and efficiently taken care of – right now!
Firstly, I must take my hat off and say a big kudos to all those involved in resolving most of the heavy traffic jams along the Kuching-Kota Samarahan highway. This has been slowly, but now almost completed for that awful stretch between the city centre and destinations like Universiti Malaysia Sarawak (Unimas), Sarawak Heart Centre and Kota Samarahan Township.
When the Sarawak Heart Centre started its operation in January 2011, the traffic flow between there and the city centre was around 20 to 30 minutes depending on the time of day and where you originated your trip. In between these two centres were three huge roundabouts, which had become congested and traffic nightmares that had involved, sometimes, up to 45 minutes just to navigate through just a single one!
In the last three months, we have seen at least two of these roundabouts turned into traffic light junctions, and the current traffic has been once again eased out to a more reasonable 20 to 30 minutes journey from city to Sarawak Heart Centre. It has taken a few years to get there, but here at least we have a success story.
The other major hassle with bad traffic jams still occurs on a daily basis just as you cross the Satok Bridge from Kuching city centre to Petra Jaya and beyond.
Traffic was really horrendous for a very long time till June 8, 2018 – the date when the Kipali Underpass at Petra Jaya was completed.
The project was the first of its kind in Sarawak whereby a multi-level shallow underpass was constructed beneath an existing roundabout at Petra Jaya.
According to the website of its contractors Jurutera Jasa (Sarawak) Sdn Bhd, it says: “The project cost was RM65 million and was implemented using a design-and-build contract – construction had started on Nov 26, 2015 and finished on June 8, 2018. The shallow underpass has a vehicle clearance of 2.5m and is only for vehicles with height less than 2.2m. All other vehicles higher than this would have to use the existing roundabout. The interchange utilises four drainage water pumps to drain out water from the lowest part of the interchange.”
In June 2018 at its commissioning, the senior engineer then had made this prophetic comment: “There will be downstream effects – I anticipate that the next junctions along the route will eventually get jammed as well.”
Five years later, this has actually come to pass!
Now it’s the so-called ‘DBKU Roundabout’ (its proper name being Bulatan Datuk Menteri Abang Haji Mohammad Zin bin Haji Salleh) – jams very badly and is in dire need of the same solution – an underpass.
A ‘retired architect’ friend of mine has put it this way: “The biggest problem with roundabouts is that the main traffic flow has to give way to the minor traffic flow at the roundabout. This causes delays for the mainstream, which should have right of way.
“Underpasses on the main route solve this problem. Cars only underpasses cost only 20 per cent of the cost of deep underpasses or flyovers like that at Simpang Tiga.”
Road engineers have, in fact, come up with a draft drawing of how it would actually look like, as shown by the image accompanying this article.
A simple straight-through underpass should suffice at this time – the construction is simple and the cost is less; it would actually cost the same as traffic lights.
Disruption can be almost zero because all the work takes place away from the existing roads, where the land is just grass right now.
How about traffic lights, you may ask?
The problem with traffic lights is that they tend to delay progress when the main route is underused, especially at off-peak periods. Even the very best traffic flow detection system still cannot deal with a few cars in every direction.
The straight-through underpass is still better for cars because it would always be ‘green’ throughout.
It would seem that our politicians and those in the corridors of power are fully aware of the benefits of such shallow underpasses. I understand that just five months ago, an actual request was made for one and it had received a very positive response.
Tupong assemblyman Fazzrudin Abdul Rahman had this to say: “A second underpass in Petra Jaya should be considered, especially in Matang Jaya to ease the traffic congestion.”
I must also mention here that with the opening and commissioning of the number of flyovers and new traffic junctions along the Kuching-Serian highway, I have noticed that traffic flow has been somewhat eased in recent months and weeks. Certainly with peak hours and if these are coupled with rainfall and God-forbid that there is an accident along the stretch, we would still encounter the occasional nightmare jams that could last up to hours.
There is something that needs to be said and act as a reminder to all of us who make use of our roads daily and who will continue to face numerous occasions when traffic jams and bottlenecks are bound to happen, again and again – we all need to be reasonable, calm, courteous and polite road users.
Whenever and wherever you can, give way to those who are either stuck in a long queue trying to get onto the mainstream main road; do not cut across lanes; do not hog the outer lanes if you are not overtaking; do not use your honk unless it is for a real emergency; obey all the traffic laws and unwritten human courtesy of kindness; and most important of all, show patience and do not lose your cool even under very trying circumstances.
My two pet peeves with some recalcitrant drivers along our roads here have to be their bad habits of indiscriminate parking at places not meant for parking as well as blocking others; and the sight of those within moving vehicles who use the roadsides and thoroughfares as their litter bins, simply throwing cigarette butts and other rubbish out of their car windows!
As a humane society and as we continue to gain the respect of all those who compliment and praise us for our lovely and clean city, one that is very conducive to settling down in due to its harmonious and friendly people and its safety, peace and the beauty of its ‘big city but small town’ ambiance, let us as a community set out to rectify the bad habits and to be worthy of all these accolades.
Meanwhile may I wish you all happy and pleasant hassle-free driving – and please stay safe on the roads! Obey the speedy limits and never drive when you drink!