Kuala Lumpur is a gem among rocks. Southeast Asia’s major cities are notoriously huge, polluted, and clogged with traffic. Manila, Jakarta and Bangkok have massive traffic jams and millions of people. Their public transportation systems are insufficient, inefficient and relatively old (with the exception of Bangkok, which by all accounts has made huge improvements over the past 10 years). In December 2013, I had the pleasure of taking one of Manila’s three metro trains in the morning rush. It was jam packed with bad air-conditioning and a bumpy ride. Horrible.
KL is different. While many KL-ites think that they are the worst drivers on the planet and the jams are the end of the world (and they can be bad), they aren’t on the scale of the other Southeast Asian megacities. KL’s air is rarely as smoggy as Jakarta or Manila on a daily basis. There are fewer trucks and buses spewing clouds of black exhaust into the air.
When I was living in Kota Kinabalu, I made frequent visits to KL and got to know the public transport system and taxi system pretty well. Kuala Lumpur has 4 rail lines, a couple of bus companies, and taxis. Together they form a good network for getting around the city without owning a car. But still, cars are the dominant transport mode in KL. That is likely because the dense network of rail and busses lack a certain something – comfort, convenience, integration, and frequency.
Lets start with the trains. KL has 2 existing light rail lines (LRT), a main train line (KTM) and a monorail line. The KTM is part of the train network that runs the length of the Peninsula. When I stayed at the Cititel in Midvalley Megamall, I would occasionally use the KTM to travel the 1 stop to KL Sentral to transfer to an LRT. Unfortunately, that 1 stop on the KTM would often take 30 – 40 minutes because the trains are infrequent and often stop along the tracks.
The monorail is very modern and runs right through the heart of KL. But it was built completely separate from the other lines and the cars are very small and have a terrible design that minimizes the number of people who can board. Outside of rush hour, it’s an okay option. At rush hour – forget it. However, they are working on integrating the monorail with the LRT lines. Kudos.
Until recently, there was no connectivity between the two light rail train lines. In 2008, I used the Kelana Jaya line to commute for 6 months. I was lucky to be reverse-commuting, but it was still usually a pretty awful experience. The trains usually had only two cars and came approximately every 6 minutes. Compared with metro trains in Singapore and Hong Kong where the trains have more than 10 cars and come every 2 – 3 minutes. The result was overcrowded trains and a system that would totally collapse when a train had a problem. I am happy to see that, in 2013, the trains have become longer and more frequent. The few times I have used them in rush hour they have been bearable. And, they are building new lines and extending existing lines. Kudos.
That leaves taxis. Taxis in KL have a terrible reputation CLICK HERE. They are known to fleece passengers, not take people to certain destinations, not use their meters, and in the worst cases – to attack lone women passengers. I have experienced much of their horribleness and had a few run ins with them. When you approach a taxi stand and see a group of drivers lounging around together, you know that they are going to try to fleece you – give you an inflated price without using the meter. When you challenge them on it, they can get aggressive. This happens in particular places – notably all over Bukit Bintang, 1 Utama New Wing, Kelana Jaya LRT station are a few I know.
But, I have had many more pleasant experiences with taxi drivers. Without any empirical evidence, I contend that 75% of KL’s taxi drivers are honest and most are pretty nice. And they are dismayed at the behavior of their crooked colleagues. And things could be changing for the better – the smartphone app MyTeksi helps passengers find a cab without having to approach the guys huddling together at the taxi stand. And the authorities are talking about doing more. Lets see if they actually do anything.