By Marissa Dinar

The Hari Raya congestion is upon us as the day of the big celebration inches closer. Heck, we’ve accepted the fact that we might be stuck in the car for 6-12 hours if it means getting to spend the week with our loved ones. Still, we try to make the journey a little easier, getting up at the crack of dawn – going home a day or two earlier before the week’s break officially ends, or getting extra leave to stay a day or two more.

The urban planning folks at PLUS (Projek Lebuhraya Utara Selatan) have just released a statement announcing that from the 22nd of June 2017 to the 2nd of July 2017, the top-up lanes for your “Touch n’ Go” card will be closed. This is aimed to ease traffic flow and reduce congestion at toll stations.

Bold move, PLUS, bold move. But one can’t not imagine the various ways this could backfire, especially given that Hari Raya is the biggest festive occasion in Malaysia and more than half the population will probably be on the move. But before we get to that, let’s get down to knowing how exactly this tolling system works.

The Touch n’ Go system is designed to accommodate about 8000 vehicles per hour. Use that alongside the SmartTag system? You get accommodation of up to 12000 vehicles/hour. The average top up time can be estimated to be about 1-2 minutes (this depends on your operator, really). Lets say only one car out of every hundred needs to reload the TnG card, which comes up to about 4 hours of top up time in total.

Fair play, 4 hours can get you from here to Johor Bahru on a smooth road. PLUS, (pun intended) their management has reminded the public to reload their TnG cards before travelling this Raya. That’s preemptive, and obvious. They have also assured the public that the PLUS customer service centres will be open from 7am to 10pm should anyone need to topup.

BUT what PLUS has failed to realize is that they just cannot eradicate the human error factor from well, humans. So what if just ONE car gets stuck in the toll due to insufficient funds because he innocently forgot? Bear in mind that no cash tolling lanes are available with the switch to cashless transactions. What you’ll get is a massive traffic backlog leading all the way up to the affected toll as well as the others miles BEFORE you even reach the plaza areas.

And then what? He would have to return to the nearest top up station available which requires him to backtrack his car to the nearest R&R or petrol station…. And how exactly do you do that? Imagine that happening on an already jammed highway – wouldn’t that make for a highly unpleasant experience? I can already imagine the honks, dagger-stares, and the copious amounts of profanity being spewed in cars.

In order to highlight what this decision means for road consumers, I got into a conversation with Mishod bin Mahmud – a GrabCar driver, whilst on my way to work. When asked for his insight about the closure of Touch n Go topup lanes during the Raya season, he says :-

“Untuk personal, peribadi Uncle lah – bagi Uncle, secara peribadi – membebankan, menyusahkan pihak pengguna lebuh raya. Kita tidak hari-hari monitor ‘credit balance’ dalam kad TnG. Jika terlepas pandang? Kita nak topup, kaunter tambah nilai tidak ada. Kalau tepi jalan highway itu ada petrol pump, tidak apa kita boleh topup, sekiranya tidak ada? Jadi, kan menyusahkan” (sic)

Paraphrasing, he reiterates that personally, he feels that it would be a mistake to close up the top up lanes. Saying that not everyone monitors their card balances daily and that there is a chance of oversight, the decision burdens society as a whole. Evidently, road users share the similar concerns with regards to the closure.

 

Another aspect that should be accounted for are the costs bore by families themselves. As families make their way towards their hometowns for Raya, ensuring that they have sufficient funds in cards would equal to them reducing the amount of disposable income they have. Coupled with the costs of vehicle fuels and other logistical requirements :- this lightens their wallets a tad more. One can agree that Raya isn’t cheap to begin with, and this will take more away.

PLUS should approach the public with this if and only if all variables are accounted for. Convenience should be their main goal, and one of the ways that this move could be made simpler for the public is if that the information has been relayed effectively to reach all members of the public. As of now, the announcement has been made in print – but there is no guarantee that everybody read it. Perhaps if the information was consistently relayed from now till the 22nd of June – we could aim for 100% compliance come the Raya holidays.

Technically, there should also be better infrastructure provided to check Touch ’n’ Go balances. Presently, road users check the balances of their cards once they have REACHED the toll booth themselves. In this age of booming information technology – it takes nothing to develop an app that can be easily accessed through your smartphone, but even then it would still alienate those who do not own either mobile internet, or a smartphone itself.

Or – you could divert the reload lanes for TnG from the main toll lanes for the plaza. If the highway operators could form a frontline barrier for separating those who think they need to reload from the ones who know they have sufficient balances in their card – that would make for smoother, faster journeys. But of course, this would incur higher costs – translating into more cost to be shifted to the road user’s pockets.

Hence, I would say that the best way to prevent insufficient balances from making the congestion worse is to allow a Touch ’N’ Go card to reach a NEGATIVE balance of maybe, (-)RM40, hence still allowing the individual’s vehicle to pass through, without the need to leave the car in the midst of the plaza and clogging up the whole roadway. Not to mention, it could also act as an alarm system to the user. He or she would keep in mind that they would need to top up in order to compensate for the negative balance and for the next time they need to pass through the tolling plazas . Of course, it looks good on paper – but realistically, we don’t know how willing the big guns of the tolling operators would be to lose daily revenue that could earn up to tens of thousands of ringgit. Nonetheless if their main aim is to make the lives’ of people easier, then yes – I wholeheartedly think that it is a valid suggestion.

We can’t deny however, that should the human error factor be a non-variable, this move would definitely lead to a positive decrease in congestion. This could be a trial run for PLUS to see how road users’ respond to the closure of Touch N Go reload lanes this year- and more importantly,  to tabulate quantitative data. No initial implementation of policies is foolproof, so it’s more of risking an evil for the greater good kind of thing.

One final shoutout, to those commuting long distances for Raya, keep your cellphones in your pockets, eyes on the road, and hands on the wheel. Stay safe.