Training My Sights On The Penang Monorail

Tokyo Tama Intercity Monorail - Manganji Station
Tokyo Tama Intercity Monorail – Manganji Station

The announcement that the Cabinet has agreed to build a second bridge linking Penang to the mainland and a monorail system for the island is cause for celebration. I am most interested in the monorail. It is a good alternative to other modes of public transportation, namely the public bus that is in shambles, and the cut-throat taxi service that many cannot afford.

Since the monorail project is still in its preliminary planning stages, I would love to know if there are provisions to include accessible features like ramps, elevators and toilets. There should not even be a need for disabled persons to put in a request for such facilities. The concessionaires together with the relevant government ministries should and must make this monorail line as convenient as possible to everyone who will be using it.

It should not reach a stage where disabled persons need to resort to staging protests and demonstrations for accessible facilities like what happened to the Star-LRT in 1994. When it was built, the line did not incorporate those facilities. To add insult to injury, the management came out with a less than satisfactory statement.

“It all started off with Star-LRT executive director making a public announcement that they are not going to take disabled passengers,” Christine Lee recounted to me. She is the coordinator of a coalition of NGOs that organised a protest after the release of that statement. “The reasons cited was that disabled persons pose dangers to others during emergencies.”

Talk about frogs in a coconut shell. Regrettably, disabled persons still cannot ride on the Star-LRT line. It is now renamed the Ampang & Sri Petaling Line. Likewise, the government did not compel the developer of the KL Monorail to incorporate accessible facilities into the stations. Putra-LRT, now known as the Kelana Jaya Line, is the only city rail transit that has ramps and elevators at its stations.

These exclusions are most tragic. Disabled persons, the elderly and pregnant women who cannot go up the numerous flights of steps have no choice but are forced to use others modes of transport. The government should take heed the serious omissions by Star-LRT and KL Monorail. As a comparison, the Tokyo Tama Intercity Monorail that I had to take every evening when I was in Tokyo was as accessible as it could be. Even if I had to travel alone, I could have managed without a problem around the stations. The only hitch was the difference in height between the platforms and the trains. Nevetheless, the driver was more than willing to assist when needed.

We should also learn from our two immediate neighbours with regards to accessible facilities of rail systems. The Singapore MRT and the Bangkok Skytrain had to add elevators after the completion of the respective lines. It would have been more cost efficient had it been built into the original structure. Still, not all the stations are accessible. To their credit, they are adding elevators in stages to solve the issue. Are Star-LRT and KL Monorail planning to make their stations accessible anytime soon? Your guess is a good as mine.

Therefore, it is imperative that the Penang Monorail is barrier-free from Day One. It is not only the stations and trains that must bear such friendly designs. Walkways, kerb ramps and pedestrian crossings must be built in the areas surrounding the stations. Non-step low-floor feeder buses should be acquired and put into service to make it a system that is totally barrier-free.

It would be great if accessible designs are integrated at the conceptual stages without promptings. However, knowing how things work in Malaysia, pressure will be needed to ensure that whatever that is needed is in place and properly constructed. The government, the concessionaire and NGOs should work together in a win-win situation for everyone involved. After all, this project is for the benefit of all. As stakeholders and Penangites, we should have a say in it, too.

Kuala Lumpur – City Of Barriers

During the last accessible toilet debacle, some have rightly pointed out that they do not see disabled people using those toilets or in public places very often. That I have to agree. The reason why people with disabilities, especially wheelchair users, are not often seen in public places can be attributed to one main factor – lack of accessibility.

Non-step bus in Hachioji City.

When I was in Hachioji and Shinjuku, I met many wheelchair users going about in both cities. A majority of them are severely disabled, using electric wheelchairs and accompanied by a Personal Assistant. Yet, they were able to travel with ease. This is because Tokyo is very barrier-free and has an accessible public transport system.

Busy intersection in Hachioji City.

Walkways are fully accessible. The gradient at the end of each walkway is gentle. Road junctions have traffic lights for pedestrians. I have not seen a traffic light with arrows as is very common here in Malaysia. When the light is green, traffic is allowed to turn left or right. If there is a pedestrian crossing the road, they have the right of way. The traffic will stop for the pedestrian. At night, drivers turn down their headlights when we crossed the road.

Station Master of Japan Railway with the portable ramp.

The trains and stations are fully accessible, almost. Wheelchair users with train tickets have to pass through a lane beside the Station Master’s office to inform them of the destination. The Station Master will inform the arrival station and accompany the wheelchair user to the platform. The platform and the train is not level. The Station Master will put on a portable ramp for access into the train.

Getting into a non-step bus on a wheelchair at Shinjuku.

The public buses are fully accessible as far as I can see. They are called non-step buses. There are no steps leading into the buses. The height of the bus is almost level to the walkway and can be elevated or lowered hydraulically. They come with a ramp that can be manually pulled out from under the bus and extended. The three of us managed to squeeze into the bus without much trouble.

Outside the Masjid Jamek STAR LRT Station.

The day after I got back from Tokyo, Wuan and I went for a wheelabout beginning from the Masjid Jamek Star LRT Station to Dataran Merdeka. The roads and walkways were uneven and access to walkways was near impossible because the kerbs were too high. Where there were ramps to the walkways, the gradients were mostly too steep. For a manual wheelchair user, going through these badly thought-out design was like going through an obstacle course.

Pedestrain crossing at Jalan Tun Perak.

There is a pedestrian crossing from the Masjid Jamek Star LRT Station to the Putra LRT Station at Jalan Tun Perak. Again, it was near impossible for a wheelchair user to cross the road. The kerbs were simply too high. Even with Wuan helping me, it was a daunting task to lift my wheelchair up and down the kerbs so many times. Dewan Bandaraya Kuala Lumpur (DBKL) building glared down at us from the distance.

The narrow walkway with no ramp down at the other end.

One of my two main concerns during that wheelabout was going up on a walkway and then discovering that the other end was devoid of a ramp to get off. True enough, at the junction, Wuan, for the umpteenth time, had to lift my wheelchair down the road. We had to be aware of the fast moving traffic speeding by just inches away while doing that. That was part of my second concern – the fear of being knocked down by a vehicle.

Dataran Merdeka.

We finally reached Dataran Merdeka. I have never been there before. The sun was bearing down on us mercilessly. I was getting dizzy. My body was protesting against the extreme change of weather – from freezing cold the day before to the blistering equatorial heat. As I looked at the magnificient flag flapping in the wind, I thought how ironical it was that I felt unsafe in my own country each time I am out. One of these days, I may just get knocked down by a car or bus for using the road instead of the walkways. Do I have a choice anyway?

Were these ramps built with wheelchair users in mind?

Those are the few of many reasons why we do not see wheelchair users out and about. Accessible public transport is practically non-existent. Walkways and roads were constructed with no consideration for wheelchair users. Barrier-free facilities like these do not benefit wheelchair users only. With a rapidly aging population, we have to accept that age, disease and accidents will render this segment of people with mobility problems. They will greatly gain from an accessible environment and public transport, among others. From the looks of it, we still have a long way to go before ours become a barrier-free society for the mobility impaired.

Heartless In The City

The Star - January 8, 2006
The Star – January 8, 2006

The headlines in today’s The Star screamed “Heartless In The City.” Chief Reporter M. Krishnamoorthy, spent one day on a wheelchair, trying to hail taxis in various part of Kuala Lumpur.

The article was sparked off by a letter from a reader in Penang. It was a heart-wrenching account of how difficult it was for him, who is *wheelchair-bound (sic), to get a taxi to stop.

This is what The Star’s M. Krishnamoorthy together with journalism trainee Vincent Tan and photographer Low Lay Phon discovered when Krishnamorthy posing as disabled person on a wheelchair tried to hail taxis at Kl Sentral, Bukit Bintang, Kota Raya and Salak South:

Only one in 12 taxis that I tried to flag down stopped for someone in a wheelchair. The others just drove by.

All in all, I tried to flag down almost 60 taxis. Only five taxi drivers stopped to ask where I wanted to go.

Of the five, two tried to swindle me.

This is all very true. There are taxi drivers who discriminate and there are the devious few who make the other honest and hardworking cabbies look bad. If in Kuala Lumpur, where there are thousands of taxis plying the roads, getting a taxi is such a big problem, imagine how it would be like for wheelchair users in other parts of the country to move around where there are less taxis.

Ahmad Yahaya, A. Raj and Wong Kam Sang are proof that not all taxi drivers are heartless. They are the few who have no qualms in picking up passengers using wheelchairs. Ahmad’s words were especially heart-warming:

“I always stop and pick up disabled people because they are special people.

In fact, I make it a point to look out for the disabled because I am fortunate to be able to walk and drive a taxi.

Therefore, it is my duty to take anyone who wants to ride in my taxi.

When I see a disabled person, I am thankful and grateful to serve that person.

I can take you anywhere you want to go, and even buy the coupon for you from the counter.”

In Penang, do not expect the taxi drivers to use the meters. Do not even attempt to hop into one before asking about the fare. They usually charge RM10 for short distances. Ask them to use the meter and expect to get dirty looks and nasty replies. Other modes of public transportation are in shambles, as admitted by Chief Minister Tan Sri Dr. Koh Tsu Khoon. Imagine how difficult it is for a disabled person in Penang to go out. This is reflected by Yeap Chin Chunya, a web designer, and Tan Kuan Aw, Deputy President of the Society of Disabled Persons Penang in the same report. Both are the few advocating accessibility and transportation for people with disabilities in Penang.

At the moment, there is only one group in the Klang Valley catering to the transportation needs of people with disabilities. Mobiliti, an association based in Petaling Jaya, charges RM3 per trip for their door-to-door transport service. They have three vans fitted with hydraulic lifts and wheelchair restraint systems. One van can usually accomodate three wheelchairs. Reservation is usually needed as the service is fully booked many days in advance.

Other organisations and institutions serving people with disabilities have lift-equipped vans or buses. However these vehicles are limited to the use of their own members or inmates only and are not open to the public. Unless the government takes the initiative to draw up a public transportation masterplan that includes the needs of people with disabilities, this problem will go on and prevent many in the disabled community from becoming contributing members of society and lead meaningful lives.

Related entry:
Ikea, Ikano Power Centre and The Curve

The following are todays articles from The Star.

Disabled, ignored and exploited

WHEN our local taxi drivers see a disabled person trying to flag them down, more often than not, they turn a blind eye.

“If you are a disabled person, chances are you will go unnoticed in Kuala Lumpur”, is what the disabled have been telling the media and friends.

We put this to the test to gauge whether cabbies are sensitive to the needs of the disabled.

I went undercover in a wheelchair around the city for four hours. And I found out … Yes! Taxi drivers pretend that a disabled person in a wheelchair does not exist. They look the other way.

Only one in 12 taxis that I tried to flag down stopped for someone in a wheelchair. The others just drove by.

All in all, I tried to flag down almost 60 taxis. Only five taxi drivers stopped to ask where I wanted to go.

Of the five, two tried to swindle me.

“If I take you to Kajang, I will have to return empty. So I have to charge you both ways. One way is RM30, so the fare is RM60,” said one.

Another cabbie at the Bintang Walk, stopped and ogled at a foreign tourist and boasted that he had made love to almost all nationalities who were his passengers in the past 12 years.

He went on for 10 minutes and then parted with a word of caution: “Tell all your friends not to let their daughters marry a taxi driver.”

My undercover work started at 10am when The Star van dropped me off at the Hilton Hotel car park, and I tried to wheel myself across to the taxi stand at KL Sentral.

A policeman who saw me struggling rushed over and helped me across the road dividers.

There were about 10 taxis waiting in single file for passengers. I tried to hail them but they ignored me.

Of the 23 taxis I tried to stop at KL Sentral, only two stopped to ask where I wanted to go.

Ahmad Yahaya, 43, said he was willing to take me to Kajang.

“If you wait here, I will go and get you a coupon and I can take you to Kajang.”

“Can my wheelchair fit in your taxi?” I asked him, and he said, “No problem. I have taken wheelchair-bound passengers before.

“It is my duty to take anyone who wants to go in a taxi. Thank you for stopping me and asking me to give you a ride,” he said.

Ahmad was a helpful taxi driver and I could see his enthusiasm in wanting to help a disabled person.

In contrast, the majority of taxi drivers ignored the disabled. Many of them pretended to talk on the mobile phone, covered their face behind a newspaper or just ignored me and drove away.

My next stop was the Kota Raya bus stand.

Just like the taxi drivers at KL Sentral, the cabbies here did not look at me.

However, one taxi driver responded.

As he walked towards me, he asked me: “Where do you want to go?”

I said: “Rawang”.

“Okay! But it will cost you double.”

I asked him why and his reply was the same as the earlier taxi driver.

After lunch, I sat patiently by the main road next to the Salak South post office and of the nine taxis I tried to stop, only one did.

The driver, Wong Kam Sang, 67, was prepared to take me. But because I was supposedly heading to Rawang, he apologised for not being able to do so as he had a prior appointment in 20 minutes.

I told him I understood and appreciated the fact that he cared enough to stop.

The rain came soon after and it was time to call it a day.

Despite the bleak conclusion about how heartless the city is with regard to the transport needs of the disabled, I saw a ray of hope in people like Wong and Ahmad.

Reliant on regular cabby

PENANG: Wheelchair-bound Yeap Chin Chunya only leaves his apartment in Jalan Bagan Jermal a few times a month because of difficulty using public transport.

When he does need to go out, Yeap, 42, will call his regular taxi driver, Ah Guan, or a taxi company named Ticcom Agency.

“Many cabbies won’t take people in wheelchairs because they don’t know how to handle us and are afraid of us.

“When I call a taxi company, I must first let them know my condition as I will need to be carried into the taxi. It is up to them whether to take me,” said Yeap, a web designer for the Society for Disabled Persons Penang.

Society for Disabled Persons Penang deputy president Tan Kuan Aw, 52, said although there are taxi drivers who are helpful to the disabled, it was still expensive for the disabled to depend on taxis all the time.

“Buses in Penang are unsuitable for the wheelchair-bound. It is unthinkable to even try (using them),” said Tan.

Access a big problem

PETALING JAYA: The biggest problem disabled Malaysians face more than anything else is accessibility to public transportation.

“That is the one reason why disabled Malaysians are mostly jobless,” said Anthony Thanasayan (pictured here with his guide dog, Soolam), an advocate for the disabled who writes the weekly column Wheel Power in The Star.

“Even when a kind soul out there is willing to offer a disabled person a job, there is just no way for him to get there in time or even get there at all,” he added.

Public transport facilities like the LRT are disabled-friendly but getting to the various stations still require, in most cases, a taxi.

“Even if one does stop, the driver will try to take advantage of the situation because they know just how vulnerable we are,” he said.