Don’t feed the road monster, expert tells Penang on highway projects

Traffic congestion on the Penang bridge is a daily affair. (Bernama pic)

GEORGE TOWN: A transport expert says the government should not feed the insatiable appetite of Malaysians addicted to cars by building more roads.

Ahmad Hilmy Abdul Hamid.

Instead, Universiti Sains Malaysia’s transport systems associate professor Ahmad Hilmy Abdul Hamid said there should be a plan to encourage the public to use public transport on a daily basis.

And the best way to get more people to use public transport is by depriving them of traffic-free roads.

Hilmy said as roads become more congested with more people using their own vehicles, they take other available routes. Over time, these alternate routes too become congested, forcing people to opt for the next best thing: public transport.

He said such logic was behind congestion surcharges imposed in big cities around the world, so that people will use public transport.

“By building more roads you feed the road monsters. You are only worsening the problem. It is a perpetual cycle and not sustainable in the long run.”

He said in Penang, the planners appeared to have gone in the opposite direction, resorting to mega highways which would eventually be congested.

As such, Hilmy said the state’s plan to build the six-lane Pan Island Link 1 (PIL 1) highway, as well as a light rail transit (LRT) line, would be an exercise in futility.

The proposed Pan Island Link 1. (Pic PTMP)

He said the 19.5km PIL 1 was aligned in a north-south direction, almost similar to the proposed 30km, 27-stop Komtar-Bayan Lepas LRT line.

He said it was a waste of money as the LRT would be a loss-making venture because people would opt for taking the highway in their own cars, a reflection of Penang’s record-low public transport use at 5%.

“Imagine someone from Tanjung Bungah who wants to get to the airport in Bayan Lepas. The only logical choice is to take the PIL 1 highway, which takes 15 minutes. You do not need to lug your bags to the LRT station in Komtar which is another 20 minutes away,” he told FMT recently.

Hilmy said since the state government was willing to spend RM8 billion on the LRT and RM8.4 billion on PIL 1, it could also afford to spend on cheaper public transport.

He warned that Penang’s population was not enough to sustain the LRT in the long run, and agreed with calls for small systems such as Bus Rapid Transit (BRT), trams, or the Autonomous Rail Rapid Transit (ART) that was recently introduced in China.

A system like ART or BRT, he said, could serve the population at least in the next two decades at very low costs.

The proposed route of the LRT line within Penang island. (Pic PTMP)

For Hilmy, ART, a hybrid between a tram and a bus running on rubberised wheels, is the perfect solution.

It costs about RM8 million, can run on existing roads and can cut through traffic lights, he said.

“Why not try it out, give it a trial run. It’s so cheap compared to what you are trying to do now,” he said.

He rejected the argument that the state could end up spending more to upgrade to a larger transit system such as the LRT when the ART could no longer cope with the growing population.

Hilmy said train sets would only get cheaper due to China’s efficiency in manufacturing.

He said this would allow Penang to invest in more trams or ARTs to keep up with the rising demand.

“If only Penang spent RM8 billion on public transport alone, I guarantee you that we would be served transport right to our doorstep.”

He said at the heart of the problem was the first mile and last mile access.

He said any public transport system must ensure this was addressed, and suggested reliable feeder bus services similar to the free service provided by the state government.

The buses, he said, should go through dense neighbourhoods.

The Penang government has hired 52 RapidPenang buses in 13 routes across the state to provide its free feeder service called Congestion Alleviation Transport or CAT.

The service has seen an increase in passengers, ferrying 830,763 people in just three months since April 1 this year.

The highest number of riders was in Air Itam, with 724,483 passengers.