Why the Bus Rapid Transit system is not for Penang

From: Chris Lee Chun Kit via-email

Dear Dr Pojani,

First of all, I would like to say that I have the utmost respect for yourself as an academic and I am sure you are more than qualified to comment on issues regarding transportation.

I read with great interest an article about your talk in Penang on September 23 in which you said the Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system would work better than the Light Rail Transit (LRT) system. However, I would like to share my opinions on the matter that might differ from your own.

Penang as you might already know, was conferred the Unesco World Heritage Status within the George Town area due to her colonial past. However even outside the Unesco Heritage Zone, space has always been an issue due to old building plans of years gone by. You said that some South American cities had already implemented the BRT and that it had worked for them. But remember, some South American cities were built with public transportation already planned from the beginning; hence roads are already wide to begin with. Every city was conceived and constructed differently during the less connected eras of the past. As you can see from Curitiba in Brazil below:

Now as a Penangite who has lived his whole life in Penang, I have only seen roads as big as the one above on highways perhaps but never within the city. Now in order to achieve what you are suggesting, it can be estimated that massive land acquisitions and reduced road capacity will have to take place which would mean that costs would shoot up instantly (not as straightforward is it?) If land acquisition is not carried out, there will definitely be traffic conflicts and the need to realign junctions which would result in ridership discomfort and capacity issues as travel demand increases along with the risk of accidents.

You see, even if land acquisition is carried out, a lot of the land next to existing roads already have buildings sitting on it. This would mean the additional costs of acquiring and even demolishing buildings and I am pretty sure that this is not an avenue which is feasible at all. Overall, my concerns can be summed up with the following questions:

1) Have you studied the transport landscape on Penang Island and completely understood the underlying challenges? Please do share your studies as well as your findings with us with regard to the feasibility of the BRT on Penang Island.

2) Does George Town have enough road space to afford to close a minimum of two traffic lanes in order to install a road-based BRT system?

3) In the coming years, can the BRT be upgraded further to cater to rising travel demands from suburban areas with fast-paced urbanisation – in terms of expanding the number of dedicated BRT lanes? How do we expand the BRT in the future with Penang’s narrow roads/flyovers with only two to four lanes?

4) Will Penangites accept the negative social costs in implementing the BRT system i.e. land acquisition, a revamped road network, reduced road capacity, traffic congestion etc?

Everyone can tell that with a significantly reduced road capacity for dedicated BRT Right-of-Way, traffic congestion will worsen.

5) Are Penangites ready to accept the BRT as the primary form of public transport? The programme will fail and be no different from the current bus system in Penang should enforcement by traffic police on cars misusing the dedicated bus lanes not be sufficient.

6) What is the funding/business model for the BRT?

You see, the subject of your talk the other day was “Urban Transport Crisis in Small and Medium Size Developing Cities and the Effectiveness of Countermeasures”. The key words in the title are “developing cities”.

Yes, Penang is developing and is aiming to become an International City and so in order to develop; we need to retain our human capital. That’s right, we need to retain our talents and we are facing massive competition from emerging and established economies throughout the world for our talents and should we fail to provide an economy that is capable of supporting our talents and their families, our competing economies will gain.

The Penang State Government has the lives of 1.7 million Penangites to account for. The costs of failure will be the fall of our economy as transportation of both people and products rely on its efficiency for our economy to survive. Asking Penangites to give up their private vehicles must be backed by a feasible and well-studied transportation system.

Overall, one cannot simply experiment with a transportation plan on Penang as there are catastrophic consequences for Penang’s future should the plan fail. And at the end of the day, who is going to take responsibility should the experiment fail?

As you can see, failure is not an option and competition for human capital is very real.

Thank you.


Transport expert: Bus lanes better than LRTs for Penang


Chris Lee Chun Kit is a councillor with the City Council of Penang Island (MPPP).

With a firm belief in freedom of expression and without prejudice, FMT tries its best to share reliable content from third parties. Such articles are strictly the writer’s personal opinion. FMT does not necessarily endorse the views or opinions given by any third party content provider.