More spin to prop up the Penang Transport Master Plan?

Penang’s roads are choked with personal vehicles. (Bernama pic)

This article on the Penang Transport Master Plan (PTMP) is in response to the MBPP Councillor Joshua Woo’s letter to the editor “In defence of Penang Transport Master Plan” published in Free Malaysia Today (FMT) on the 23rd of June 2018.

While I have not written an article on the PTMP since December 2016 to focus on other research interests, I believe that it is a social responsibility to voice out my concerns on the PTMP once again after reading Joshua’s article where key points are not backed by quantitative evidence.

Given the increase in majority by the PH government in Penang, as well as a lack of opposition in the Penang State Assembly, I do not expect the state government to make any alterations to the existing PTMP. However, Penangites deserve the right to be well informed about both sides of the issue in order to formulate a better-informed opinion and hold the Penang State Government to account.

Putting the present form of PTMP into perspective

The goal to achieve a 40% public transport modal share by the year 2030 was reiterated by the Penang State Government during our internal communications early last year. However, the present form of the PTMP is heavily weighted to facilitate further growth in personal vehicles. To recap, the current PTMP plans to construct one LRT line (Penang International Airport – Komtar), three new highways (PIL 1, PIL 2/2A, and the North Coast Pair Road), and the Penang Undersea Tunnel. By focusing heavily on personal vehicles, the 40% public transport modal share target by 2030 could be missed by a huge margin in excess of 30%.

It will not be fair for me to criticise the lack of quantitative evidence in Joshua’s article without presenting some quantitative evidence on Penang’s present transport system. The following list are some key statistics against the PTMP proposed by the Penang State Government:

Penang’s car modal share at 96.8% (Halcrow Report) is one of the highest in the world, around 15% higher than Kuala Lumpur at 80% car modal share.

If the three new highways are constructed, Penang’s highway supply per capita, measured by the Total Highway Length per 1000 Population will also be one of the highest in the world (150 metres/1000 people). In contrast, despite the constant highlighting of Singapore building new highways, it only has 30 metres of highway length per 1000 people (80% less than Penang).

At present, Penang does not have any form of public transport with a dedicated right-of-way (0 metres/1000 people), compared to Singapore at 33.4 metres/1000 people.
As of today, the latest estimate of the PTMP is in excess of RM50 billion, only around 30% less than the recently scrapped KL-Singapore High Speed Rail project (RM72 billion). Could the allocated budget be used more efficiently?

While these statistics show that transport in Penang is already over-dependent on personal vehicles with poor public transport links, why is the current PTMP still heavily focused on prioritising in personalised mobility instead of mass mobility and sustainable transport modes?

To make matters worse, the proposed highway constructions are only expected to solve inter-urban trips between urban clusters (such as trips between George Town, Air Itam, Tanjong Tokong and Bayan Baru). However, traffic problems such as congestion and parking limitations within an urban area will continue to worsen, given that around 80% of vehicular traffic in an urban area can be associated with drivers looking for a parking space. There is simply no more land in dense urban areas to build more local roads and parking spaces to accommodate for the expected increase in car usage.

Therefore, the present form of the PTMP is akin to prescribing painkillers to a patient suffering from cancer. Not only that new highways will only be a short-term solution to temporarily relieve traffic congestion, the expected increase in car use in urban areas will also deteriorate the liveability of Penang in the form of increased air pollution and poor-quality street environment.

To illustrate this, the two figures (below) shows the condition and state of New York Times Square before and after cars were phased out from the main street. Which scenario do you think provided a more pleasant environment for city dwellers? On this basis, Joshua’s claim of “the PTMP aiming to make the whole state a better place to live and earn a living” is unfounded.

Why the constant vilification of NGOs?

It is extremely concerning for Joshua to label Penang Forum as “narrow-sighted” when he and the Penang State Government are the ones holding inflexible ideas and completely disregarding quantitative evidence against the present form of PTMP. In fact, it is also ignorant for Joshua to ignore, rather than being radically open-minded by refusing to explore alternative approaches.

In his article, Joshua also expressed his discontent with Penang Forum’s suggestion to hire international experts to review and study the PTMP. This is alarming as international experts will improve transparency by providing an informed and unbiased opinion on the best way forward to resolve Penang’s transportation woes. It does no harm to get a second opinion to ensure that we are not making the wrong decisions, especially when a mammoth RM50 billion project is involved.

Didn’t Malaysians vote BN out of power with the expectation of having more transparency from the state and federal government? Is Joshua concerned that international experts could highlight the deficiencies in the present form of PTMP?

As mentioned many times in my previous PTMP articles, a more appropriate methodology to scientifically assess alternative proposals based on quantifiable evidence is the adoption of a cost-benefit analysis. The proposal with the highest Benefit-Cost Ratio is then chosen as the ultimate solution. As of today, we have yet to see any form of proper assessment between the different PTMP proposals using this methodology.

According to the UK Government’s Green Book on Appraisal and Evaluation, it is mandatory for an alternative proposal to be considered for every project. Could Joshua provide us with a quantitative figure on the Benefit-Cost Ratio between the two different PTMP proposals from the Penang State Government and Penang Forum? If not, how could Joshua be so certain that the Penang State Government’s PTMP approach is superior to all alternative proposals? Is this a matter of blind support to his party without any form of critical thinking?

Finally, while Joshua also claimed that Penang Forum “used questionable data for population projection in the alternative PTMP proposal”, I would urge Joshua to first look at himself in the mirror. The figure below was referenced from YB Chow Kon Yeow’s media statement on the 3rd of January 2017, which confirms the doubtful population projection used by SRS Consortium for the three reclaimed islands.

Using simple mathematics, by projecting a population of 367,379 in 2030 implies a population density of 21,636 people per square km in the three reclaimed islands (367,379 people divided by the total land area of the three islands, 16.98 square km). To put this density value into perspective, the present density of Hong Kong Island is only at about 17,000 people per square km, meaning that the population density in the three reclaimed islands is expected to be 27% higher than Hong Kong!

Does this make sense? Who is the one using questionable population projection data? Is the unrealistic population projection in the three islands used to justify the massive cost of the planned PTMP transport infrastructures? The PH Government could be labelled as a hypocrite by lobbying for mega projects from the previous BN administration to be reviewed but not on the PH Government’s own state project.

A new transport paradigm

“A developed country is not a place where the poor have cars, it is where the rich use public transport” – Enrique Penalosa, former Mayor of Bogata, Colombia, and sustainable transport guru.

Transport policies should be debated based on quantifiable evidence and successful case studies. The transport literature has unanimously shown that building more roads and highways not only fails to resolve traffic congestion, but also deteriorates the liveability in cities. Could Joshua name us just one city that focused heavily on road building and successfully improved city liveability and reduced car modal share?

While cities in the developed world are progressively dismantling their highways in favour of sustainable transport modes to improve city liveability, why is Penang bulldozing through mega projects to build more highways? It is time for the Penang State Government to be more radically open-minded and move on from the old transport paradigm.

Roger Teoh is a PhD postgraduate studying at the Centre for Transport Studies, Imperial College London. The opinion of the author is expressed from a neutral standpoint and he is not a member or affiliate of any political party in Malaysia.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.

In defence of Penang Transport Master Plan