By Rexy Prakash Chacko
When I read about Penang’s intention to build a 20km-long highway called the Pan Island Link 1 (PIL1), from the north to the south of the island, I was flabbergasted.
I wondered why the state would want to invest billions of ringgit into building a highway which would not only be a temporary fix to our traffic woes but also one which would have disproportionately large environmental and social consequences for our island.
Firstly, this proposed highway would cut through two important urban green spaces on the island — the Penang City Park (Youth Park) and the Sungai Ara Linear Park.
Both these parks were created with the intention of giving people in Penang access to quality recreational and community spaces as well as an accessible area to get away from the pollution of the city.
Today, thousands of people, including myself utilise these spaces, in the mornings and evenings, for a wide range of activities.
The World Health Organization (WHO) stresses the importance of spaces like these to reduce chronic stress, improve mental health and our cognitive functions.
The highway, cutting through both parks, would not only restrict access to the parks during the construction stage but also result in permanent visual and environmental damage.
While Chief Minister Chow Kon Yeow has addressed concerns in minimising the visual impact of the highway on the Youth Park, what about the air pollution from vehicles that would be plying the six-lane bridge above the park, as proposed in the PIL1 plan?
Are the studies convincing enough to prove that there will be no detrimental effect from these roads to the public’s health?
The last thing we Penangites would want is to be breathing in noxious air while jogging in the Youth Park.
A big part of the highway will also be going through the central hilly spine of the island, and while it may be seen by some as being “environmentally-friendly” since cutting of slopes is avoided by going underground, the use of explosives to bore the tunnel through the hills will in itself result in slope failures, possible landslides and disturbance to flora and fauna.
PIL 1 is also based on the assumption that cars and other modes of private transportation on the island will keep increasing in the near future because of a poor public transportation system.
In an age when climate change is the single biggest challenge we face, and with transportation being a large contributor of greenhouse gas emissions (GHG), the state government should seek to implement climate-smart solutions to tackle our traffic problems.
These include revamping our public transportation system and creating a more connected and safe net of pedestrian and cycling networks.
The state should stop feeding this “car culture” by building more highways and roads, as more roads will only encourage more cars.
If the highway is built, it will only be a matter of time before the nodes of this highway at Gurney Drive and Bayan Lepas FIZ will develop into major bottlenecks.
The nature of the PIL1, which is more than 50% a tunnel, makes it more car-friendly rather than public-transport-friendly.
This is because it would make no sense to have any bus stops along the underground tunnel part of the route, making only bus stops viable in less than 50% of the entire route.
What Penang should do is to emulate other cities which have already started investing in more sustainable modes of urban mobility.
While we keep wanting to build more roads and highways, other cities like New Orleans and Amsterdam are transforming their infrastructure to reduce car dependence and are encouraging active transportation.
These cities are incentivising public transit ridership, making public transportation applications available and investing in improving connections between different transport modes, making it more convenient for the general public to use public transport.
Not only are they cost saving, but they also have a proven track record of effectively reducing traffic woes in these cities as well as being more environmentally-friendly.
Penang should be leading the way in looking for innovative solutions to our transport needs and not fall back on a never ending cycle of building more highways which would only encourage more cars.
Rexy Prakash Chacko is an FMT reader.
The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.