Penang Transport Master Plan, a multidimensional fallacy?

By Roger Teoh

This latest article on the Penang Transport Master Plan (PTMP) is in response to various arguments by different proponents of the PTMP. In this article, the two statements highlighted in bold are extracts from a representative of the Penang state government and SRS Consortium.

These statements will be critically analysed using both quantitative and qualitative evidence, and I will leave it to Penangites to come up with their own informed opinion on the topic. Penangites deserve the right to be accurately informed of the true blueprint and consequences of the proposed PTMP.

“Not a single country in the world has stopped using roads or stopped constructing new ones as part of its strategy to increase public mobility. Zurich, Singapore and Stockholm are top sustainable cities in the world. They have traffic jams too, like Penang. To solve the traffic problems, these three cities develop better public transport and build new roads simultaneously. In the case of Penang, the multidimensional and multimodal approach has been adopted.”

The table below shows a comparison of some key transport statistics for the three cities of Zurich, Singapore and Stockholm versus Penang island. Data for Zurich, Singapore and Stockholm is obtained from the UITP Mobilities in Cities Database (2012), while data for Penang is obtained from various sources (Halcrow Report, DEIA and own calculations).

On every metric, the transport statistics from Zurich, Singapore and Stockholm clearly disprove SRS Consortium’s argument that these cities are “placing an equal emphasis on public transport and the road network”. Unlike Penang, which records one of the highest car modal shares in the world (96.8%), the car modal shares for Zurich, Singapore and Stockholm are all below 50%. So how do these cities manage to achieve such a low car modal share while Penang has remained stuck on car dependency for so many decades?

According to these transport metrics, these cities place more emphasis on public transport than cars. For example, Zurich has almost 8.5 times more public transport routes with a dedicated right-of-way (440.9m per 1,000 persons) relative to its highway supply (52.0m per 1,000 persons).

It is worth noting that Stockholm has the highest highway supply in this list (139m per 1,000 persons) because its urban layout and the population is scattered over a large area of multiple fjords. Despite Stockholm having the highest highway supply on the list, it still has 42.4% more dedicated public transport routes relative to highways. Similarly, Singapore’s dedicated public transport route (33.4m per 1,000 persons) is 11% higher compared with its highway supply (30m per 1,000 persons).

Conversely, Penang island’s public transport infrastructure is virtually non-existent as it has no form of public transport with a dedicated right-of-way (0m per 1,000 persons). Due to the lack of adequate public transport, Penangites are forced to depend heavily on cars, as reflected in the vehicle-to-population ratio where Penang has more vehicles than the state’s population.

Despite the fact that Penang is trailing far behind in public transport infrastructure, the SRS Transport Master Plan continues to place heavy emphasis on vehicular traffic. For example, Phase One of the transport master plan plans to construct only one LRT line from George Town to Bayan Lepas costing RM8 billion, but significantly more roads and highways (PIL 1, PIL 2/2A, North Coast Paired Road, and the Penang undersea tunnel) that are projected to cost at least RM15 billion.

Yes, SRS Consortium correctly pointed out that cities around the world have not stopped widening or constructing new roads. However, these road improvement projects are often done on much smaller scales and are not meant to provide substantial new vehicle capacity. Instead, the construction of some new roads aims to fulfil other objectives of the road network, such as the reallocation of road space towards more sustainable transport modes, the support of street-related activities and the provision of a high quality public realm. This is unlike the six-lane PIL 1 mega project that focuses solely on providing a substantial increase in road capacity.

It is worth noting that the SRS Transport Master Plan (formulated by property developers) significantly deviates from the original PTMP (formulated by Halcrow, a world-renowned independent transport consultant). The Halcrow report placed more focus on improving public transport (seven proposed tram routes and three BRT routes) while only proposing the construction of some new roads by 2030 at a much lower cost.

Essentially, the main difference lies in the magnitude and scale of road building. As a result of the heavy emphasis on vehicular traffic in the SRS Transport Master Plan, the transport statistics also show that the highway supply in Penang will continue increasing at a faster rate (+35.1m per 1,000 persons) than dedicated public transport routes (+25.88m per 1,000 persons) after the SRS Transport Master Plan is implemented.
Therefore, this quantitative and qualitative evidence clearly shows that the SRS Transport Master Plan is not “sustainable and multidimensional” as claimed by its proponents. Penang urgently needs to catch up with its significant public transport deficit to reduce automobile dependence before it even considers building more roads.

“At the time of writing, Singapore is currently building its eleventh expressway, the 21.5km North-South Corridor with an estimated cost of RM23 billion (S$8 billion).”

SRS Consortium has frequently used Singapore’s continued road building to justify the case for even more highways to be constructed in Penang. However, such arguments are highly misleading as highlighted in my previous article which raised a number of critical questions on the PTMP that have remained unanswered by the Penang government since 2016.

Most importantly, SRS Consortium simply failed to acknowledge that Singapore is constructing significantly more MRT lines (Thomson-East Coast MRT Line, Jurong Region Line, and the Cross-Island Line) than roads. This is in addition to the fact that Singapore already has five existing MRT lines with a car modal share of only 33.2%, compared to Penang with no form of public transport with a dedicated right-of-way and a car modal share of 96.8%.

To make matters worse, the representative of the Penang government only stated the absolute costs spent by Singapore to improve the road network without providing a relative comparison with the money spent on improving mass transit. While it is true that Singapore’s eleventh expressway (North-South Corridor) costs as much as S$8 billion, such amounts pale by comparison to the money spent on constructing the Thomson-East Coast MRT Line (S$24 billion), and the Cross-Island MRT Line (S$41 billion).

It is also worth highlighting that Singapore’s new 21.5km North-South Expressway that was heavily cited by representatives of the Penang government had since been redesigned as a North-South Corridor . There is a clear distinction between an “expressway” and a “corridor”, but this was not adequately addressed by proponents of the PIL 1. Unlike the PIL 1 expressway that focuses primarily on moving vehicular traffic, the North-South Corridor will be Singapore’s first integrated transport corridor featuring continuous bus lanes, walking and cycling trunk routes.

The differences between Penang’s upcoming PIL 1 Expressway and Singapore’s North-South Corridor is shown in the artist impressions below. While the Penang government frequently chides concerned NGOs for “spreading fake news”, such an excuse can no longer be used for the artist impression for the PIL 1 expressway as it is obtained directly from the official Facebook page of Penang Chief Minister Chow Kon Yeow.

According to a former Penang assemblyman, although SRS Consortium continuously claimed that the PIL 1 expressway is expected to have dedicated bus lanes, this was not shown in the artist impression of the PIL 1, nor is it officially recorded in the detailed SRS-proposed Transport Master Plan RFP documents. The fact that the SRS Transport Master Plan is not available online for public scrutiny also creates a breeding ground for misinformation and confusion on the subject.

If SRS Consortium claims that its proposed transport master plan is more superior and complete than the original Halcrow plan, why is the Penang state government so afraid to upload the detailed SRS Transport Master Plan online for public scrutiny? And why is the Penang government constantly defending the SRS-proposed Transport Master Plan instead of critically questioning it on the various deficiencies identified by NGOs?

Until today, the Penang government and SRS Consortium have both remained completely silent on the two serious concerns that are found in the detailed SRS Transport Master Plan:

1. A highly unrealistic ridership forecast for the Penang LRT that is significantly higher than most MRT lines in London, Singapore and Kuala Lumpur on a per capita basis.

2. Dubious population density projections  for the three SRS-reclaimed islands (21,636 people per square km) which are higher than the city centres of London (11,522 people per square km) and Paris (20,909 people per square km).

The people of Malaysia placed high hopes on the Pakatan Harapan government by overwhelmingly voting for change in the last general election. However, what we are witnessing now is a continuation of malpractices that are no different from those of the previous Barisan Nasional administration. It is time for the Penang government to walk the talk and live up to its principles of competency, accountability and transparency.

Roger Teoh is a PhD postgraduate studying at the Centre for Transport Studies, Imperial College London. He is not a member or affiliate of any political party or NGO in Malaysia.

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