Some friends from Penang sent me a bundle of documents on the Penang Transport Master Plan (PTMP) for me to look at last week. The following is my professional opinion, as a transport economist, on what has been proposed in the PTMP document.
Basically, I am not impressed with PTMP as it does not contain any specific strategy to increase the share of the public transport split that is very low in the case of Penang. More than 90% of the work trips in Penang are performed by private cars and less than 10% are performed by public transport.
In order for any plan to be effective, some measure of control in the usage of private cars must be put in place to encourage the use of public transport. This should become a strategic objective of the plan.
PTMP, however, is very road-biased and concentrates too much on road transport (read: private cars) as a means of transportation in Penang. A master plan should put a limit on the usage of private cars, especially in congested urban areas, but may not involve measures in the control of car ownership.
Instead, PTMP is proposing the addition of more capacity to the future road network at the expense of the available land bank which could and should be utilised for residential purposes (read: low-cost housing) which Penang badly needs.
Too many new roads and highways are being proposed in PTMP, including the highly controversial and expensive undersea tunnel that will bring nothing but more cars into this tiny and already congested island.
And then, as a way out of the expected traffic congestion, the author of PTMP proposes an expressway to connect the northern area (the start or tunnel end) of the island with the southern part towards the Penang airport.
It looks like the plan will destroy a big chunk of the hillside area of Penang Hill, possibly with a negative impact on the natural environment along that stretch of the expressway.
Building more roads will not help the situation, not in the long run as any new road capacity will get saturated again after several years. In fact, the congestion situation will get worse as new roads will attract more cars.
How long do we have to continue building more roads, in most cases one on top of the other, in order to accommodate the increase in car usage in a congested urban environment? Kuala Lumpur continues to suffer from this poor decision.
Any transport master plan that is focused on building more roads as a means to solve road congestion is no longer acceptable by today’s standard.
Electronic Road Pricing
The pertinent point is that, with a size of only 293 sq km, Penang is slightly more than one third the size of Singapore. But it already has almost double the number of cars registered. No doubt, more cars in a much smaller space means more congestion on the roads; the effect of traffic congestion is very real for Penangites and visitors to the island.
Figures from the Road Transport Department show that Penang has 1.408 million motorcycles, 1.13 million private cars, only 9,586 public passenger vehicles (buses and taxis combined) and 80,254 goods vehicles.
In comparison, Singapore has fewer than 136,842 motorbikes and 618,055 private cars (including seven Tesla electric vehicles). It also has 20,581 taxis, 18,947 public buses and 141,408 goods vehicles. All figures quoted are from the Land Transport Authority’s annual vehicles statistics 2018.
It can be seen from the published statistics that Penang, which is much smaller than Singapore in terms of land area and population, is already overloaded with private cars, 1.13 million of them and growing.
There is no current restriction on the use of private cars entering the city centre, which leads to the problems associated with traffic congestion, parking, poor traffic management, pollution, and degradation of the cityscape and its urban environment.
Singapore meanwhile has a proven and workable traffic management system in place. It not only controls the number of cars registered but also imposes a very restrictive car usage system. This is in the form of the Area Road Pricing Scheme, the first of its kind in the world when introduced in the late 1980s, and modified into the Electronic Road Pricing (ERP) system in 1998.
The ERP system has been so successful in controlling car usage that many other cities in the world, including London, have emulated the concept. The scheme sees hefty entry charges for private cars on all major and minor roads leading into the central business district.
The alternative to not driving a car is provided in the form of public transport, the Singapore Mass Rapid Transit System (Singapore MRT), an underground system developed in the mid-1980s (the first line opened in 1987) and fully funded by the Singapore government.
Singapore relies heavily on the MRT system with buses and taxis complementing the short first or last mile journeys made by over three million passengers every day.
The MRT system now is very extensive, serving almost every single nook and corner of the island republic with 119 stations in operation, another 62 under construction or in the planning stage, with a possible extension to Johor Bahru next – whenever Malaysia is ready.
Public transport for Penang
By comparison, the public transport system proposed for Penang is confusing, disjointed and uncoordinated. Looking at the plans, it would be punishing to those who wish to use the system as it will consist of five different systems: the LRT, monorail, tram, BRT or Bus Rapid Transport and sky lift.
The fifth system, a sky lift to cross the Penang channel, is the most mind-boggling of all.
Why Penang has to have these five systems is not very clear as opposed to having one system like Singapore, which can be developed further, extended and expanded when demand increases and new areas built in the future.
It is not certain as to who studied and did the evaluation for the five recommended systems. But no one with a background in transport economics would approve having more than one system as the main backbone on which a city can reliably build its public transit system.
There are inherent disadvantages in choosing to have more than one transit system, the first being the cost factor. Each system has its own characteristics, specifications, performance attributes, space requirements, station configurations, technical requirements and operating environments that have to be met and translated into capital cost.
It would be quite impossible to integrate or merge any of the five systems into one. Kuala Lumpur has had this experience and for so long has been facing a diverse system, having to cope with six different systems and technologies.
The Malayan Railway or KTMB metre gauge system differs from the Electric Rail Link (ERL) that connects KL Sentral to KLIA even though they run in parallel; The Putra LRT system differs from the MRT technology and KL-Ampang Light Rail Line which cannot be merged and the same train sets used.
The monorail is the worst of all. Despite having its own dedicated carriageway, it cannot carry large volumes of passengers at high speed. The ride is not only very slow and cumbersome, but also not stable.
The ugly concrete columns, similar to LRT or MRT, do not add any new value to the surrounding properties along its track. On the contrary, properties along the route tend to drop in price and no longer attract new investments. An effective and efficient public transport service should have a positive impact on the city rather than negative ones.
Wouldn’t it be wonderful if all the systems in the Klang Valley operated like the Singapore MRT, fully integrated with only one ticket for any destination in its entire network? In many cities around the world, the same ticket can be used for feeder buses and inter-city rail networks.
Passengers do not have to swap stations, read a new leaflet or road map, use a different ticket machine and buy different tickets for their next journey. Confusion and unfriendly systems will discourage the use of public transport.
There is no real advantage to having different systems as they do not offer any financial gain in the capital outlay or operating costs.
KTMB, ERL, Prasarana (LRT), MRT Corp and Rapid Bus have their own management, operation and maintenance teams to run the five different systems. Integration of these systems is impossible, and merging the operation and maintenance teams would cause nothing but chaos and confusion.
In a nutshell, there is no good reason for Penang to copy Kuala Lumpur’s problematic public transport systems.
Equally, there are strong reasons why the work of transport economists is needed in the formulation, planning, evaluation and implementation of any transport plan, rather than relying solely on politicians.
The views expressed are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.