Get the basics right first on Penang’s transport solutions

I am responding to the article submitted by Alfie Nur titled “Stop attacking Penang Transport Master Plan” published on Feb 17.

Kuala Lumpur has a web of lines comprising two KTM Komuter, three LRT, one monorail, one MRT and a dedicated airport rail link with local and express services, yet the traffic condition in Kuala Lumpur did not improve as much as we had expected after the opening of the highly anticipated MRT Sungai Buloh – Kajang Line.

The Penang Transport Master Plan (PTMP) proposed by SRS Consortium is very much modelled after that of the Klang Valley which focuses on rail and highway, and where Gamuda, a major stakeholder of SRS Consortium, had contributed heavily in the building of its urban rail network.

There’s no doubt over their capacity to deliver these projects successfully. However, what many fail to realise is that the PTMP is an unnecessarily costly, top-down, infrastructurally heavy approach to allegedly “fix” congestion without any empirical analyses on the appropriate response to local traffic and public transport issues in Penang.

What the PTMP does is to import wholesale a solution found effective in other cities without first analysing the strategic differences between Penang and the sample cities. Apart from that, the perception of free infrastructure that’s being marketed as a reason for reclamation has been proven to be untrue with the announcement of RM10 billion sukuk during the state assembly back in November 2019.

The overemphasis of hard infrastructure by Malaysian politicians has steered the perception of “good public transport service” among residents in the Klang Valley as well as the nation towards a rail-dominant transit network.

This is not necessarily a reality especially when the very foundation of a robust public transport network, namely the humble bus, has almost always been conveniently overlooked and consistently under-invested in comparison to shinier and more politically expedient rail solutions. Hence, “trying to sprint before learning how to walk”.

I was often told by people who defended the PTMP that we should look towards Singapore and Hong Kong, two cities with similar geography and culture but with a much larger urban rail network.

While these three cities may be comparable in many aspects, many neglected to consider a very fundamental difference, which is our diverging histories of urban mobility and land-use patterns.

Cities often cited for their excellent public transport systems almost always share a common trait – that their first urban rail line(s) were built on entrenched corridors with high public transit demand generated by buses. To this day, buses remain the core transport mode for their citizens to move around with rail-based services serving to complement the bus network.

The continued success of public transport in these cities is driven not just by urban rail but more importantly underpinned by a more developed bus service.

Apart from that, investing in our bus also creates far greater economic value for our community. Long-term, permanent jobs creation as oppose to short-term jobs for building the massive PTMP, which sadly, most of the Ringgit generated through the jobs offered on the project will be remitted out of Malaysia as the majority of our construction workers are temporary migrants.

Jobs such as bus drivers, mechanics, bus builders and other supporting roles are usually dominated by those from the local communities where they will spend their salaries on the local economy. Thus, generating long-lasting, sustainable economic growth.

Finally, I renew my call for the current PTMP to be overhauled and to incorporate a systematic step-up approach to public transport investment based on results achieved in the preceding stages of public transport development.

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