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Penang cannot build its way out of congestion

I refer to the letter Bottom-up approach for Penang's new Transport Master Plan. Based on media reports on the 2011 target for the Penang master plan, Local Government and Traffic Management Committee chairperson Chow Kon Yeow said it took about six months to prepare the draft of the terms of reference for the master plan. Chow expected the master plan to ready in about a year’s time. If it took the state government six months to draft the terms of reference, how can you expect any consultant to draft a comprehensive master plan in about a year’s time?

Based on this fact, I questioned the Penang Transport Council why their haste in preparing the plan. Instead of clarifying the arising confusion, Dr Lim Mah Hui has attempted to mislead readers about the fact that the Penang state government has called for a tender to draft the transportation master plan on a very short notice. To test the Penang Transport Council’s sincerity in preparing the master plan, I would take this opportunity to offer the state government a transport solution that will make the Penang Second Bridge redundant.

Time will tell whether the effort to conduct a comprehensive study on Penang’s transport problem is real or not. Before the widening of the Penang Bridge, each day, hundred of thousands of Penangites faced traffic congestion as they commuted to work in their cars via the Penang Bridge. The impact from this congestion was substantial in time, resources, and pollution. The vehicle trips per day are estimated to be 120,000.

It is estimated that the Penang Bridge congestion alone cost travelers 328 million hours of delay, 10 million liters of wasted fuel, and minimum RM140 million in toll fees per annual. With the view that the widening of the bridge is a short term measure to alleviate the traffic congestion, a second bridge is considered as an urgent measure to meet future needs. For financial and environmental reasons Penang cannot build its way out of congestion. Unfortunately the Penang state government and the federal government are not different when it comes to dealing with mass transit.

Mass transit has been ignored for decades. The Penang state government as well as the federal government until today still continue to approach our traffic congestion problem with piecemeal solutions instead of developing an overarching strategy that could be use to guide the development of public mass transit - land use and development policies supportive of mass transit are totally absent. For our transportation system to sustain future growth we must use road space and transit facilities more efficiently and we should not be dependent too much on private vehicles.

Penang with its limited resources and land scarcity should use public bus transit in innovative ways to improve mobility. Why is public bus transit the ultimate transportation choice to create a more efficient and resilient public transit system? Bus systems provide a versatile form of public transportation with the flexibility to serve a variety of access needs and unlimited range of locations throughout a metropolitan area. Buses also travel on urban roadways, so infrastructure investments can be substantially lower than the capital costs required for rail systems. As a result, bus service can be implemented cost-effectively on many routes.

Yet, despite the inherent advantages of a bus service, conventional urban buses inching their way through congested streets doesn’t win much political support. The essence of a Bus Rapid Transit is to improve bus operating speed and reliability on arterial streets by reducing or eliminating the various types of delay. The bus system of Curitiba, Brazil, exemplifies a model Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system and plays a large part in making this a livable city. The buses run frequently - some as often as every 90 seconds - and reliably, and the stations are convenient, well-designed, comfortable, and attractive.

Consequently, Curitiba has one of the most heavily-used, yet low-cost, transit systems in the world. It offers many of the features of a subway system - vehicle movements unimpeded by traffic signals and congestion, fare collection prior to boarding, quick passenger loading and unloading - but it is above ground and visible. Around 70 percent of Curitiba’s commuters use the BRT to travel to work, resulting in congestion-free streets and pollution-free air for the 2.2 million inhabitants of greater Curitiba.

Curitiba's buses are privately-owned by ten companies, managed by a quasi-public company. With this public-private collaboration, public sector concerns (eg, safety, accessibility, and efficiency) are combined private sector goals (eg, low maintenance and operating costs). The bus companies receive no subsidies; instead all mass transit money collected goes to a fund and companies are paid on a distance travelled basis. Curitiba's buses carry 50 times more passengers than they did 20 years ago, but people spend only about 10 percent of their yearly income on transport.

As a result, despite the second highest per capita car ownership rate in Brazil (one car for every three people), Curitiba's gasoline use per capita is 30 percent below that of eight comparable Brazilian cities. Other results include negligible emissions levels, little congestion, and an extremely pleasant living environment.
 
The question one may like to ask is how we are supposed to implement it in Penang. The Penang state government should use the effort to alleviate the Penang Bridge traffic congestion problem as a springboard to implement a statewide transport system that focuses on meeting the transportation needs of the people rather than those using private vehicles. The estimated vehicle trips during peak hour bridge crossings are about 40,000 of which a majority of the vehicles are passenger vehicles with single passenger.

If all car drivers opt for bus transit with a 40 seater capacity, only 1,000 vehicle trips are needed to bring the commuters across the bridge. The peak hour vehicle trips at the Penang Bridge are mainly work trips of those who work in the factories. Those are people who don’t really depend on automobiles while they are working. So how are we going to design a public bus transit system that caters for the need of this group of people if we want them to opt for public transport rather than using their private vehicles? The public bus transit system should comprise of the following components:

1. Express buses operating exclusively on the Penang Bridge and on the designated arteries’ dedicated bus-ways.

2. Park-and-ride (or incentive parking) facilities that allow commuters and other people wishing to travel across the bridge to leave their personal vehicles in a car park and transfer to a bus for the rest of their trip. The vehicle is stored in the car park during the day and retrieved when the commuter returns.

3. Factory buses and shuttle buses operate on both pick-up and drop-off points along the arteries linked to all the factories.

4. ‘Rapid’ buses operate on both the arteries and on other main streets that link all the factories and all the park-and-ride facilities.  

5. ‘Inter-district’ buses bring passengers between the city's sectors lying between the arteries, and thus provide a crucial link between the routes of the express and bi-articulated buses.

6.      Finally, ‘feeder’ buses mix with traffic on all other city streets and bring passengers to transfer stations or pick-up and drop-off points around which local urban development and commercial activity has flourished.

The first thing the Penang government should do is to identify the routes that should be used as arteries for the public bus transit. For example, the Jelutong Expressway, the Bayan Lepas Expressway, the Butterworth-Kulim Expressway and the stretch of North-South Expressway between Juru Toll and Sungai Dua Toll.

In the park-and-ride scheme, the shopping complexes or malls play an important role of providing parking facilities for commuters. Without parking facilities, it will be very hard to persuade commuters to opt for public transports or car-pooling. Most shopping complexes would be happy to provide the parking facilities at nominal fee in order to attract commuters to their complexes especially during this economic downturn.

During working days, the majority of the parking lots are vacant so the Penang government should encourage shopping malls like Queensbay Shopping Mall, Giant, Tesco, Carrefour, Perai Mega Mall, Sunshine Square Shopping Complexes, Fajar, Jaya Jesco and others to allocate parking lots at nominal fees to help provide parking spaces for the park-and-ride facilities. The state government can even use Pisa and the Sungai Nibong Pesta site for the park-and-ride scheme as both facilities are underutilized most of the time.

The state government can utilise the park-and-ride scheme to rejuvenate shopping malls that are in dire straits, ie, the Perai Mega Mall; the park-and-Ride scheme will attract commuters to shop in those shopping malls. Feeder buses will be used to ferry commuters to pick-up and drop-off points of a defined service areas. Bus pick-up and drop-off points should be designed in such a way to facilitate factory buses or feeder buses that can go off regular routes to pick up and drop off passengers within a defined service area and ferry the workers to factories. The pick-up and drop-off point do not need to be a regular bus stop. Examples of such a successful bus pick-up and drop-off point is the Boon Lay MRT station in Singapore.

The station, a popular pick-up and drop-off point is where private buses wait bumper-to-bumper in public bus bays, taxi stands and along Boon Lay Way to pick up or drop off a crush of scurrying commuters, mainly those working in Tuas and Jurong. On the island, pick-up and drop-off points can be built along the Bayan Lepas Expressway and Jelutong Expressway. On the main land, pick-up and drop-off points can be built at Sungai Juru Layby of North South Expressway and any other suitable areas.

This solution is workable. At present the factory buses have been operating in this manner for more than two decades. A private initiative by the multi-national companies to help ferry factory operators across the bridge. The Penang government should break the habits of car-use by initiating an austerity drive to stop wasteful spending with the aim to help the people spend less than 10 percent of their yearly income on transport.The state government should adopt participatory approach that involves the following stakeholders:

Local authorities; NGOs; service users; shopping malls or complexes that provide parking facilities; human resource department of factories; factory bus operators and public bus transit operators. The involvement and empowerment of stakeholders in the planning and execution of the public bus transit management process is an important process aimed at launching a campaign that creates awareness of the need for an austerity drive and encourages the breaking of car-use habits.

It is also an important process to help the Penang government overcome the problem stemming from capacity constraint. Whether the Penang state government under the leadership of Lim Guan Eng has the political will and wisdom to make Penang a more livable place is still a question waiting for an answer.