Malaysiakini Letter

Penang at the crossroads - more highways or a good public transport system?

Lim Mah Hui  |  Published:  |  Modified:

Over the past weeks, Roger Teoh, a PhD. student in transport engineering, has contributed three articles in Malaysiakini here, here and here on the proposed Penang Transport Master Plan (PTMP). Based on analysis of extensive database of key transport statistics from 100 cities around the world, he has come to several important conclusions, many of which are very relevant for Penang.

First and foremost, he confirms, what is broadly accepted by academics, that supplying more highways simply creates more demand for their use (he calls it induced demand). Any initial improvement in traffic congestion will eventually be wiped out, ie building more roads does not solve traffic congestion; it only kicks the can down the road.

Unless engineers, politicians and transport planners understand this fundamental fact, we are forever doomed to repeat the same expensive mistakes. His data analysis on 100 cities shows a very strong positive correlation between car use and highway supply, i.e., the more highways supplied the more a city is car dependent, regardless of public transport improvement.

He also showed that compared to other cities, Penang has a relatively high per capita freeway supply (in fact higher than Singapore); and the PTMP proposed highway construction will further increase this supply to make Penang even more car dependent.

In fact, his modeling showed that under the proposed PTMP, car modal share will increase from 65 percent to 72 percent in 2002 and public transport modal share will decrease to 12 percent, well below the Penang state government’s target of 40 percent public transport modal share by 2030. In other words, PTMP contradicts the state’s transport policy of moving people not cars.

He then argues that the only way to reduce car dependence is to build and improve on an urban rail system. He shows that cities with urban rail systems (trams, LRT or metro) reduce their car use, while those without any urban rail system increase their car dependence. His alternative scenario of constructing more urban rails for Penang will reduce car modal share by 4 percent (from 66 percent to 62 percent) while increasing public transport usage to 20 percent by 2022.

Penang is at an important crossroads. Which road will it take? Will the state ignore scientific evidence and make policies based on personal whims and populism by over-investing in highways to please car users?

Or will it show far-sighted and courageous leadership by building and improving public transport; educate and lead the public along this new road of sustainable public transport system? Investing more and more on highways undermines a good public transport system.

Let me end by highlighting two facts. First, the state government cannot dismiss this critical view of the PTMP as that of an NGO opposing for the sake of opposition. Roger Teoh is a DAP member and his conclusions are based on hard scientific analysis that the DAP leadership can ignore at its own peril.

Second, my first contact with Roger Teoh was when he wrote in Malaysiakini (May 22, 2016) to rebut my earlier article in Malaysiakini (May 18, 2016) on why building more roads does not solve traffic congestion.

However, after in-depth research, and faced with new data, he revised his original position. At least we now agree on the fundamental fact that investing in a first class public transport system, and not roads, is the way forward. He has exhibited a hallmark of true scholarship.

As John M Keynes once said, “When facts change, I change my mind. What do you do sir?

Will the DAP leadership do the same? That is the challenge.

DR LIM MAH HUI is an economist and former international banker.

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