There were some who seem to feel that the Penang Transport Master Plan (PTMP) will only benefit the elites of society and not those from the lower economic groups due to the lesser abilities of them owning a car.
Well, I think the PTMP places equal emphasis on public transport and highways. Just look at the plan and you see that there are 151km of planned public transport encompassing LRT, monorail, BRT and tram; while only 72km of strategic bypasses, cross channel link and missing local roads are proposed.
Claims of excessive focus on highways is over-dramatised, as the proposed highways are needs-based to improve road hierarchy and functionality in order to enhance the efficiency of local and regional traffic diversion as George Town expands beyond its original footprint.
While some may unfortunately see it as “excessive”, I see it as planning for the long-term and each project will be reviewed prior to implementation subject to the public’s needs. Hence, the issue then is a matter of economic viability as well as the timing of implementation and not about the planning itself.
The claim of social equity violation does not arise as the PTMP employs a balanced approach in its planning for public transport and highway improvements. Public transport like the elevated LRT and monorail is a public good and should be made affordable for all strata of society therefore there are no problem here.
But let us not forget that highways also cater for other forms of transport such as buses and motorcycles. Public buses and motorcycles are widely affordable for the majority of Penang’s population at current income levels. Would one not turn to bus and motorcycle if one cannot afford to drive a car? It is a natural choice.
This leads to my question: Are buses and motorcycles considered transport classes for the elites? The answer is no. And therefore the question of social equity does not arise.
As mentioned in previous letter, roads and highways form the basis of a city’s transport system and provides the foundation onto which new transport possibilities are built upon.
It would be good for those who disagree with the new highways to closely examine the stark deficiencies in the present road hierarchy in Penang, before jumping to the idea of constricting road supply by reason of already high road supply per capita. Enhancing efficiency in traffic dispersal without impacting connectivity is key and not the quantity.
Of course, in conjunction with new highways, the PTMP is also proposing new rail lines as part of a modern multi-modal and integrated transport system where all transport modes are well interweaved into a single coherent network in Penang. This is made suitable for people of any income level.
But with the proposed elevated LRT and monorail lines, the public is given a new choice which is an affordable alternative, one may call it. With this choice, the public is given a safety net to fall back on, when the costs of car ownership becomes too high for their abilities.
Yes, saturation point (congestion) for highways will happen in the future but as said earlier, by then the Penang state government will already have new rail lines and incorporated policies to encourage adoption of sustainable transport modes. Transport preferences will change, when policies change. But this will be done gradually over time and cannot be achieved overnight.
Meanwhile, while waiting for new rail lines to be approved by the federal government, the roads in Penang are getting more and more congested as each day goes by. It gets even more congested during festivals and public holidays due to Penang’s popularity with tourists.
Roads long due for an upgrade
Any natural disasters that might happen in Penang like flooding can cripple road access causing pervasive threat to the liveability of Penang, especially if the road is the only access available to the particular area of Penang. One should be reminded that our roads were long due for an upgrade even before the Pakatan Harapan Penang state government took power in 2008.
Now if we just wait for a more highly public transport-dominated PTMP as insisted by some individuals to be approved by the federal government and totally ignore improving our road accessibility, we could be waiting for a very long and unspecified timeframe, especially when there are a lot of social and political forces out there that might be just waiting for the PTMP to fail through the approval process of public transportation.
How will the Penang state government explain this to the people then?
And as a responsible government, the people look to us for results and not non-stop reasoning especially when their basic needs are left wanting.
An uncertain and non-committal implementation timeline for crucial congestion relief measures is not an alternative that any responsible government can present to its citizens that had voted them into power.
In the argument on the higher GDP per capita that European countries have as compared to car-centric North American countries, it is still open for debate whether the productivity rate of those cities are due to transportation or it could even be of other economic factors.
The GDP is the summation of the value of a country’s products and services in a specific time period and no doubt transport efficiency and its ability to generate economic value will play a role in this value, but it is not the only ultimate factor.
If we look at how Donald Trump became ultra-popular in the Mid-Western American States, it can be argued that it was also because he promised to protect American jobs from outsourcing American companies that found cheaper labour costs in countries like China and India. There cannot be a high GDP per capita especially when there is a lack of availability of jobs to begin with.
Also, remember that political, social and cultural differences may affect the outcomes as well as the feasibility of implementations of policies and plans. The social practices of a society will always differ from another and we need to take all these factors into consideration as well.
At the end of the day, every Penangite from all social and economic groups are our stakeholders as Penang’s success or failure are in all of our hands and should not just be decided by any particular lobbying group. As the Penang state government, it is our job to facilitate the best, most pragmatic and balanced way to achieve that success.
CHRIS LEE CHUN KIT is a city councillor with the Penang Island City Council (Majlis Bandaraya Pulau Pinang) representing the DAP.