Malaysiakini Letter

Penang needs a sustainable public transport network

Lim Mah Hui  |  Published:  |  Modified:

LETTER | Public policy and projects, especially those that leave huge impacts on society financially and ecologically, must be subjected to rigorous public debate, scrutiny and discourse. I would stress that public policy decisions must be evidence-based and rational. They should not be based on political populism and jingoism.

I welcome the reactions to my article on why the proposed LRT in Penang is both “too early and too late”. One objective of my article is to spur the public to question the Penang government’s choice of the LRT and to urge the government to review it.

Firstly, I am a staunch proponent of public transport and believe it is the only way to solve issues of mobility and congestion in societies that have been too car-dependent. The only question is what public transport systems are most appropriate for Penang? Sad to say, Malaysia falls squarely into this category, having one of the highest car ownership to population ratios in the world.

The root cause of congestion is the “alarming rate of personal vehicle ownership” and, if I may add, personal vehicle usage. I also agree that we need a larger and well-connected network of a public transport system, that cost is not the only consideration, and that we should “build in stages”.

What are the points of disagreement? Some say it’s not right to cite the low ridership in KL as the LRT and monorail were built 20 years ago. I request then to reread my article carefully. I said that twenty years after these systems were built, present-day (not past) ridership still have not met their projected ridership target.

This puts a constant financial strain on Prasarana as the service provider. So we must choose a public transport system that can be scaled up incrementally rather than a massive project with excess capacity that can be filled up only after twenty years.

Some are also sceptical about the suitability of the Autonomous Rail Rapid Transit (ART) technology for Penang. Yes, I agree the Penang state government must do an in-depth study of this new technology and compare it with the LRT system. Others in the world are doing it. I refer to the important work of Peter Neumann, a world-renowned transport expert, who has reviewed the ART system and found it to be a highly transformative technology.

Cities in Australia are keen to introduce it. It would be remiss for Penang, that always likes to lead and become a smart city, to ignore this new technology that has captured the imagination of transport planners.

Some others adduced seven reasons why the LRT is superior over the BRT and ART. Of the seven reasons, five are related to his obsession with elevated tracks. He begins by saying the LRT is safer because it is elevated and hence will not collide with other road vehicles (reasons 1 and 3); vehicles do not need to stop for an elevated LRT (reason 4); the LRT can add more carriages without disrupting road users (reason 5); LRT elevated stations can be used as shelter (reason 6).

Using occasional accidents encountered by at-grade trams and buses with other road vehicles in order to reject trams, BRT or ART is a red herring and a cheap scare tactic. In the UK, it was found that travelling in a tram is 24 times safer than car (BBC Newsbeat, Nov 17, 2016).

If one is truly concerned about reducing accidents, one should oppose building more highways as Malaysia has one of the world’s highest incidents of road deaths. In 2017, Malaysia witnessed 6,740 road fatalities (18.4 per day), out of which 4,348 involved motorcycle accidents. In Penang alone, on average one person dies every day from road accidents.

Yet, one is a great supporter of the Penang Transport Master Plan that aims to build 70 km of highways. How many more deaths will we tolerate? In contrast, using the public transport system will drastically reduce road accidents.

Yes, I agree that the LRT offers more comfort compared to BRT. But it has no advantage over the ART in that respect. According to the same report by Peter Newman, ART has all the speed (70kph), ride quality and capacity of a light rail.

The argument that the LRT reduces CO2 emission because other vehicles do not have to wait at traffic junctions and give way to the LRT is puerile. By this logic, we should do away with junctions and traffic lights as they increase carbon footprint. If one is such a champion of reducing carbon footprints, the largest emissions of CO2 of which come from private vehicles, especially single-occupancy vehicles, then one should shout loudest against more highway building.

The more roads you build and the more convenient and cheaper it is for people to drive, the higher the carbon footprints. This, and not signal priority for public transport, is the real problem.

The last reason some give for elevated LRT stations is almost laughable – building huge, expensive elevated stations that can serve as shelters from rain for pedestrians and cyclists and, hold your breath, as possible emergency shelters. Can LRT stations act as bomb shelters?

If one insists that elevated tracks are the only way to go, one should know that trams, BRT and ART can operate on elevated roads as well as at-grade. Malaysia’s sole BRT system, the BRT Sunway Line, is an elevated BRT system.

Finally, let me address the last point that the LRT upholds the people’s democratic right to choose. The usual reason for opposing the at-grade ART and BRT is that providing a dedicated lane takes away road space, deprives private vehicles of their right of way and worsens traffic congestion.

It must be emphasised repeatedly that private vehicles take up road space, public transport frees up road space. Each bus takes 40 cars, and each three-carriage modern tram or ART takes 200 cars off the road. One should be reminded that elevated LRT lines, with their massive stations and heavy pillars, also take up road space.

In Penang, where such an extreme imbalance exists between private and public modal transport share (i.e. only 5% use buses versus 95% using private vehicles), it is not possible to equally promote public transport and private vehicles use at the same time.

Building more roads and making it more convenient to use private vehicles will only serve to undermine public transport ridership. The right policy is the carrot and the stick approach: provide a highly efficient, reliable, safe, frequent, comfortable and affordable public transport (carrot), coupled with disincentives for private vehicles usage (stick).

The most effective disincentives for private vehicle usage are congestion charges and parking fees management, bolstered by strict enforcement. Contrary to the claim, discouraging private vehicle usage is more democratic and fairer than encouraging it. Road space should be shared with all users – public transport, cyclists and pedestrians.

Private motor vehicles are the greatest source of carbon emission; they generate externalities and environmental costs that are borne by the public, besides taking up a disproportionate amount of road space. So which policy is democratic and elitist?

To conclude, I fully support a good public transport system. The ART system is superior to the LRT for the following reasons. It can do everything that an LRT does, and better. It can travel at grade or on elevated roads; it is fast to construct with minimal disruption to traffic; it is cheaper to construct and to maintain (one-tenth of, or even less than, the cost of an LRT); it is more flexible and scalable (easy to increase capacity in stages).

Instead of building one expensive LRT line which serves only one population corridor, we should aim to build a public transport network – introducing ART, improving bus and feeder bus services and incorporating last mile and public realm improvements – with a coverage serving the entire city, thereby capturing the maximum ridership and converting people to use quality public transport.


The views expressed here are those of the author/contributor and do not necessarily represent the views of Malaysiakini.

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