Debunking the Penang transport masterplan ‘spin’

Why is the state ignoring hard scientific evidence and still opting to bulldoze through the excessive highway constructions at all costs, asks Roger Teoh.

This article on the Penang Transport Master Plan (PTMP) is in response to state representative and Penang Island Municipal Council (MBPP) councillor Chris Lee’s letter to the editor ‘The PTMP and social justice to Penang’s society’.

First of all, I would express my gratitude to the Penang state government for finally acknowledging and responding to one of my articles. The statements highlighted in bold below are extracts from state representative and MBPP councillor Chris Lee’s article.

Setting aside my DAP membership and voicing my concerns as an independent academic, I will be analysing these statements in turn and leave it to the intelligence of Penangites to formulate their own judgements on the PTMP. Most importantly, I believe Penangites deserve the right to be accurately informed with the true blueprint and consequences of the proposed PTMP.

“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”

As of now, the Penang state government has made many amendments to the proposed PTMP, with cost ballooning after each iteration (the latest estimate of the PTMP is over RM50bn). These changes affect not only the delivery timetable but also the financing costs and feasibility of the overall plan.

With so much uncertainties, it appears to the public that only Phase 1 of the PTMP can be practically delivered, which consist of one 17.5km LRT line (Penang International Airport-Komtar) and 42km of new highways (Penang Undersea Tunnel, PIL 1, PIL 2/2A and North Coast Pair Road). Even the cost of PIL 1 has risen from RM6bn to RM8bn.

Furthermore, the proposed financing model based on payment from sale of reclaimed land is precarious as the property market is facing strong headwinds in Malaysia and globally. Poor market sentiments will affect land prices and land sale, that will in turn impact on the implementability of subsequent PTMP phases.

With all these changes and uncertainties, it is extremely misleading for MBPP councillor Chris Lee to include future public transport lines in his figures as they are purely concepts with an uncertain and non-committal implementation timeline.

As a consequence of implementing only Phase 1 of the PTMP, it is statistically forecasted that public transport quality and modal share will deteriorate indefinitely until these future urban rail lines are constructed. Since one LRT line is insufficient to be regarded as a viable alternative to the car, the so-called “safety net” by Chris Lee might only be available after 2030, or even not at all.

“Claims of excessive focus on highways are over-dramatised, as the proposed highways are needs-based to improve road hierarchy and enhance the efficiency of local and regional traffic diversion”

The description of “excessive highways” is proven on the basis of statistical analysis relative to other cities around the world. At present day, Penang Island has 82.9km of highways (108.1 metres of highway per 1,000 people), and 0km of public transport routes with a dedicated-right-of-way.

Since road traffic vehicles are expected to increase as a direct consequences of excessive highway building, how will the Penang state government solve parking problems in an urban core with limited land space?

To make matters worse, highways are investments with diminishing returns as it does not holistically solve urban transportation woes which traffic congestion is moved downstream to its exits and within dense urban centres.

These concerns are highlighted and explained in my first article ‘An independent review for an optimised PTMP’, which was written almost a month ago and still awaiting the Penang state government to address these problems raised.

In other words, highways proposed by the PTMP are a waste of public funds with little value for money. These limited funds available should be used more efficiently and effectively by redistributing it towards constructing more urban rail systems.

“Highways also cater for other forms of transport such as buses and motorcycles. Would one not turn to bus and motorcycle if one cannot afford to drive a car?”

It is absolutely true that poorer Penangites will be able to satisfy their mobility needs through the use of motorcycles. However, is this really the outcome desired by the Penang state government?

Looking at statistics on global transport safety, motorcyclists have the highest fatality risks when compared to all other modes of road transport with 1,640 deaths per billion journeys. Conversely, urban rail (trams, LRT and metro) is one of the safest modes of transport at 20 deaths per billion journeys.

Putting it into context, motorists are 82 times more likely to die in a road accident when compared to a commuter using a rail-based public transport. According to the Malaysian Digest, there were 321 road deaths in Penang in 2015, with motorcyclists accounting for 70 per cent of road accidents (around four motorcyclist deaths a week).

Hence, do we really want poorer Penangites to increase motorcycle usage at the expense of an unacceptable increased risk of fatality?

While the Penang state government is expected to rebut this fact by highlighting the inclusion of motorcycle lanes in the proposed highways, transport safety is only improved marginally as motorists are only protected on that particular stretch of road, and not their entire journey.

Well, what about buses? Ask yourself, would you take the bus if journey times are two to three times longer relative to a motorcycle or a car? This is also the main reason why more urban rail lines are desperately needed in Penang to reduce the door-to-door travel time difference between public transport and private motorcars, making public transport more attractive.

“In the argument on 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 is due to transportation or other economic factors.”

Chris Lee correctly pointed out that urban transportation is not the only contributing factor causing European cities having a higher GDP per capita than car-centric North American cities. However, the right transportation system adopted by a city is still crucial and plays a significant role in boosting its economic productivity.

For example, travellers using public transport will still be able achieve a limited amount of economic productivity while commuting such as replying to emails, working with laptops/tablets on trains, etc. These activities are taken into account in public transport economic appraisals in the UK, which the value of time and loss of economic productivity while commuting is scaled down.

In addition, there are also lots of secondary knock-on effects and wider-economic benefits through mass transit and urban rail developments, such as social agglomeration and increased liveability in contribution to a higher GDP per capita in a city.

At this point, there is indeed ongoing research at Imperial College London in attempt to monetise and quantify these additional benefits and positive knock-on effects gained through an increased emphasis on rail-based public transport. I am absolutely certain that these wider economic benefits are not taken into account in economic appraisals produced by cities in developing countries such as Penang.

Nevertheless, the argument of building more road building to boost economic development in Penang is totally unjustified. It is just a matter of investing in the right transport infrastructure such as urban rail, which will allow economic development to be amplified and achieved more effectively.

Why is the state disregarding statistical evidences?

In conclusion, since transport studies are largely based on empirical data, the best way to formulate the most effective and efficient transport policies for Penang is to adopt an evidence-based policy methodology similar to developed countries.

Note that I have been using quantitative evidences and case studies to support my key points. I hope the Penang state government will also follow suit and improve the quality of this healthy debate by using data and statistics to justify its claims.

Most importantly, why is the state ignoring hard scientific evidence and still opting to bulldoze through the excessive highway constructions at all costs? If the Penang state government is truly committed in solving urban transportation woes for all Penangites, it needs to move away from its defensive mentality and be open to new ideas to holistically solve these deficiencies for a better PTMP.

ROGER TEOH is a postgraduate student studying for a PhD at the Centre for Transport Studies, Imperial College London.


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