Transforming transport in Penang – and the earlier the better

Transport in Penang (and all around the world for that matter) relies on non-renewable sources of energy. Think 20 cars with one person in each vehicle, versus one bus with 20 passengers. The former creates traffic jams and worsens pollution to detract from the overall liveability of a city. It is often argued that supplying more roads only creates more demand for their usage. With 10,000 more vehicles added to Penang’s roads each month [1], we will have to commit ourselves soon to a decision to enhance sustainable transport.

Think City Bhd invited Prof Eric Britton, managing director of EcoPlan International in Paris, founder of World Car Free Days and longtime advocate of sustainable transport initiatives, to Penang with the purpose of studying the transport system, meeting stakeholders and hosting a series of events to come up with ideas and a new perspective for transportation improvements across the state. Thus, Sustainable Penang: Towards a New Mobility was arranged as a two-week itinerary that featured 11 focus group discussions, three master classes, a lecture, a symposium and dialogues with MPPP, MPSP and the Penang Transport Council.

Malaysia Penang heavy traffic in GT

Transforming transport – the earlier the better

The following article by  Maxine Carr appeared in the Penang Monthly on January 27, 2014. For the full orignal posting click here.

Britton’s arrival in Penang on September 22 coincided with George Town’s weekly Car Free Day on Beach Street, and also World Car Free Day. The concept was in fact founded by Britton himself in 1994. He was delighted to see the level of support from the public, who gathered for zumba classes and dance sessions held especially for the day, and took part in Tai Chi, rollerblading and cycling in the empty streets.

Old Mobility versus New Mobility Britton called for the removal of the “Old Mobility Agenda” in favour of the “New Mobility Agenda”. He describes Old Mobility as one that focuses on increasing the supply of vehicles and the number of infrastructure projects, higher speeds and longer distances. This path, however, leads to environmental degradation, is costly for taxpayers, drains the world’s petroleum resources and generally delivers poor service for the transport majority.

The New Mobility Agenda, on the other hand, promotes sustainability, equity, transparency and smart practices with a list of strategic steps such as designing and delivering for the transportation majority, designing for women (by women) and leading the way by example [2].

It is not a matter of selecting one or even several strategies, but the successful approach is going to have to include every one of them [3].

21 ideas for Penang

eb penang think cityDuring each of the focus group discussions and stakeholder meetings, Britton asked participants to submit their ideas to improve transport in Penang. Together with Think City, he came up with a series of 21 specific project initiatives which can be done quickly and are entirely under the control of the state and local governments.

He proposed for Penang to take on these projects and organise a conference to showcase the results in 2015. The conference, given the name “Sustainable Transport in Small Asian Cities”, would invite regional neighbours to share and learn best practices for furthering sustainable transport. The conference should be treated as a challenge and a deadline for implementing these 21 projects.

Britton also suggested that Penang focus on mobility, sustainable alternatives and reducing traffic as solutions to the congestion problem faced by commuters today. He reasoned that fixing problems sometimes doesn’t require much investment, just new approaches: “It doesn’t need a lot of money – it needs a lot of thought.”

Of the list of 21 ideas, a few key themes emerged. Penang’s walkability should be improved. There are often no pavements at all, and where there are some, they are often blocked by roadside stalls, parked cars and motorbikes, or are too uneven, making the whole experience uncomfortable and potentially dangerous.

Gender parity needs to be more prominent. Britton argued that women tend to use transport differently from men – safety is more of a concern for younger girls, women are more likely to act as caregivers for children, the elderly and the less able-bodied, and women are less active in the labour force, meaning they are more likely to make local trips during off-peak hours. He said these needs should be considered in transport planning and proposed that transport or local councils be evenly split between men and women in order to make their perspectives equally represented. He argued that we should be moving away from a technical-only perspective to perspectives stemming from the community, and from social psychology and public health.

On top of that, MPPP councillor Lim Mah Hui pointed out that George Town is perfect for cycling because it is small and flat [4]. It would only take approximately 20 minutes to cycle within the city centre. “Imagine how much traffic could be reduced if more people just cycled around the city during lunchtime instead of driving,” he said during an MPPP meeting last October.

Other key ideas included upgrading bus stops with basic schedule information and providing LED timetables, ensuring school buses reach more neighbourhoods, popularising water taxis, restricting tour buses in George Town’s Heritage Site and presenting Security and Safety Audits. Britton also suggested removing some of Penang’s red lights in favour of roundabouts as well as inserting bicycle lanes against the flow of traffic on one-way streets to encourage cars to slow down.

What is also needed is commitment to continuous public education and campaigns to raise awareness, with constant reminders in the media and through events. Moreover, enforcement can be improved to deter road users from parking illegally, either by clamping their cars or towing them away.

The good, the bad and the ugly Britton summarised his time in Penang as follows: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. Starting with “the Ugly”, he highlighted Penang’s unchecked traffic growth, pointing out that the result of more traffic is less mobility. Heavy traffic on the roads increases the risk of road traffic accidents, which currently stands as the number five killer in Malaysia [5]. Britton was also disappointed to hear that local women are often too afraid to use public transport alone.

Topping the list of “the Bad” was poor public walkways. “A great city is a place where it is agreeable to walk,” Britton argued. Today’s globalised world has increased the levels of competition between cities, meaning that Penang needs to be more liveable to attract the best human talent.

Lastly, “the Good”: Penang’s Car Free Day, which is being planned to expand to four other zones in George Town; the proposed bicycle routes by MPPP and MPSP for the island and the mainland; the BEST bus service and the ongoing pedestrianising of roads are all initiatives which demonstrate that Penang is heading in the right direction. Britton even went as far as to claim that Penang has one of the most well developed networks of civil society and public interest groups in all of Asia.

It was also suggested for Penang to form a partnership with governments in five cities: Utrecht in the Netherlands is similar in size; Tainan in Taiwan introduced a Demand Responsive Transit policy; Strasbourg in France has been successful in addressing transport issues in zones and then connecting these zones together; Suwon in South Korea shares the World Heritage Site status; and Adelaide is Penang’s current sister city. These five outstanding cities were chosen as each has been doing interesting things that Penang may well wish to learn more about.

When will Penang start?

penang road traffic bladderWe know, however, that Penang is limited in what it can do as transport is controlled by the federal government. The state government cannot even amend bus routes without federal approval, and Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng’s offer to pay for a free bus service during peak hours was denied at the federal level. Furthermore, 200 Rapid Penang buses were promised in 2010 but have yet to be deployed. Perhaps it would be better to redirect complaints to the federal bodies instead.

On top of that, in order to improve transportation, we first have to understand current travel patterns. We need to understand what people need and what their problems are, but at the moment, the data at hand is not robust enough at the local level to allow precise decision-making.

Britton believes that there will come a tipping point when Penang can no longer maintain its car-dominated culture and public transport will have to become a viable alternative. “It’s about whether we wait until we are at critical mass or whether we take the proactive approach and begin now,” he said. The onus is now on the government to be proactive about implementing measures for sustainable transport and for civil society and the public at large to demand change. Only after making public transport a realistic, attractive and convenient alternative to private transport can the state impose stronger measures against those who choose to drive.

“I know Penang will be able to adjust to fix traffic problems. The question is time – do we do it now or later? It isn’t necessary for the next generation to pay because we act too slowly,” Britton said.

* * For Britton’s in-depth follow-up report on the outcomes of the Sustainable Penang Series, go to http://worldstreets.files.wordpress. com/2013/12/penang-final-reportrev15- 26nov13.pdf

– Maxine Carr is a research analyst at the Penang Institute.

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About the Penang Monthly:

This is a magazine published by Penang Institute, in response to the growing insight among Malaysians of their responsibility for the future of their country. It provides critical and reliable information for the concerned citizen and to inspire positive action among its readers.

Penang Monthly stimulates discussion on significant issues that concern Penang and Malaysia. Each issue is backed by a socio-economic data section and studies present trends in the arts, industry, politics and economics for the benefit of decision-makers in government and the private sector. Not only do we highlight Penang’s importance as a generator of culture, education, industry and urban lifestyles, but also seek to capture, enhance, present and represent the positive dynamism of Malaysia and its people.

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About the editor:
about the editor 21dec13

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