Penang Institute comments the Penang Transport Master Plan

Penang Institute header

Penang Institute welcomes this opportunity to provide comment on the Penang Transport Master Plan (PTMP) proposals which have recently been shared with us. We hope that the following comments are taken in the spirit intended and we welcome an opportunity to discuss the issues raised further.

We commend the State for taking a bold and ambitious approach to the development of new transport infrastructure and would welcome an opportunity to help shape proposals so that they deliver optimal outcomes for Penang now, and far into the future.

The Penang Transport Master Plan provides an opportunity for Penang to significantly raise the development trajectory, but also offers an opportunity to leapfrog the mistakes of the West, and pursue a sustainable development path that will place Penang at the forefront of city development, making Penang a truly international and intelligent city.

Penang institute Staff

The following analysis and recommendations for the PTMP were submitted by Mr. Stuart MacDonaldHead of Urban Studies of the Penang Institute on 21 December 2015. They are reproduced here in their entirety as submitted.

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The Penang Transport Master Plan

  1. Underpinning assumptions

The proposals for new infrastructure in the PTMP are based on assumptions of future need and demand. As such, any critical review of the proposals should first examine the fundamental assumptions upon which modelling has been conducted. It terms of infrastructure usage, the most fundamental future indicator is population. The size of the future population is therefore utilised to justify the social and economic case for investment in infrastructure.

We would like to highlight however, as per the PTMP RFP documentation (and subsequently confirmed with SRS) that the demand modelling is based upon a Penang state population of 2.45m for 2030, a figure which has been drawn from the Halcrow Penang Transport Master Plan, which forms part of the SRS terms of reference.

It is critically important to understand that this is not derived from any detailed population projection, it is simply an extrapolation 20 years forward based on two data points, ten years apart (the population census of 2000 and 2010).[1]

This method takes no account of our rapidly falling birth and death rates and changes in migration. Department of Statistics projections which utilise a cohort component model, as advocated by the United Nations Population Division, suggests the following decades will witness significantly lower growth rates, with an average annual growth rate of 1.4% between 2010 and 2020, and just 0.7% between 2020 and 2030.

Department of Statistics projects a population for Penang in 2030 of 1,866,300 which is based upon a net migration of 2,600 persons annually. In 2013-2014 net migration in Penang fell to just 1,300.

We would strongly recommend that SRS are asked to explore the sensitivity of their social and economic case to changes in the underpinning population assumption, exploring the impact on the economic case for individual infrastructure investments.

Figure 1 – Population projections

Penang Institute population prrojections

  1. The planning framework

Development projects of a strategic nature (such as transport and reclamation) should be planned and presented in the State Structure Plan. Structure plans should cover a 20 year time horizon, and should be reviewed every 5 years. The Penang Structure Plan 2005-2020 (a 15 year plan set to align with Vision 2020) was gazetted in 2007, bringing a review due in 2012. The current review however remains in draft, and is currently estimated that it will be finalised at some point next year (2016).

We take the assumption that the delay in finalisation of the Structure Plan is to allow the plan to reflect the proposed transport infrastructure and reclamation (as DoE will first look to the RSN for evidence of need when considering the EIA). This however highlights how our planning system is development led, and the practice of plan led development is still far from absent.

We need a positive discussion about how we can reshape our planning processes and planning approaches. How we plan and shape our city and its hinterland will shape how we develop and if we really want a materially prosperous, culturally vibrant, environmentally sustainable, intellectually creative, socially progressive and politically empowered society then we will have to plan for it in a holistic and integrated way. The publication of the Structure Plan Review should be a focus to ensure it does not result in delays in the EIA process.

  1. A public transport system for Penang

Our reading of the SRS RFP documentation highlights to us that the focus is being placed upon the development of the LRT line between the airport and KOMTAR, with monorails suggested for Ayer Itam and Tanjung Bunga and developments for the mainland to be pursued at a later point in time.

The existing cost modelling for these interventions justifies expenditure on the LRT and the Pan Island Link 1, while in the current case investment in monorails is not justified. However, as highlighted above, this economic appraisal is not based on a detailed population projection and modelling should be re-run with population projections rather than estimates.

The RFP proposal clearly states that the Ayer Itam and Tanjung Bunga monorails are not economically viable, however they remain in the proposal for some future re-assessment and for the purpose of providing ‘a more unified public transport network’.

Monorail is not economically viable as its costs outweigh its economic benefits. Monorail has an estimated construction cost of RM170m/km, while a tram has a cost of RM40m/km. We would suggest in conjunction with point 1 above, that the economic case for a tram system (as proposed by Halcrow) be re-examined on the basis of detailed population projections, and further work is conducted to understand tram systems around the world which can far exceed the ‘typical capacity‘ indicated in the RFP proposal (table 2.1).

We would also question the viability of any raised infrastructure along the travel corridors indicated for monorail. The existing road width in many parts is insufficient to accommodate a raised structure, raised infrastructure also requires significantly larger transit stops and the extent of property and land acquisition and the required tree loss along the travel corridor roads should be made abundantly clear to all. We would suggest that raised transport infrastructure would require a road width with a minimum of 4 lanes, however comparing the experience of Kuala Lumpur would suggest a much wider road width is realistically required to accommodate infrastructure of this nature, given a 2m central reservation will likely be required.

Figure 2 – Road widths along proposed monorail routing (less than 4 lanes)[2]

penang Institute toad width graphic

Running a monorail along a 3 lane road would likely reduce that road to two lanes to accommodate the supporting columns given that many of our road reserves are limited. We would argue that the reserves that do exist should be retained for pedestrian and cyclist movement wherever possible.


  1. Incompatible with heritage status

Raised transport infrastructure is incompatible with the heritage status of George Town, introducing the heavy infrastructure found in KL to the narrow streets of Penang will be visually detrimental. It is suggested that any mass rapid transit should enter George Town ‘at grade’ to reduce the need for elevated structures. Combined with clarity on future proposals for monorails (see above) this will determine the nature of the proposed transport interchange at KOMTAR and therefore places greater importance on future proposals for the type of mass transit to Ayer Itam and Tanjung Bunga.

The Chief Minster has been very clear that this proposal should focus on ‘moving people, not cars’ and therefore there should be a more ambitious plan to remove private vehicles from the streets around KOMTAR, giving priority to public transport, pedestrians and cyclists. It is also unclear if the RFP proposal is cognisant of the George Town Business Improvement District, a business partnership seeking to redevelop the KOMTAR area into a retail location of choice and fails to take into account the social and economic value of the existing proposed uses of the KOMTAR phase 5 site.

Figure 3 – The view from the street – LRT system in KL (note the road width – 6 lanes)

Penang Institute road widths

  1. Sustainable transport for a liveable city

Penang’s ambition to be a liveable city can be greatly boosted by investment in appropriate transport infrastructure and public realm improvements. Sustainable transport modes such as cycling and walking can be encouraged through investment in the public realm, developing road reserves for pedestrian and cycle lanes, with increased tree planting to provide shade and increase user comfort.

The wide ranging recommendations of the Halcrow Accessibility Improvement Plan do not feature at all in the RFP proposal. While the SRS proposal promises a highly liveable, walkable and cycle friendly environment within the reclaimed lands of the South Reclamation Scheme, there is no wider discussion and linking of proposals to improve public transport accessibility and elevate the status of the pedestrian and cyclist more generally throughout the state.

While the State is proceeding with a number of proposals to develop improved walking and cycling infrastructure, there is a clear opportunity to produce fully costed proposals, funding allocations and most importantly, clear commitments that link these plans to the PTMP and set ambitious targets (with an allocated budget) for upgrading the pedestrian and cycle infrastructure throughout the state, which can improve liveability while reducing reliance on private transport. There is a need for the state to express the PTMP in its broader terms, beyond the proposal of SRS and to articulate how the PTMP can place Penang on a more sustainable development path.

  1. A transit system for the future – Moving people not cars

In the climate change agenda it is cities, rather than nation states that are taking the lead, pushing forward practical proposals for low carbon cities and committing to ambitious carbon reduction targets and carbon neutrality well within the lifetime of the SRS modelling proposals. Oslo for example will ban all cars from its city centre by 2019, Helsinki is targeting a “mobility on demand” which will remove private transport in the city centre by 2025. Chengdu is building a car free city for 80,000 inhabitants. Bogotá, Columbia; Hyderabad, India; Suwon, South Korea and Sandton, South Africa are all experimenting with car free programmes, exploring eco-mobility solutions that will facilitate a shift from private, fossil fuel transportation.

It is often said that ‘Penang Leads’, and as the first green state in Malaysia, the PTMP offers an opportunity to redefine the city and set an ambitious target to decarbonise the economy. Transportation obviously contributes a significant amount of carbon, and we feel that the PTMP does not sufficiently address the opportunity to move Penang forward in this respect. While there is an ambition to move to a 60/40 modal split, it is unclear how this will be reached under current proposals.

  • An extensive feeder bus system is envisaged to move people to mass transit lines, however there is no explicit commitment to replace fossil fuel buses with electric vehicles (with exception of the CAT service in George Town).
  • While a new public transport system is envisaged, there appears little in the way of disincentives to private transport, such as congestion charging, road charging or access zones. The technology for such systems is now widely available and should feature in a planning horizon of 50 years.
  • It is widely acknowledged that the transition to electric vehicles will require significant investment in charging infrastructure. The PTMP is silent on how we may seek to decarbonise private transportation and develop infrastructure fit for future mobility.

Penang has an opportunity to make an ambitious statement about its development trajectory. Committing to a carbon neutral transit sector by 2050 for example would place Penang among the leading cities of the world in terms of sustainable development.

It has been long asserted by the State of Penang that’s its objectives in transport infrastructure are focused around ‘moving people, not cars’. The upscaling of the originally anticipated outer ring road, to a Pan Island Link and an elevated public transportation system could arguably point to a lack of ambition in terms of ‘moving people, not cars’ and may actually inhibit attempts to shift to a public transport modal share of 40%. If such a target is really considered important, then strategies need to be put in place to raise the ‘cost’ of private transport to balance in favour public transit.

Some of the wider elements of the Halcrow Plan (such as accessibility and road charging) which are not part of the SRS proposal, need to be brought back into the current debate and the State’s position should be clearly articulated.

  1. A welcome commitment to affordable housing

We welcome the suggestion that up to 85,000 new housing units may be made available in the South Reclamation Scheme, however would request that a more explicit statement is made to quantify the number of proposed ‘affordable’ housing units, and to clearly state the ratio of land allocated to affordable and market rate housing.

We would also request that proposals refrain from developing new housing definitions and work with the common language that has developed in Penang around the affordable housing agenda. In Figure 1.15 for example, the land use map suggests residential land be divided for landed, premium, executive, medium-range, and affordable housing. We would suggest the removal of labels such as premium, executive and medium-range, as these are not recognised categories of housing, these should be considered market rate housing units, distinct from affordable units which have controlled prices.   

  1. Planning for Transit Orientated Development

Development led planning (rather than plan led development) can fail to take a holistic view and we are concerned that the approach being taken to retrospectively introduce transport and reclamation plans into the existing planning framework will produce less than optimal outcomes, in part due to the process adopted.

One example of this would be in the land use planning around proposed mass transit stops, where transit orientated development principles should be adopted to ensure appropriate development is stimulated in these areas. We have a particular concern that the affordable housing agenda and the transport infrastructure plans are insufficiently linked together, which may reduce the potential to optimise travel behaviours and create a shift from private to public transport.

  1. A compact city

Successive studies over the past few years have identified the future of Penang’s development as being on the mainland. The SRS proposal and the South Reclamation Scheme, largely justified by the higher land prices that may be achievable, focuses on the development of the island. While this argument may well be justified in raising larger revenues from land sales and providing expansion land for industries clustered in the Bayan Lepas FIZ, we would question the desirability of high end residential housing directly beneath the flight path of the airport, which SRS predict will triple its number of incoming passengers within its planning horizon.

A focus on the development of Butterworth has long been suggested as opportunity to develop a modern complementary business district across the channel from George Town, developing a Greater George Town conurbation with seamless connections across the channel. Butterworth already has all the major infrastructure in place for a modern city (rail, port and highway) and is currently developing its integrated transportation hub. Such an approach would allow Penang to develop a more compact city while also spurring development of the wider mainland.

While the suggested catamaran service is welcome in the face of a declining ferry service, a rapid transit connection between the two centres can support closer integration. It is however unclear if the suggested LRT connection between Penang Island and Butterworth is contingent on the reclamation of Middle Bank, as subsequent presentations of the SRS proposals have included a LRT connection via a marine viaduct without the reclamation of Middle Bank. We would suggest that a rapid transit connection between Butterworth and George Town should be afforded a high priority for the reasons outlined above.

In summary

The PTMP is an ambitious development plan with a 50 year planning horizon and this must be commended. However, we would caution that the plans should be critically examined to ensure they are modelled on the best possible data sources, and that while ambitious in scale, the proposals perhaps lack ambition in terms of stating how the PTMP can catalyse our development in a more sustainable manner, so that Penang may become a truly international and intelligent city.

[1] The population growth rate between 2000 and 2010 was 2.4%. Projecting the population forward on the basis of this continued growth rate would provide a population of 1,934,846 by 2020, and 2,452,708 by 2030. The population assumption for 2065 has not been made available and SRS were unable to confirm this assumption at the time of writing, however the continued extrapolation of this method would produce a population of 5.6m in 2065.

[2] We suggest from available evidence that it would not be feasible to run a monorail on a road with less than 4 lanes, and even in such an instance, a 2m central reservation would be required. The orange sections of the map indicate 3 lanes, while the red sections indicate a dual track.

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Editor’s comment:

I very much admire the calm and highly informed manner in which this critical analysis is presented. In my professional view the Master Plan itself is not of a world-level quality from a strategic perspective (though when it gets down to specific technical and engineering considerations they are much better). I intend to comment more extensively on these strategic and policy aspects once we have heard from the other participants.

About the editor:

Eric Britton
13, rue Pasteur. Courbevoie 92400 France

Bio: Founding editor of World Streets (1988), Eric Britton is an American political scientist, teacher, occasional consultant, and sustainability activist who has observed, learned, taught and worked on missions and advisory assignments on all continents. In the autumn of 2019, he committed his remaining life work to the challenges of aggressively countering climate change and specifically greenhouse gas emissions emanating from the mobility sector. He is not worried about running out of work. Further background and updates: @ericbritton | | #fekbritton | | and | Contact: | +336 508 80787 (Also WhatApp) | Skype: newmobility.)

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