(The following article appeared on 6 February 2016 in the Penang social justice blog anilnetto.com . The original is available here .)
Our guest contributor is Eric Britton, a sustainable transport expert who visited Penang a couple of years ago. He says, “The priority is not to further expand supply of inefficiently used infrastructure, but rather to manage and use it better.” This was written in December 16 2013 before the latest Penang transport master plan.
This report and the months of planning and preparation behind it is intended as a collaborative brainstorming exercise. At a time when public policy in the transport sector needs new ideas and new approaches, we have attempted to scan interesting practices worldwide in order to draw them to attention to all of those concerned with these issues in Penang. The report is thus not a how to-do manual but an encouragement and stimulus for no less than Rethinking Penang.
And that is much needed. The underlying reality on the streets and public spaces in 2013 is this: Penang’s transport, mobility and public space arrangements in 2015 leave a great deal to be desired. With some but few exceptions, they are mediocre at best and for the most part entirely unsatisfactory, unfairly and underperforming. And there is no good reason that it has to be like that..
The grinding situation is one of every day: more cars, more traffic, more congestion, more pollution, more lost time, more anger, more noise, more isolation, more accidents, and fewer good affordable options for getting around for the vast majority of the population. The system is inefficient, and worse it is unjust. But there is worse yet: year after year they are continuing to deteriorate steadily, almost visibly. The citizens and taxpayers of Penang deserve better.
One bit of good news is that there is virtually nothing that is particularly original about the circumstances of inattention, inconsistency and decay; these are the same behaviors, patterns and conditions encountered in the vast majority of all larger cities across the developing world. Perhaps surprisingly this can be seen as good news. Because we thus know what the problems are and we know how to resolve them. There are very few unknowns. Many other cities and regions have faced these challenges in the past and have figured out how to make this transition. So there is no reason the same cannot be done in Penang. And one day it will. The only question is when?
There are a long list of reasons why Penang needs to turn the situation around and without undue delay. In the 21st century cities compete and any city which does not offer a pleasant and efficient place to live and work is going to lose out in the international competitions. The best and brightest young people will leave such a place and it cannot expect to compete for new investments, jobs and the creativity of the brightest and best in the international arena. Quality of life counts!
So for all these reasons it is time for those driving transport policy and practice in Penang to start to look hard at what can be done to make it not only a great place to live and work but also a vigorous competitor for the best. Fortunately Penang has a number of real advantages, potential and eventual tools and measures that can now be put to work for this reconversion effort.
The good news is that the State has in hand virtually everything needed in order to prepare, initiate and advance a major sustainable transportation reform. The money, the technical capacities, the institutional framework, the autonomy, and the ideas and examples needed to make major improvements, many at very low cost and well within the 2015 time horizon of the Transport Master Plan. The Master Plan already sets out a number of institutional and technical reforms needed to improve the performance of all aspects of transport in the state efficiency, environment, economy, resources, energy, and quality of life for all. It provides a solid point of departure.
You have in place a solid institutional structure, led by the State, supported by the Penang Transport Council, with at the core the dynamic Municipal Councils on the island (MPPP) and the mainland (MPSP). All of which supported by one of the most well developed networks of civil society and public interest groups in all of Asia. These are huge assets for your transformational program.
It’s not a matter of money. You have sufficient funds under your control to make a virtually all of the improvements which are necessary over the course of the next two years, if you concentrate above all on the management of the transportation assets you already have — as opposed to as in the past spending heavily on new construction projects to solve your problems. The priority is not to further expand supply of inefficiently used infrastructure, but rather to manage and use it better. The Transport Master Plan provides a number of useful guidelines for how to do this.
With the collaboration of my colleagues at Think City and all those who have so generously given of their time and ideas over these last weeks, and particularly all those participating in the Focus Groups, we have come up with an initial brainstorming list of some forty specific project initiatives which can be done quickly, and which are entirely under the control of state and local governments. As author I very much hope you will look at them, and in time through your suggestions and recommendations help us to expand and improve this open resource inventory.
If we think of the world cities as being roughly divided into “leading” and “lagging”, the truth is that Penang today solidly implanted in the latter category. But so too, and not all that many years ago, were many of the leading cities that today are showing the way. Most of them not all that many years ago were also victims of inconsistent, unthought-out, unimaginative, selfish, undemocratic and inefficient transportation policies themselves. The lesson is that you do not wake up in the morning and find yourself suddenly having become a “leading city “in this respect. You have to roll up your sleeves and get to work with an entirely different set of values and goals.
But for that to occur there needed to be a vision, a strategy, plans and actions of which individually and collectively started to change the shape of the city and the quality of everyday life for the people who live and work there but also for visitors who come because they are eager to see and be in a situation in which an agreeable and sustainable city environment has been achieved.
The key to the success of this project will be in the follow-up in the year ahead. What you see here is but a first cut of ideas and projects. But it will be in the follow-up, the adoption of these ideas by local groups and agencies who can turn them into reality that will make the difference.
In closing I can tell you one thing for sure. And that is that Penang will one day make all the necessary reforms that today are so badly needed. You will get to it, sooner or later, because that is what the world trend is. That’s what successful cities do. So it is really a question of time. If you have the vision, the strategy, the energy and the leadership you can advance the agenda by a decade in just the next year or two of careful applied work. That will be your choice — no one can do it but you.
Eric Britton, Lyon.
10 December 2013
- The above is from the executive summary of Sustainable Penang: Towards a New Mobility Agenda 2013-2015, which is now available in the Sustainable Penang Public Library here – https://goo.gl/gJTJZD
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Anil Netto is involved in the social reform groups Aliran and Penang Forum, which discusses sustainable development issues. He blogs at anilnetto.com. In his “previous life”, Anil trained and worked as a chartered accountant and external auditor in England before returning to Malaysia to be immersed in corporate life. Before long, he found himself drawn to journalism and writing about human rights, socio-economic justice issues and sustainable development issues. He believes we can build a more just and compassionate world while caring for the environment.