RETHINKING NEW MOBILITY IN PENANG: The search for Values, Vision, Competence, Strategies, Tactics . . and Happiness.

malaysia Penang trishaw sleeping driver


Dr. AH Abdul Hamid, an eminent traffic and transport engineer from the School of Housing, Building and Planning at the USM, has recently  issued a strong call to respond to the at times acrimonious debate between the government and its consultants who are defending a high cost, car-oriented, project-oriented “Big Bang” program of costly investments (PTMP), and on the other side a coalition of representatives of civil society in Penang who are asking for a revised planning process that better corresponds  to the needs, the environment and the vision of the people of Penang. This call, first published locally in Chinese in the China Press of August 13, 2016 was translated into English and reposted in the Wednesday edition of World Streets –

Dr. Hamad takes a step back from the increasingly acrimonious public arguments and recommends that

  • “the government engage independent experts to study both the proposals by SRS and the NGOs, based on best scientific estimates of construction cost, acquisition cost, maintenance and operation cost, life cycle, opportunity costs and externalities, ridership, environmental and life quality impacts, cultural and heritage issues, impacts on vulnerable populations, etc. . . .  instead of keep on arguing.”

Inspired by this call for perspective in the following article I have pulled out of my working  notes this article sketching what I believe to be the first basics of an appropriate planning structure and strategy for the much-needed rethink, based on the experience of many cities at the leading edge of sustainable transport that works for all.  In this form it is not an easy read, and for that I appologize. My point is that we need to find a solid science-based middle ground, and as Hilmy advises get on with it “instead of keep on arguing.”

For extensive background on both sides of this debate readers are invited to consult the right hand column of the Sustainable Penang/New Mobility website at, .

Toward a New Mobility Agenda for Penang: Principles

 – Eric Britton, Founding Editor of World Streets. 2 September 2016

* * My apologies to the reader because the treatment of that follows is a not very engaging read — and in fact is intended to serve as a working outline for a small book that I would hope to complete in the very near future, the objective of which is to see if by standing back I can spot a certain number of strategic principles which based on my experience and those of cities leading the way are central to the success of a sustainable transportation/sustainable cities program.  The book I have in mind would be aimed at public officials, researchers, universities, activists, NGOs, environmental and neighborhood groups, etc., and will I hope be made widely available at low cost in both print and Internet editions. **

Fortunately Penang does not have to start from the beginning and all by itself reinvent its presently troubled transportation arrangements to create a beautiful and sustainable city. There are many cities in different parts of the world who have in the past addressed these same challenges, patiently, consistently and with continuity and excellent results. So in many ways there is nothing new; it all depends on how you put it together. And it is these cities and these projects that provide examples for Penang. All of these examples taken together constitute what we call the New Mobility Agenda. Let’s step back a few paces from the current often acrimonious arguments, The Battle of Penang,  and have a good look as been learned over the last three decades in these “rethinking cities”.

Underlying objective: All of the strategic points set out in the following have already been adopted by leading cities around the world, many of them in Europe. And they will in time be adopted, adapted  and put into service in Penang. But the objective of this program’s  is to accelerate this learning process, in the hope of gaining at least five maybe ten or more years in bringing world-class mobility to Penang.

1.      Say good-bye to Old Mobility

“Old Mobility” – with its drumbeat stress on steadily increasing supply, more vehicles, higher speeds, longer distances and more infrastructure as the auto-pilot, unexamined answer to our city mobility problems — has been the favored path for decision-making and investment in the sector over the last 70 years. It is well-known and easy to see where it is leading.  Aggressing the planet, costing us a bundle, draining the world’s petroleum reserves, and delivering poor service for the transport majority.  It’s time to learn from the best of the rest, the several hundred cities, many of them in Europe, that are showing the way for the rest.

1.1            Get Ready for change

Virtually all of the necessary preconditions are now in place in Penang for achieving far-reaching, rapid, low-cost improvements in the ways that people get around not only in the cities but in the State as a whole. The needs are there, they are increasingly understood — and we now know what to do and how to get the job done. The challenge is to find the vision, political will, and leadership to get the job done, step by deliberate step.

But to get there we have to have an explicit, coherent, ethical, checkable, overarching strategy to get the job done. Without it we are destined to continue play at the edges of the problems, and while we may be able to announce a success or improvement here or there, the overall impact that our cities need to break the old patterns will not be there. We really must have that clear, consistent, cross-cutting, systemic strategy.

The Agenda provides a free public platform for new thinking and open collaborative group problem solving, bringing together more than a thousand leading thinkers and actors in the field from more than seventy counties worldwide, sharing information and considering together the full range of problems and eventual solution paths that constitute the global challenge of sustainable transport in cities.

1.2            Role of the Car in the City 

(Don’t worry, it’s not about to go away)

Fact: Penang has its full share of mobility related problems. And they are getting worse every year. The good news is that there is not one thing in the present transportation mess that is unique to Penang. Which puts Penang in the situation of someone who is sick, but with a well charted disease and in a world in which there are many well-known remedies for the problems. But you have to be ready to go to the doctor and explain exactly what your problem is.

ws-parkingFact: Our cities today have plenty of cars and very very large numbers of people and institutions who depend on them. They are not going to disappear from the street overnight, and we must never lose sight of their high importance to both the individuals concerned and the economic, and yes, the transport viability of our cities.

Precondition: Thus the challenge before policy makers and transportation professionals now at a time when change is so badly needed is that of redefining the role of the car so that it has a more appropriate fit with the overall texture and priorities of our 21st century cities. The indisputable fact is that if our cities are to be sustainable, one of the necessary conditions of their sustainability will be that they are home to many fewer cars. How to manage the transition when our dependence on private cars is still so very strong? We can be sure that it will not be the result of brutal confrontation. That would be a battle lost, at least in the short-term which is the field on which these issues now need to be engaged.

Bottom line: Yes, we need to reduce significantly the number of cars in and moving around in and through our cities. Yes, in order to achieve this we are going to have to provide a broad range of attractive mobility alternatives which are seen by those who use them as better than the old arrangements. And finally yes, we are going to have to provide a “soft path” for car owner/drivers to move over to these alternative transportation arrangements.

The soft path in a pluralistic democracy requires that the decisions are made by individuals in what they consider to be their own interest. As part of this we also have to build into our strategy in understanding that a certain amount of time is required for us human beings, change-averse as we are, to alter our daily mobility choices. (But this time, depending on the individual case, is a matter in most cases of months or at most a couple of years, not decades as often is said to be the case.)

1.3            The Psychopathology of the Owner/Driver

One of the key actors on the transportation scene in Penang is of course the car owner/driver. It is extremely important that we understand the mentality of this powerful minority, at all the more so since they are both part of the problem and an absolutely critical part of the solution.

When it comes to ownership, it is important to understand their mindset at each stage in the process of thinking about, dreaming about saving for and with some luck finally paying for and owning their own car. This is not an innocent process and is shaped by many external players, including of course the automobile industry which has its products to sell. And not all of these influences, habits and choices are necessarily the best ones for all involved, the car owners and their families but also the community as a whole.

Penangites, drivers and non-drivers alike, regaled me with stories of driver misbehavior in terms of speeds, lack of respect of others on the road, respect of parking restrictions, and a general level of aggressive and he and lack of social conscience which, we are told, set them apart from the rest. It is said that they own the cars and they own the road and since it is so clearly their property is for them to use as they think best.

This is just not true. Car owners and drivers in Penang are behaving in terms of the pattern which is well-established and can be seen in many parts of the world. In earlier times when the sheer number of cars being poured into our cities was much less, this misbehavior is far less of a problem that it is today. There is a process of maturation, and the public sector through knowledge and ability to communicate well and at the right time is the critical link in the process of civilizing the car.

There is extensive background in this area researched and written by not only transportation specialist but also, most appropriately, sociologists, behavioral psychologists, neurologists, psychiatrist and psychoanalyst. Likewise there are significant contributions that been made by the story and, political scientists, environmentalists and, if I may, even economists.

It would be important and a significant tool or public policymaking in Penang can develop some centers of expertise in this area.

1.4            The New Mobility Agenda in brief

The New Mobility Agenda builds on a well-defined platform when it comes to transport policy, planning and investment, the result of long experience of working with and observing the sector in its daily operation in cities around the world. It would not be true to claim that these views are unique to us; indeed they have been distilled over the years as result of contacts and work in collaboration with farsighted colleagues and policymakers in many places. They are shared, at least in good part and with variations, by just about all of our most distinguished colleagues.

The main reference point for all that you will read in these pages is a long-term program, the New Mobility Agenda, an international collaborative effort focusing entirely on transportation in and around cities. It has been in operation since 1988 with continuous interactive presence on the internet as one of the pillars of the collaborative knowledge-building process that is behind it. And this is what we have concluded:

Penang heavy traffic smaller

2. A New Mobility Strategy for Penang

* Basic principles and strategies that make up the New Mobility Agenda

The shift from old to new mobility is not one that turns its back on the importance of high quality mobility for the economy and for quality of life. It is not a step down. To the contrary! with the proven organizational models and technologies we now have at our fingertips, and in the labs, it is possible to redraw our transportation systems and use of valuable public space so that there is less inefficient movement (the idea of one person sitting in traffic in a large car with the engine idling is one example, an empty bus another) and more high-efficiency, high-quality, low-carbon transportation that offers many more mobility choices than in the past, including the one that environmentalists and many others find most appealing: namely, getting what you want without having to venture out into traffic at all. Now that’s an interesting new mobility strategy, too.

Here you have the twenty key underlying principles of the strategic policy frame that is needed to shape and guide the transition principles that we and colleagues around the world have diligently pieced together over the years of work, observation and close contact with projects and programs in leading cities on all continents under the New Mobility Agenda.

The short words of introduction after each strategy title below are intended here only as a first check-list of key principles, to be consulted and used carefully to screen all new project and investment commitments in the sector. Each has an abundant literature and each is an accepted part of the New Mobility Agenda toolkit. Let’s have a look.

Strategy 1. Climate Emergency leading the way

Planetary issues such as climate change and massive resource depletion, do not have a major voice in most local transportation plans and investment decisions. . The on-going emergency sets the global timetable for action in our sector. Getting the carbon, and with it fossil fuels, out of the sector is an important goal in any event. But low-carbon strategies per se are not really a strategic tool per se.

At the same time GHG reduction works as a strong surrogate for just about everything else to which we need to be giving priority attention in our cities, chief among them the need to cut traffic. Fewer vehicles on the road means reduced energy consumption, less pollution in all forms, fewer accidents, reduced bills for infrastructure construction and maintenance, quieter and safer cities, and the long list goes on.

What is so particularly interesting about the mobility sector is that there is really a great deal we can do in a relatively little time. And at relatively low cost. Beyond this, there is an important joker which also needs to be brought into the picture from the very beginning, and that is that these reductions can be achieved not only without harming the economy or quality of life for the vast majority of all people. To the contrary sustainable transport reform can be part of a 21st century economic revival which places increased emphasis on services and not products.

Strategy 2. Reduce traffic radically.

The critical, incontrovertible policy core of the Agenda – is to find a way to engineer major, near-term full screen percentage cuts in vehicle miles traveled and in particular in high density areas. If we don’t achieve this, we will have a situation in which all the key indicators will continue to move in the wrong direction. But we can cut traffic and at the same time improve mobility. And the economy. That’s our New Mobility strategy.[1]

Strategy 3. Expand HOV mobility services available to all:

Extend the range, quality and degree of integration of non-car mobility services available to all. A whole range of exciting and practical new service modes is needed if we are to keep our cities viable.

The list of these alternative service types is quite long, and in addition within each of these are a considerable variety of different ways of delivering these services. Among the most widely known are small community buses, elderly and handicapped services, carsharing and car clubs, ridesharing and carpools, nonmotorized transport including cycling and walking, taxis (both legal and illegal since the latter exists), DRT or demand responsive transit, various forms of hitchhiking and slogging, and the long list goes on.

And they need to COMBINE to offer better, faster and cheaper mobility than the old car-intensive arrangements or deficit-financed, heavy, old-technology, traditional public transit. We need to open up our minds on this last score and understand that rather than being stuck in the past with a 19th century version of how “common people” best get about, it is important to move over to a new paradigm of a great variety of ways of providing shared transport mediated in good part by 21st-century information communications technologies.

 Strategy 4. Tighten time frame for action

Select and gear all actions to achieve visible results within a two to five-year time frame. Spend at least 50%, preferably more, of all your transportation budget on measures and projects that are going to yield visible results within this time frame. Set firm targets for all to see and judge the results. No-excuse results-oriented transport policy.

Strategy 5. Design and Deliver for the Transportation Majority

The “transportation majority” is not what most people think, transportation planners and policy makers among them. The transportation majority are all those of us who increasingly are poorly served by the mainline, no-choice, car-based, truncated service arrangements that eat up most of our taxpayer money and take away our choices. And each year, as our populations age this majority grows in numbers. (For details see section here on The Transportation Majority at

Strategy 6. Take advantage of frugal economics:

We are not going to need another round of high cost, low impact investments to make it work. We simply take over 50% of the transport related budgets and use it to address projects and reforms that are going to make those big differences in the next several years.

Strategy 7. Build on what we have:

For many transportation planners and experts schooled in the old mobility college, this will be one of the least evident of the strategic building blocks behind the New Mobility Agenda. In the first place, because many of these systems or services turn out to be almost invisible to policymakers working in the transport sector. These can range from various kinds of taxis and community or specialized transport services, all the way to the kind of chaotic, streets-clogging or almost invisible modes, often dangerous (dangerous, because that is the way we treat them) services such as small private buses, shared taxis, pedicabs, informal carsharing, informal ride sharing, and a range of illegal or arrangements which I can or not they to work for lots of people in many places, but which in most cases and despite their present drawbacks probably need not to be suppressed but rather to be better understood, negotiated, improved in consort with the suppliers, and integrated into the multilevel range of transportation options that are really what is best suited for cities in all parts of the world.

Strategy 8. Irreversibilities: Do not build yourself into a corner

Many cities which today enjoy immensely improved transportation systems and services were not always so wise in the past. As a result major bits of transportation infrastructure which were improperly planned and built time had to be removed. This is a costly and painful process. The lesson we can learn from that — particularly at times like the present where it most parts of the world money is scarce — is not to build ourselves into a corner that later we would like to get out of. Therefore all major construction projects which involve the expansion of road infrastructure and vehicle traffic need to be examined critically at the present time to determine the full cycle of events they are likely to set off, and with a careful analysis of determining if there are other, possibly better, cheaper and faster ways of getting the job done.

Strategy 9. Design and deploy packages of measures

As distinguished from the old ways of planning and making investments what is required in most places today are carefully interlinked “packages” of numerous small as well as larger projects and initiatives. Involving many more actors and participants. One of the challenges of an effective new mobility policy will be to find ways to see these various measures as interactive synergistic and mutually supporting projects within a unified greater whole. A significant challenge to our planners at all levels

 Strategy 10. Integrate the car into the new mobility pattern

missing car in city - bike parking in shapeState-of-the-art technology can be put to work hand in hand with the changing role of the private car in the city in order to create situations in which even car use can be integrated with a far softer edge into the overall mobility strategy. These advantages need to be widely broadcast so as to increase acceptance of the new pattern of urban mobility. The new mobility environment must also be able to accommodate people in cars, since that is an incontrovertible reality which will not go away simply because it would seem like an ideal solution. We are going to have plenty of small and medium-sized four-wheel, rubber-tired, driver-operated vehicles running around on the streets of our cities and the surrounding regions, so the challenge of planners and policymakers is to ensure that this occurs in a way which is increasingly harmonious to the broader social, economic and environmental objectives set out here.

 Strategy 11. Full speed ahead with new technology

New mobility is at its core heavily driven by the aggressive application of state of the art logistics, communications and information technology across the full spectrum of service types. The transport system of the future is above all an interactive information system, with the wheels and the feet at the end of this chain. These are the seven-league boots of new mobility.

Strategy 12. Technology agnostics/Performance advocates

Please note: We do not care, nor should we care, what is the technology to be used or favored at any point in the system. It is not the role of inevitably under-informed, naive, and ever-hopeful policymakers to make determinations about which technology is going to be the best to build into the system. This is way past their level of competence, and is not in any event even necessary in order to create the preconditions of a better transportation system. But what our policymakers can do, and what they should do, is to specify not technology but performance. There many ways in which this can be done, two of which include two performance standards and emissions standards. But there are more.

Parking day

Parking day. Pay hourly rate, feed the meter and use it all day long. Invite your friends.

Strategy 13. Play the “infrastructure joker”

The transport infrastructures of our cities have been vastly overbuilt and are still not able to deal with the problems of the geometry of the growing number of ars that are competing for that limited space.  And when it comes ot sustainable mobility and sustainable cities they are unable to deliver the goods. We can do a lot better, as long as we leave those old ways fo thinking behind us. That’s just great, since it means that we can now take over substantial portions of the street network for far more efficient modes. (To the right an example of a Park(ing) day project to inspire the public in Penang.)

Strategy 14. Design for and by women in leading roles

Janette Sadik-Khan, New York City

Janette Sadik-Khan in the middle of braodway

Leena Silfverberg, Helsinki

Leena Silfverberg

Anumita Roychowdhury, Delhi

Anumita roychowdhury woman

Jane Jacobs, Everywhere

Jane Jacobs Washingon square demo

Our old mobility system was designed by, and ultimately for, a certain type of person (think about it!). And so too should the new mobility system: but this time around it should be designed to accommodate specifically women, of all ages and conditions. Do that and we will serve everybody far better. And for that to happen we need to have a major leadership shift toward women and, as part of that, to move toward gender parity in all bodies involved in the decision process. It’s that simple. (See To fix Sustainable Transport: Ensure Full Gender Parity in all Decision and Investment Fora (QED))

* What happens if roughly half of the people biking in your city are female?  It is a success!  And what happens if there are many more people on bikes but the great majority are male. it is a FAILURE. (Sometimes life is simple.)

* And for green space and city parks. IT IS THE SAME THING! You have to go back to the drawing board!

Strategy 15. Outreach and Partnerships

This approach, because it is new and unfamiliar to most people, is unlike to be understood the first few times around. Hence a major education, consultation and outreach effort is needed in each place to make it work. Old mobility was the terrain in which decisions were made by transport experts working within their assigned zones of competence. New mobility is based on wide-based collaborative problem solving, outreach and harnessing the great strengths of the informed and educated populations of our cities. Public/private/citizen partnerships.

 Strategy 16. Lead by Example:

If you are mayor or other elected official. If you are engaged as a professional in public policy areas that relate to the sustainability agenda . . . you don’t have a choice really, you must lead by personal example. This means getting to work by bike, walking, public transport or some form of carsharing/ridesharing at least two days a week. Every week. By doing this, you will have hands-on knowledge of what works and what does not in your city. You become Eyes on the Street. You will be authentic and credible. You will be the kind of leader we need to identify and guide the reforms, policies and projects that must now be put in place. And if you do not do this, if you stay in the back seat of your limo, you won’t get my vote.

Strategy 17. Set High Targets

“If you can’t measure it you can’t manage it” or so the expression goes. That is true when it comes to transportation reform as anywhere else. So in order to reinforce the move toward sustainable transportation what should be the thing we decide to commit for measure? Too many high targets and we are lost. So what about picking ONE to be sponsored and implemented the highest levels of state government and making that a major program supported by a vigorous public information program and open data for citizen inspection and confirmation.

  • What should that one target be?

Strategy 18. . . . And Make Them Widely Known 

Everyone involved, and certainly including the general public, need to be made continuously aware of the fact that something different, something serious is going on. If people selling cars and gasoline hammer through the media every day to pass their message, we need to take a page out of their book to do the same. And not just feeble one-time well-intentioned shots, but an aggressive continuing strategic media campaign with the resources behind it to make it stick.

Strategy 19. Reward and Support Innovation

Policy makers but also other institutions and groups who care about their city need to be supportive and on the lookout for innovation, of which there is plentiful need in our sector. It will be useful to create something along the lines of a central repertoire that will keep track of innovational attempt in difference places. It will be useful to create incentives to encourage innovation, through prizes, publicity or financial awards. The idea is to celebrate innovation and adaptation of good ideas and hard work no matter what their origin. Because government cannot do it all.

 Strategy 20. Surprise

Try not to lecture and not to bore. Give a careful look to the possibility of introducing or testing what may at first appear to be “crazy ideas”.  For example, what about paying people who leave their car behind, and bike or walk (or take some form of shared transport) to work. Require than public officials and employees come to work not in solo cars? Or pay people to take the bus for a while (to help them test and maybe build some new habits? Change the mode. Engage imaginations. Engage vulnerable people. Ask them for ideas. And if it does not get results, into the garbage can. 

 Strategy 21. But above all . . . PICK WINNERS!

There is no reason for policymakers to take unnecessary chances. New approaches demand success. When it comes to transport innovation in the second decade of the 21st century there is no margin of error. Moreover, the track record of the kinds of approaches that are needed to create a new system is rich and well documented. Meaning that we can choose policies and services with track records of success and build on all this accumulated experience. (And there are plenty of them out there if we are prepared to look and learn.)

 [1] We asked the reader to be patient with these short descriptions, each of which needs to be introduced and developed in considerable detail. But that is not the objective of the present exercise. In each case, and let us take this one for example, it is easy enough to say that an important strategy is “to reduce traffic radically”. But then there is a matter of how this is achieved. But the important thing is that once that this is expected as an underlying general principle for policy, then it is time to put the technical experts on the challenge of how to achieve it.

# # #

* Annex A 2013 Think City brainstorming report

Britton report 27nov13 cover

* A copy of this report is freely available at 

Annex B:  The Penang Challenge Dialogue

And finally if you want to have some background on the growing debate on the massive SRS construction and real estate program named Transport Master Plan, here are some sources to help you out.  With more available in the right hand menu of

0. How it works
1. Brainstorming the SDS PTMP
2. Big Bang SRS projects
4. NGO Challenge
3. NGO Media release 
5. 2-minute NGO Intro  (Hilarious and highly competent – a great way to reach out beyond the usual public.)
6. Penang Transport Primer
7. BCF report and recommendations
8. Sign the NGO BCF petition 
9. Government response to NGOs
10. Stage 1 Policy Report
11. Equal Time

# # #

About the author:

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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