Bigger, Wider, Faster and More Roads for Penang . . . : Politicians, Engineers, External Costs (And you)


What are the actual costs off building bigger, wider, fast and more roads for Penang: Let’s start by hearing two conflicting and in many ways typical opinions:

1. The Consumers’ Association of Penang

The Consumers’ Association of Penang (CAP) calls on the City Council of Penang Island (MBPP) and Penang State Government to cancel the 1.8km road widening project along Jalan Masjid Negeri to save the roadside trees.

We are upset that consideration is being given to vehicle movement, at the expense of the trees. The roadside trees provide many benefits to us including providing oxygen, much-needed cooling, cleaner air, shade, sound barrier, absorb storm water and also the greenery which gives the road’s distinctive charm and character.

Major changes are underway in Penang. The fast pace of development and priority given to motor vehicles is destroying Penang’s natural charm.  With more greenery gone replaced by concrete jungle, Penang will soon become an unliveable habitat. Hence there is a dire need to preserve the character of our tree-lined suburbs and city.

The Penang government should stay true to their word. A Green Penang should be naturally Green. People of Penang must stand up and demand that our greenery, from the hills to the roadside trees, is conserved.

We cannot be silent observers to the wanton destruction of our irreplaceable rich natural heritage in the name of development. We should not give in to crass materialism.

Penang. 16 February 2016.

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2. Penang Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng

George Town. 18 February. In New Straits Times On-line


Penang Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng is baffled as to why the uprooting of trees for a road widening project along Jalan Masjid Negeri has become “such a big issue.” Commenting on a recent protests by an NGO over a number of trees which are set to be relocated, Lim said other states also do the same thing.

“In other states, they cut down trees or forests and it is not an issue. But in Penang, it becomes a very big issue if we uproot even one tree. “In other states, road widening projects are not an issue but in Penang, it is,” he said, adding that the road widening project was not to make money or benefit any company.

Lim called on NGOs to also protest on matters of national interest and not just on the environment. “Do not be emotional. Be rational. “If you want to protest, show also your concern about the country and demonstrate about political funding,”

Read More :

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But there is more to it than trees

This is not only a Penang story. It is a conflict of understanding, priorities and at the end of the day our behaviour.

The hard fact  is that politicians and engineers are hard-wired into an old model. And for this reason they traditionally have  had trouble accepting a more encompassing, more strategic approach to sorting out these issues and priorities – precisely because they are trained to look at something else. It’s simply a matter of long-standing professional deformation in both professions.

For the average politician it is important that they seem to be doing something about a problem which gets many complaints and unhappy citizens.  Even if the long term impacts make things even worse than before, which is often in the case when your transport policy consists of widening or building new roads in order to solve mounting congestion problems — and in particular with cities in which the growth of automobiles continues to increase.

As to the engineers — and in particular the older ones who were trained in a different time with different constraints — their expertise lies in designing and building good roads. That’s what they learned at university.

And to make it all the harder, there are all those interests who profit from road building, as we saw in yesterday’s Follow the Money article –  They often exert strong pressures on local government with lobbies and relationships that can be hard to resist.

But it does not have to be that way.  However in order to get around the corner on this particular problem, both the politicians and their engineers need to look at the issues and choices from the OVERALL strategic situation — which is quite different from the one they are accustomed to seeing. To do this we need to consider the externalities. Let’s have a look.

External costs

The trick in getting this right is that they have to alter their key decision criteria, and bring in something called external costs. (More on this at .

An externality is a cost or benefit incurred by a party’s decision or purchase on another, who neither consents, nor is considered in the decision. Potential negative externalities (external costs or disbenefits) in transport include:

  • increases in traffic congestion,
  • induced demand and trip length,
  • air pollution,
  • water pollution,
  • noise,
  • driver behaviour and aggressiveness
  • accidents,
  • public health costs,
  • climate change,
  • impacts on nature,
  • indigenous culture, tradition and quality of life,
  • displaced homes, livelihoods, neighborhoods (communities),
  • resource imports,
  • family time,
  • infrastructure wear and tear,
  • policing and enforcement costs,
  • equity, etc.

(And somewhere, somehow in all that are those trees.)

That’s quite a long list and if it looks like it is gong to be hard to do, you can relax,: it is. But what we have learned from many painful experiences and lessons over the last half century is that in a democratic society worthy of the name all these factors need to be sought out and taken into consideration.

What this gives us for decision making  is nothing less than a radically different, transformative  way of thinking about decisions in our sector. An entirely new toolset. Fair-minded politicians and engineers — once they assimilate this new information and the technical procedures that go with them –have shown that they can quickly come around to this different point of view once it has been adequately explained to them .

The good news is that both these important groups have taken this important step in many many cities around the world that are getting the challenges of efficient and sustainable transport right. And the proof is there for all to see in the hundreds of cities  world-wide that are showing the way. Thus Penang should be looking at these examples and learning from them.

For an excellent review of these issues check out the following 2014 report of the European Commission: “Update of the Handbook on External Costs of Transport“.  Freely available at

Traffic congestion is a notorious external cost of driving, such as in São Paulo

Traffic congestion is a notorious external cost of driving, such as here in São Paulo

Want to see more on this? Take a minute to check out the following World Streets article: “Whoops! How Planners and Engineers Badly Overestimate Car Traffic” at

# # #


For those who may wish to dig deeper, the following with thanks to Todd Litman and the Victoria Transport Policy Institute (

Vtpi Litman Canada

  1. Md Aftabuzzaman, Graham Currie and Majid Sarvi (2010), “Evaluating the Congestion Relief Impacts of Public Transport in Monetary Terms,” Journal of Public Transportation, Vol
  2. Richard Arnott (2013), “A Bathtub Model of Downtown Traffic Congestion,” Journal of Urban Economics, ; summarized in
  3. Robert L Bertini (2005), You Are the Traffic Jam: An Examination of Congestion Measures, TRB Annual Meeting (; at
  4. Matt Bevilacqua (2012), “Interview: John Norquist and Our Congestion Obsession,” Next American City, 5 March 2012;
  5. BTRE (2007), Estimating Urban Traffic and Congestion Cost Trends For Australian Cities, Working Paper No 71. Bureau of Transport and Regional Economics (; at
  6. BTS (2003), Better Road Congestion Measures Are Needed, Bureau of Transportation Statistics (; at
  7. Cambridge Systematics (2004), Traffic Congestion and Reliability: Linking Solutions to Problems, FHWA (; at
  8. CEBR (2013), Economic and Environmental Costs of Gridlock: An Assessment Of The Direct And Indirect Economic And Environmental Costs Of Idling During Heavy Road Traffic Congestion To Households In The UK, France and Germany, INRIX (; at
  9. Aparajita Chakrabartty and Sudakshina Gupta (2015), “Estimation of Congestion Cost in the City of Kolkata—A Case Study,” Current Urban Studies, 95-104; at
  10. Joe Cortright (2010), Driven Apart: How Sprawl is Lengthening Our Commutes and Why Misleading Mobility Measures are Making Things Worse, CEOs for Cities (; at
  11. DFT (2006), Transport Analysis Guidance, Integrated Transport Economics and Appraisal, Department for Transport (; at
  12. Benjamin Dachis (2013), Cars, Congestion And Costs: A New Approach To Evaluating Government Infrastructure Investment, C.D Howe Institute (; at
  13. Eric Dumbaugh (2012), Rethinking the Economics of Traffic Congestion, Atlantic Cities (, 1 June 2012; at
  14. Transportation Cost and Benefit Analysis II – Congestion Costs Victoria Transport Policy Institute ( 18 May 2016 Page 5.5-27
  15. EDRG (2007), The Cost of Highway Limitations and Traffic Delay to Oregon’s Economy, Oregon Business Council and Portland Business Alliance (; at
  16. FHWA (2006), Travel Time Reliability: Making It There On Time, All The Time, FHWA (; at FHWA (Quarterly), Urban Congestion Reports, Office of Operations, Federal Highway Administration (; at
  17. Susan Grant-Muller and James Laird (2007), International Literature Review of the Costs of Road Traffic Congestion, Scottish Executive (; at
  18. HEATCO (2006), Final Technical Report, Harmonised European Approaches for Transport Costing and Project Assessment (
  19. Kent Hymely (2009), “Does Traffic Congestion Reduce Employment Growth?” Journal of Urban Economics, 127-135; at
  20. INRIX (annual reports), National Traffic Scorecard, INRIX (
  21. Kara Kockelman (2011), “Traffic Congestion,” Chapter 22, Transportation Engineering Handbook, McGraw Hill (; pre-print at
  22. Maxwell G Lay (2011), “Measuring Traffic Congestion,” Road & Transport Research (, Vol 20 No 1 March,
  23. Todd Litman (2012), Smart Congestion Relief: Comprehensive Analysis Of Traffic Congestion Costs and Congestion Reduction Benefits, Paper P12-5310, TRB Annual Meeting, Victoria Transport Policy Institute (; at,
  24. Todd Litman (2013), Factors to Consider When Estimating Congestion Costs and Evaluating Potential Congestion Reduction Strategies, submitted for publication in the ITE Journal, VTPI (; at
  25. Todd Litman (2013b), “Smarter Congestion Relief In Asian Cities: Win-Win Solutions To Urban Transport Problems,” Transport and Communications Bulletin for Asia and the Pacific, No 82 ( ); at
  26. NZTA (2007), “Traffic Congestion Values,” Economic Evaluation Manual, New Zealand Transport Agency (; at
  27. OECD/ECMT (2007), Managing Urban Traffic Congestion, Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and European Conference of Transport Ministers (ECMT); at
  28. Transportation Cost and Benefit Analysis II – Congestion Costs Victoria Transport Policy Institute ( 18 May 2016 Page 5.5-28 Parsons Brinckerhoff (2012), Improving our Understanding of How Highway Congestion and Price Affect Travel Demand: Executive Summary and Technical Report, SHRP 2 Project C04, TRB (; at
  29. Amudapuram Mohan Rao and Kalaga Ramachandra Rao (2012), “Measuring Urban Traffic Congestion – A Review,” International Journal for Traffic and Transport Engineering, Vol 286-305; at d395IJTTE_Vol%202(4)_1.pdf Francois Schneider,
  30. Axel Nordmann and Friedrich Hinterberger (2002), “Road Traffic Congestion: The Extent of the Problem,” Vol 8, No 1, World Transport Policy & Practice (,
  31. David Schrank and Tim Lomax (multiple years), Mobility Measures; and the Urban Mobility Study, Texas Transportation Institute (
  32. Niklas Sieber and Peter Bicker (2008), Assessing Transportation Policy Impacts on the Internalization of Externalities of Transport, Transport & Mobility Leuven, for the European Commission; at
  33. TTI (annual reports), Urban Mobility Report, Texas Transportation Institute (
  34. UCLA (2003), Traffic Congestion Issues and Options, UCLA Extension Public Policy Program (; at
  35. van Essen, et al (2004), Marginal Costs of Infrastructure Use, CE Delft (; at
  36. Tom Vanderbilt (2008), Traffic: Why We Drive The Way We Do, Vintage (
  37. Ian Wallis and David Lupton (2013), The Costs Of Congestion Reappraised, Report 489, New Zealand Transport Agency (; at
  38. Glen Weisbrod, Donald Vary and George Treyz (2001), Economic Implications of Congestion, NCHRP 463, TRB (; at
  39. Wilbur Smith (2008), Traffic & Transportation Policies and Strategies in Urban Areas in India, Ministry of Urban Development (; at

That should keep you busy.

malaysia Penang big  traffic jam on highway

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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