Towards a New Mobility Agenda for Penang: October 2016

Penang Forum meeting

Penang Forum meeting

An open letter to Mr. Joshua Woo
Special Officer to Member of Parliament of Bukit Mertajam

Subject: – Commentary on your article appearing in the Penang Monthly October issue under the title “Better, Cheaper, Faster – Really?” –

Dear Joshua,

It was good to have news from you via your recent article in the Penang Monthly because I had been worrying about the long silence.  That is not at all like you.

I have now had a good look at your piece and would like to share with you and our many friends and colleagues in and beyond Penang some of my thoughts and reactions on the points you bring up.  I’ll put numbers on the various points so that it will facilitate your and others’ comments and eventual later discussions.

  1. For starters, thank you, it was very nicely written. You are a good journalist and you have an eye and preference for detail and a willingness to pursue it.  Thanks for that.
  2. I would also like to congratulate you on your very droll title. “Better, Cheaper, Faster – Really?”  I like it.  Really!  It is always agreeable to start off on a serious inquiry on disputed matters with a smile.  You also are setting up your readers for that little “Really?” —  Meaning that in most cases the reader will approach your article with genuine curiosity in finding out what your Really? really means.
  3. But now let’s get to matters of content, the reason we are all here. Upon reflection I spot a fundamental weakness in your analysis, and it is, I’m sorry to say, fatal to what you announce you are intending to achieve.  Basically what you set out to do, and that you accomplish, is four things (a) to provide brief background by way of introduction on your PTMP in two sentences, and then (b) zero in on the proposed SRS LRT project, followed up with determined commentaries on two points of detail which are far too complex to be sorted out in a short generalist article: (c) the first on different ridership projections and (d) the second on cost differences between LRTs vs tramways.  You also slip in an important word at the end on (e) funding, how to pay for all this. And all that in 1953 words.
  4. You do a commendable job and argue your case steadily from your perspective. However, the problem, Joshua, is that what you have selected for commentary are not the key issues. At this point they are just details, eventually relevant but not what we should be looking at in October 2016.
  5. It’s not that you are wrong. Certainly the time will come when we need to have a sensible set of forecasts about ridership and behind that of course farebox recovery ratios. And certainly we will have to have highly detailed and professional information about cost and benefits of the eventual alternative proposals every step along the way, both in terms of standard business accounting practices and the more sophisticated and difficult analyses that are required to take into account the entire complex web of “external costs and benefits”.
  6. Let me dig into this just a bit further here because it is a fundamental issue for professional transport planners who are fully schooled in these most demanding technical niceties of their profession. So quickly now . . .
  7. When you talk about negative externalities (external costs or disbenefits) in transport we scrutinize such things as probable increases in traffic congestion, induced demand and trip length; air pollution; water pollution; noise; 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.
  8. This is the level of skill and detail which need to be brought into the overall transportation strategy, the analysis and the plans — which I believe is at the present time entirely lacking in the materials which I have had an opportunity to review (and I tried very hard to gain access to the famous twenty hidden volumes of the SRS reports which I very much hope will eventually be made available for the world to see and judge, including more than a hundred of my international colleagues who are trying to follow the events in Penang through our open collaborative web platform sustainable Penang: toward a new mobility agenda at and
  9. But, and this is something that you allude to in your final short paragraph, this is a level of analysis which the authorities in Penang have not yet carried out and which it really must if you are to have a transportation master plan worthy of the term.
  10. Now to get back your article: in closing in your final paragraph you make two interesting statements concerning both (a) the various reports, presentations, supporting statements, explanatory videos, etc. that have been prepared by Penang civil society as a challenge to present government policy – and (b) the other side the current government PTMP which is introduced so well in their website at I would like to comment briefly on them one at a time.
  11. You write “At best the BCF is a cautionary note to the state government and SRS to exercise extra care with the PTMP”.
    • Agreed: Now I find that a very interesting statement and in fact I would say that you’re hitting the nail right on the head. That to my mind is exactly what the Penang Forum and their many civil society collaborators are asking for.  That “extra care” is now called for without taking one more single step on the present timetable.
  12. In many your last sentence you say: “At worst, with the absence of a funding model and because of the usage of unreliable data, it is a false presentation to the public that the BCF is really an alternative when it is not.”
    • Partly agreed: I agree with you when you say that the BCF is not a full featured alternative, because it is not.  Nowhere near it.  It is rather as a call from responsible citizens in Penang for an alternative analysis and plan from the ground up, getting back to basics where the more than adequate Halcrow reports left off with their recommendations.  Let us call for at this point is a total rethink of the state government and SRS project proposals, to be carried out hand-in-hand with the many NGOs and civil society groups of which Penang can be rightly proud.

In conclusion, I think it is a great thing that Penang has a number of bright young people like you who can make important contributions in these areas.  I have been very impressed by the number of young people whom I met during my several weeks in Penang, and others with whom I have exchanged ideas and materials over these last three years, and not always in complete agreement.  Penang is lucky because you have what it takes to have a real exchange and competition of ideas.  That to my mind is what representative democracy is all about.

So Joshua, please let me conclude by quoting directly the most sensible short paragraph that I’ve heard on this topic since I arrived in Penang now more than three years ago.  The author is Dr. AH Abdul Hamid, a highly qualified traffic and transport engineer with extensive international experience from the School of Housing, Building and Planning at the USM.

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

“the government 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.”

What about this? Let’s take Dr. Hamad’s good advice without further delay: Put an end to the arguing and let’s get on with that independent peer review by qualified international experts and a team of transport planning experts from Penang and, why not, from the federal government as well.

There is a huge amount of in-depth  analytic and technical planning work, accompanied by probing on street actions and affordable near term improvements that now needs to be prepared. We can accomplish far more by working together than throwing stones at each other’s ideas. Penang needs all of us, together at our best.  Let’s all get on the same side and make Penang proud.

# # #

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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2 thoughts on “Towards a New Mobility Agenda for Penang: October 2016

  1. Hi Eric,

    Here’s my “getting back” at you! :D
    Hope you don’t mind my addressing you in the third person.

    First, he mentioned a “fundamental weakness” in my analysis that is “fatal” to what I wanted to achieve. But, as far as Eric’s article is concerned, there is no rebuttal to my argument and no dispute over those facts I have presented. In fact, I sense his implied concede to my critique of the Better, Cheaper, Faster (BCF) proposal when he acknowledged that “certainly the time will come” for detailed alternative proposals, which I suppose, as oppose to the present severely deficient one tabled by the Penang Forum of which his ‘Letter of Concern’ is part of (page 8).

    Second, he stated that the problem with my piece is in what I have selected for commentary are not the key issues. If this “problem” is the “fundamental weakness” he mentioned, then I am afraid he has completely missed the point of my piece as the article is an examination of BCF, and thus the key issues are actually determined by the BCF itself. I was not writing an abstract paper on public transportation but examining key objections that are consistently raised by Penang Forum. Those points have again being reiterated by Penang Forum’s steering committee member Lim Mah Hui in his interview with Penang Monthly:

    “The state has yet to answer questions about their population and ridership projections, both of which are extremely inflated. They also don’t have an answer to our questions on where the detailed financial projections and cost benefit analysis are, of not only what they have proposed, but of each and every option; the BRT (bus rapid transit), the tram, the monorail and the LRT.”

    Therefore, my examination of BCF’s point on ridership and cost is a response to Penang Forum’s key objections. If the choice of my response to BCF is the “fundamental weakness” of my article, then that is because it is the “fundamental weakness” in BCF, as the latter is the object of examination of the former.

    Third, both Eric and I know well that BCF is not an alternative to SRS’s proposal. However, Penang Forum has been promoting BCF as “an alternative” (page 19) and “better option” (page 58) than what SRS has proposed. In fact, Penang Forum trumpeted the BCF at its launch as “a viable alternative to […] transport masterplan prepared by SRS Consortium” on 13 July 2016. And the media and the public have come to believe the BCF to be so. After having examined BCF, my article concluded that the proposal deceives the media and the public in promoting itself as such when it is, in your words, “not even near.”

    Hence, BCF is not as how Eric has perhaps unintentionally sugarcoated it to be a mere “call” for in-depth alternatives. My label of BCF as a “cautionary note” is therefore the least affordable recognition that one can endow on the proposal despite its severe deficiency out of respect to all the other good works done by Penang Forum.

    Fourth, Eric has suggested that I should stop the arguing. And I wonder why is his suggestion directed only at me and not to Penang Forum and the like? I am sure Eric has noticed that the Penang Forum has been criticizing Penang State Government for months over the PTMP, and the BCF is the epitome of their criticism. Some local media, NGOs, activists, and the public have been led to believe that their proposal is indeed “a viable alternative” to the PTMP. And I have spent time studying the BCF and discovered not only the proposal’s deficiency but also its deceptiveness in using questionable data and misrepresentation in manipulating readers to believe it as a “better option”.

    Therefore I wrote that article so that the public is made aware. It is not an argument for its own sake but to expose BCF of its fraudulent claims. I am sure Eric as well as everyone else who cherish public awareness would agree that such exposal is called for.

    • Dear Joshua,

      Thanks so much for taking the time to spell out your reactions to my open letter to you and your associates. Your points are clear, and I will leave it to our readers to sort out their own views based on the two pieces.

      However, toward the tail end of your letter you make one point that does not correspond with the reality of my letter, when you say “Fourth, Eric has suggested that I should stop the arguing. And I wonder why is his suggestion directed only at me and not to Penang Forum and the like?”. No Joshua that is not what was said. I was quoting the beautiful words of your fellow Penganite Dr. AH Abdul Hamid. let me end this letter of thanks for your contrition with his words of compassion and good counsel for all involved in and concerned about these issues in Penang.

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

      “the government 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.”

      That says it all.

      Sincerely, your friend,

      Eric Britton


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