Despite calls from many concerned Penangites for more sustainable transport in the state, the Penang state government is adamant about building more highways and a tunnel, arguing that it does not have control over public transport in the state.
The draft Penang transport master plan is most disappointing. Instead of coming up with just one proposal for sustainable transport, the consultants have come up with two alternative approaches: a so-called ‘balanced approach’ that emphasises public transport and an alternative ‘fall-back’ proposal that emphasises building seven highways at a cost of RM12.5bn. Very conveniently, the fall-back option is RM0.5bn cheaper than the ‘balanced approach’.
This ‘fall-back’ approach for more highways is actually a disgraceful cop-out that will be disastrous for Penang. For one thing, the costs are heavily under-stated: RM12.5bn is just the cost of the infrastructure. It does not measure motorists’ fuel costs (oil prices are rising as reserves dwindle), labour hours lost waiting in traffic jams when the highways eventually get jammed, depletion of resources used in building cars and roads (and a tunnel), and the emissions costs (climate change) during construction and commuting. All this will add up to a colossal amount in coming years.
Sure, the federal government and its agencies control Rapid Penang buses, Penang Port (which is being sold to Syed Mokhtar?) and the ferries, the airport, and Penang Bridge. And these outfits don’t even seem to be coordinating with one another.
But it is a fallacy that the Penang government can’t do anything about sustainable transport just because public transport operators come under the federal goverment.
Ironically, the documentary movie “Urbanized’ jointly screened by Penang Institute (a state government-funded think tank) and Think City (funded by the federal government) showed what is possible for transport and other urban issues under visionary leadership. (By the way, if Penang Institute/MPPP and Think City can work with each other, why not the Penang state government and RapidPenang?) Look at the bus rapid transit and bicycle lanes of Bogota where the interests of bus commuters and cyclists have been given more importance than private motorists. Thus Bogota has an efficient BRT and excellent cycle lanes.
The then mayor of Bogota, Enrique Penalosa, sees this as the democratisation of transport. After all, why should a few motorists have more right of way than a bus-load of 50-100 passengers? “A protected bicycle way is important as it protects cyclists but it is also very important as it is a symbol that shows that a citizen on a US$30 bicycle is equally important as one in a US$30000 car,” he asserts. “It is a very powerful symbol of democracy.”
Penalosa said that motorists even seem to think that they have some bizarre basic human right right to park. But he says he has read the human rights charter, which spells out that people have the right to certain basic freedoms, and nowhere does it state that people have the right to adequate parking! On the contrary, governments can do more to promote public transport while making it more expensive for people to park their cars.
Another example: Copenhagen has 37 per cent of its residents cycling. To increase cycle ridership in Penang does NOT require federal government intervention. Of course, there will be a few namby-pambies around arguing that the weather here is too hot (haven’t we heard of shady trees?) and giving all kinds of reasons why cycling is not feasible. Don’t pay too much attention to them; instead listen to the growing number of young and enthusiastic cyclists and would-be/potential cyclists. Why, just today, I saw a long convoy of 30 cyclists happily pedalling along Gurney Drive while cars were crawling along the same road.
For that matter, what has the Penang government done to encourage more people to use Rapid Penang buses? Not much. It has come up with a couple of praiseworthy initiatives such as Best (the Penang bridge shuttle bus) and the free circular bus service within George Town. That is only a beginning. The state government should be more creative in encouraging Penangites to take the bus or cycle while making the streets conducive and safer for pedestrians and cycling. You don’t need the useless federal government for that.
So please, please, no more major highways for Penang. It is time to wean Penangites away from their obsession with private motor vehicles.
We should demand that the transport master plan consultants scrap the ‘build-more-highways’ strategy from their final draft. This approach only panders to the big construction boys – at the expense of the public. Once we go down the highway route, it will become more and more difficult to go back to a more sustainable approach. Surely this is not the legacy the Pakatan government in Penang wants to leave behind.
Proposing more highways is not what we paid the transport consultants RM3m out of public funds for. Why are they recommending the discredited and regressive model of more highways? Any schoolchild could come up with a proposal for more highways. That is not visionary leadership.
When Penalosa came into office, he received a big transport study for Bogota that had been done by the Japanese International Cooperation Agency. This study proposed (along with some bus lanes and public transport) seven highways (the same number proposed in the Penang master plan under the highway approach!) at a cost of more than US$5bn. The city rejected the study and instead opted for more efficient public transport. That is visionary leadership.
But then again the Penang transport master plan consultants probably included the highway approach because they know this is what the state government wants – and the state government is the paymaster.
This is backward policy making. The Penang state government came up with their ‘solution’ first (more highways) and then probably told the consultants that this is what has been “committed”. The consultants then blindly accepted whatever the state government dished out to them and came up with a “more highways” approach to keep their paymasters happy. Does this reflect a progressive vision of sustainable transport? Surely not.
The challenge is to come up with a more sustainable approach for Penang. In this, we can learn a thing or two from Penalosa, who is now the President of the New York-based Institute of Transport and Development Policy, which promotes sustainable and equitable transport worldwide. Ask him what he thinks of the “more highways” approach for Penang!