Let’s face it. An underground rail system would be too expensive for Penang and, with 700,000 people on the island, it is doubtful if Penang has the passenger loads to justify such a heavy investment. They say a subway system would cost many times what a monorail would.
But even a 35-km monorail network would cost RM3.5 billion! I don’t see many cities using a monorail system as an effective people mover. (More often it is a tourist gimmick.) And even fewer heritage cities opt for monorails. KL is not exactly a shining advertisement for an efficient monorail system, is it? Remember how it had to be bailed out? Can you imagine how those ugly pillars will mar the heritage backdrop of George Town. It is for that reason that the city of Milan opted for trams rather than monorail.
And the Penang Outer (or is that “Outta”?) Ring Road (Porr) for RM1.1 billion? Come off it, we don’t need more cars, with oil prices spiralling and tolls skyrocketing and feeder roads already congested.
Monorail and Porr won’t be good for Penang – though it will surely be good for MRCB’s order book! (Don’t they just love such multi-billion ringgit projects!)
The bottom line should be the investment cost per passenger per kilometre compared to expected returns. Trams and buses would win hands down anytime. Not convinced? Ask the heritage city of Edinburgh.
Maybe the main reason a monorail system is so attractive is that the companies involved are politically well connected. Notice the name Scomi in this Edge report. Does it ring a bell? Remember Scomi was also reported as receiving the contract to supply the buses for RapidPenang.
In contrast, Edinburgh (pop 500,000) is one of latest cities to opt for trams. And like Penang, Edinburgh is a heritage city, its streets not any wider than Penang’s. The city is looking at trams to complement its excellent bus service. Check out this report. Notice that “every £1 invested to introduce trams provides £1.63 of benefits for Edinburgh. This return makes it an extremely good project”.
So how is Penang any different from Edinburgh – though our bus service still has a long, long way to go. The point is why opt for expensive multi-billion ringgit solutions with either questionable returns or environmental problems? Notice that the RM4.3 billion (and rising?) second Penang bridge has already been delayed by nine months before actual construction work can even start. If we go down this path, expect huge cost-overruns, further delays and more disputes between consortium partners. What will happen to the fishing communities? Or are they irrelevant in this age of rising food prices?
Public transport can be improved in several ways:
- Come up with a state-wide public transport master plan to make sure the system is integrated. Don’t make the same mistakes that KL did with its piece-meal LRT and monorail systems.
- Get the interchanges right between ferry terminals and trams/buses, between trams and buses, between cross channel over-sea rail link and buses/trams, between KTM rail on the mainland and buses/trams. This is crucial for an integrated system.
- Think of a cross-channel rail link instead of the second road bridge. The additional lane on the Penang Bridge could be used for rail transport or build a parallel rail link.
- Expand the ferry service and build more terminals at other locations on both the mainland and the island. Remember, the ferry service has been intentionally neglected ever since the Penang Bridge was built, contributing to the congestion on the bridge. The old ferry terminal (which operated alongside the new one) that collapsed in Butterworth was never rebuilt. In fact, today there are only about half the number of ferries compared to the number plying the channel in the 1970s.
- Allow for trams and buses to complement each other. For an excellent bus network, check out the Curitiba rapid bus transit system.
- Appoint independent public transport consultants with no vested interests in large companies selling their monorail/LRT/subway/bridge wares. The prime objective should be what’s good for the people of Penang including local communities, and the state rather than for the order books of giant infrastructure firms.
- Discourage private vehicle ownership and stop building infrastructure for cars and other private vehicles. This will be easier to do once we have an excellent public transport system so that people have a viable and attractive alternative.
- Remember pedestrians and cyclists. Make the streets safer for them. Turn some of the streets in Penang to pedestrian walkways with sidewalk cafes.
- Don’t reinvent the wheel. Learn from Curitiba’s rapid bus transit system and its innovative urban development programme. Small can be beautiful and visionary too!
Residents of Curitiba, Brazil, think they live in the best city in the world, and a lot of outsiders agree. Curibita has 17 new parks, 90 miles of bike paths, trees everywhere, and traffic and garbage systems that officials from other cities come to study. Curibita’s mayor for twelve years, Jaime Lerner, has a 92 per cent approval rating.
There is nothing special about Curitiba’s history, location or population. Like all Latin American cities, the city has grown enormously – from 150,000 people in the 1950s to 1.6 million now. It has its share of squatter settlements, where fewer than half the people are literate. Curibita’s secret, insofar that it has one, seems to be simple willingness from the people at the top to get their kicks from solving problems.
Those people at the top started in the 1960s with a group of young architects who were not impressed by the urban fashion of borrowing money for big highways, massive buildings, shopping malls and other showy projects. They were thinking about the environment and about human needs. They approached Curibita’s mayor, pointed to the rapid growth of the city and made a case for better planning.
The mayor sponsored a contest for a Curibita master plan. He circulated the best entries, debated them with the citizens, and then turned the people’s comments over to the upstart architects, asking them to develop and implement a final plan.
Jaime Lerner was one of these architects. In 1971 he was appointed mayor by the then military government of Brazil.
Given Brazil’s economic situation, Lerner had to think small, cheap and participatory – which was how he was thinking anyway. He provided 1.5 million tree seedlings to neighbourhoods for them to plant and care for. (‘There is little in the architecture of a city that is more beautifully designed than a tree,’ says Lerner.)
He solved the city’s flood problems by diverting water from lowlands into lakes in the new parks. He hired teenagers to keep the parks clean.
He met resistance from shopkeepers when he proposed turning the downtown shopping district into a pedestrian zone, so he suggested a thirty-day trial. The zone was so popular that shopkeepers on the other streets asked to be included. Now one pedestrian street, the Rua das Flores, is lined with gardens tended by street children.
Orphaned or abandoned street children are a problem all over Brazil. Lerner got each industry, shop and institution to ‘adopt’ a few children, providing them with a daily meal and a small wage in exchange for simple maintenance gardening or office chores.
Another Lerner innovation was to organise the street vendors into a mobile, open-air fair that circulates through the city’s neighbourhoods.
Concentric circles of local bus lines connect to five lines that radiate from the centre of the city in a spider web pattern. On the radial lines, triple-compartment buses in their own traffic lanes carry three hundred passengers each. They go as fast as subway cars, but at one-eightieth the construction cost.
The buses stop at Plexiglas tube stations designed by Lerner. Passengers pay their fares, enter through one end of the tube, and exit from the other end. This system eliminates paying on board, and allows faster loading and unloading, less idling and air pollution, and a sheltered place for waiting – though the system is so efficient that there isn’t much waiting. There isn’t much littering either. There isn’t time.
Curitiba’s citizens separate their trash into just two categories, organic and inorganic, for pick-up by two kinds of trucks. Poor families in squatter settlements that are unreachable by trucks bring their trash bags to neighbourhood centres, where they can exchange them for bus tickets or for eggs, milk, oranges and potatoes, all bought from outlying farms.
The trash goes to a plant (itself built of recycled materials) that employs people to separate bottles from cans from plastic. The workers are handicapped people, recent immigrants, alcoholics.
Recovered materials are sold to local industries. Styrofoam is shredded to stuff quilt for the poor. The recycling programme costs no more than the old landfill, but the city is cleaner, there are more jobs, farmers are supported and the poor get food and transportation. Curitiba recycles two-thirds of it garbage – one of the highest rates of any city, north or south.
Curitiba builders get a tax break if their projects include green areas.
Jaime Lerner says, ‘There is no endeavour more noble than the attempt to achieve a collective dream. When a city accepts as a mandate its quality of life; when it respects the people who live in it; when it respects the environment; when it prepares for future generations, the people share the responsibility for that mandate, and this shared cause is the only way to achieve that collective dream.’ (globalideasbank.org)