Debunking the Penang transport masterplan ‘spin’


This is an article by Roger Teoh, who debunks the rationale for building more highways in Penang:

This article on the Penang Transport Master Plan (PTMP) is in response to state representative and Penang Island Municipal Council (MBPP) councillor Chris Lee’s letter to the editor ‘The PTMP and social justice to Penang’s society’.

First of all, I would express my gratitude to the Penang state government for finally acknowledging and responding to one of my articles. The statements highlighted in bold below are extracts from state representative and MBPP councillor Chris Lee’s article.

Setting aside my DAP membership and voicing my concerns as an independent academic, I will be analysing these statements in turn and leave it to the intelligence of Penangites to formulate their own judgements on the PTMP. Most importantly, I believe Penangites deserve the right to be accurately informed with the true blueprint and consequences of the proposed PTMP.

“There are 151km of planned public transport encompassing LRT, monorail, BRT and tram; while only 72km of strategic bypasses, cross channel link and missing local roads are proposed”

As of now, the Penang state government has made many amendments to the proposed PTMP, with cost ballooning after each iteration (the latest estimate of the PTMP is over RM50bn). These changes affect not only the delivery timetable but also the financing costs and feasibility of the overall plan.

With so much uncertainties, it appears to the public that only Phase 1 of the PTMP can be practically delivered, which consist of one 17.5km LRT line (Penang International Airport-Komtar) and 42km of new highways (Penang Undersea Tunnel, PIL 1, PIL 2/2A and North Coast Pair Road). Even the cost of PIL 1 has risen from RM6bn to RM8bn.

Furthermore, the proposed financing model based on payment from sale of reclaimed land is precarious as the property market is facing strong headwinds in Malaysia and globally. Poor market sentiments will affect land prices and land sale, that will in turn impact on the implementability of subsequent PTMP phases.

With all these changes and uncertainties, it is extremely misleading for MBPP councillor Chris Lee to include future public transport lines in his figures as they are purely concepts with an uncertain and non-committal implementation timeline.

As a consequence of implementing only Phase 1 of the PTMP, it is statistically forecasted that public transport quality and modal share will deteriorate indefinitely until these future urban rail lines are constructed. Since one LRT line is insufficient to be regarded as a viable alternative to the car, the so-called “safety net” by Chris Lee might only be available after 2030, or even not at all.

“Claims of excessive focus on highways are over-dramatised, as the proposed highways are needs-based to improve road hierarchy and enhance the efficiency of local and regional traffic diversion”

The description of “excessive highways” is proven on the basis of statistical analysis relative to other cities around the world. At present day, Penang Island has 82.9km of highways (108.1 metres of highway per 1,000 people), and 0km of public transport routes with a dedicated-right-of-way.

Since road traffic vehicles are expected to increase as a direct consequences of excessive highway building, how will the Penang state government solve parking problems in an urban core with limited land space?

To make matters worse, highways are investments with diminishing returns as it does not holistically solve urban transportation woes which traffic congestion is moved downstream to its exits and within dense urban centres.

These concerns are highlighted and explained in my first article ‘An independent review for an optimised PTMP’, which was written almost a month ago and still awaiting the Penang state government to address these problems raised.

In other words, highways proposed by the PTMP are a waste of public funds with little value for money. These limited funds available should be used more efficiently and effectively by redistributing it towards constructing more urban rail systems.

“Highways also cater for other forms of transport such as buses and motorcycles. Would one not turn to bus and motorcycle if one cannot afford to drive a car?”

It is absolutely true that poorer Penangites will be able to satisfy their mobility needs through the use of motorcycles. However, is this really the outcome desired by the Penang state government?

Looking at statistics on global transport safety, motorcyclists have the highest fatality risks when compared to all other modes of road transport with 1,640 deaths per billion journeys. Conversely, urban rail (trams, LRT and metro) is one of the safest modes of transport at 20 deaths per billion journeys.

Putting it into context, motorists are 82 times more likely to die in a road accident when compared to a commuter using a rail-based public transport. According to the Malaysian Digest, there were 321 road deaths in Penang in 2015, with motorcyclists accounting for 70 per cent of road accidents (around four motorcyclist deaths a week).

Hence, do we really want poorer Penangites to increase motorcycle usage at the expense of an unacceptable increased risk of fatality?

While the Penang state government is expected to rebut this fact by highlighting the inclusion of motorcycle lanes in the proposed highways, transport safety is only improved marginally as motorists are only protected on that particular stretch of road, and not their entire journey.

Well, what about buses? Ask yourself, would you take the bus if journey times are two to three times longer relative to a motorcycle or a car? This is also the main reason why more urban rail lines are desperately needed in Penang to reduce the door-to-door travel time difference between public transport and private motorcars, making public transport more attractive.

“In the argument on higher GDP per capita that European countries have as compared to car-centric North American countries, it is still open for debate whether the productivity rate of those cities is due to transportation or other economic factors.”

Chris Lee correctly pointed out that urban transportation is not the only contributing factor causing European cities having a higher GDP per capita than car-centric North American cities. However, the right transportation system adopted by a city is still crucial and plays a significant role in boosting its economic productivity.

For example, travellers using public transport will still be able achieve a limited amount of economic productivity while commuting such as replying to emails, working with laptops/tablets on trains, etc. These activities are taken into account in public transport economic appraisals in the UK, which the value of time and loss of economic productivity while commuting is scaled down.

In addition, there are also lots of secondary knock-on effects and wider-economic benefits through mass transit and urban rail developments, such as social agglomeration and increased liveability in contribution to a higher GDP per capita in a city.

At this point, there is indeed ongoing research at Imperial College London in attempt to monetise and quantify these additional benefits and positive knock-on effects gained through an increased emphasis on rail-based public transport. I am absolutely certain that these wider economic benefits are not taken into account in economic appraisals produced by cities in developing countries such as Penang.

Nevertheless, the argument of building more road building to boost economic development in Penang is totally unjustified. It is just a matter of investing in the right transport infrastructure such as urban rail, which will allow economic development to be amplified and achieved more effectively.

Why is the state disregarding statistical evidences?

In conclusion, since transport studies are largely based on empirical data, the best way to formulate the most effective and efficient transport policies for Penang is to adopt an evidence-based policy methodology similar to developed countries.

Note that I have been using quantitative evidences and case studies to support my key points. I hope the Penang state government will also follow suit and improve the quality of this healthy debate by using data and statistics to justify its claims.

Most importantly, why is the state ignoring hard scientific evidence and still opting to bulldoze through the excessive highway constructions at all costs? If the Penang state government is truly committed in solving urban transportation woes for all Penangites, it needs to move away from its defensive mentality and be open to new ideas to holistically solve these deficiencies for a better PTMP.

Roger Toeh is a postgraduate student studying for a PhD at the Centre for Transport Studies, Imperial College London.

Published in Malaysiakini.

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anil, as PTC member and activist please enlighten us federal rapidbus. How many and when they have added public buses. what is the frequencies and punctualities? Why pf did not ask gilakan or umno for more in view of roger’s research?


Does Roger knows the current roads are jammed but why 60% only take buses and 80 buses are left idling? Is it because of poor service? Jams, Jams, jams making a poor service, unreliable, not on time, too slow and infrequent. What has imperial college thesis has to do if it is not within Malaysian context? In Sydney the bus follow the time table. If ahead of time, the bus will wait at a stop until the said time. In China buses are cheap , 1 or 2 yuan and they make announcement at the coming bus stop. At bus… Read more »

tunglang supports Bersih 5 & coming Bersih 6

To get more Penangites to ride Rapid Penang, Rapid should do the following: 1) More buses plying the routes 2) Create new direct routes e.g. Farlim / Paya Terubong to Gurney Drive / Teluk Bahang Pg Air Port / Batu Maung to Ayer Itam 3) Punctuality @ 10 minutes intervals (for most routes) 4) Reduce bus rates to half. Free rides for senior citizens & OKUs (Pg CAT Gomen with annual surplus budget should chip in) Eg Present bus rate of Farlim to Komtar = Rm2.00. Almost the same cost as driving a Myvi/Kenari 5) Create RapidPg apps for mobile… Read more »


if the roads are jammed how can donkey carts pass through? cars from airpodt area has no choice. we go back to past like using the old trunk roads and burn more fuel with stop.and go..


Go and tell gilakan BN federal Gomen which is running the rapid. Why tun lang, pg forum and Ngos knows how to bully state but not gilakan BN Gomen? Or land up like bersih?


Roger Teoh should use his PhD knowledge to understand why Malaysians shun public bus and prefer to own and drive car. This is a behavioural issue that need to be studied if he is seeking the truth.

tunglang supports Bersih 5 & coming Bersih 6

If you want to UBAH Federal gomen, the same should be for UBAH private car driving to public transportation via transit city charges, higher parking fees, reduce parking spaces, higher Road Tax, etc.


Now who talk about $$$$? To increase parking fees, transit fees. Now who promotes money is king and money can talk and do wonders?

Huang Lei

Car ownership is top of the priority of the young generation, as it is a prerequisite to attract potential spouse.

gk ong

Roger Teoh’s model should start with ‘high propensity to own personal cars among Malaysians’.


also why rapidbuses is not increasing its frequencies, punctualities and service. all so little being mention about federal rapid.

Ong Eu Soon

As we all knew that Zenith Bucg had awarded the RM6.3 billion Roads and Tunnels project to China Railway Construction Corporation in 2012. The contract was awarded to CRCC at the price of $1.19 billion. This virtually allows Zenith Bucg to (allegedly) rip off with an exorbitant profit of RM 2 billion with the exchange rate of 3.18 in 2012. The main segments of Penang Roads and Tunnels project includes: – Expansion of an existing paired road from Tg.Bungah to Teluk Bahang (12km), which includes either a bridge or tunnel crossing Mt.Erskine (12km); – Road and tunnel link between Lebuhraya… Read more »


ah soon, moons ago you proudly inform that you will be seeing macc about the road and reclamation costs. what happen then? still figuring how and what to charge? please enlighten us.


Haiya, the Penang state gov is famous for their flip-flop ways lah!
Up til now, no even a thing gets started!


Haiya no even single thing started? .. making din on so much development including sia boey. Sia boey because rakyat flip flop the terminal


of course stall. pg has no 4 billion donation or china buy over. pg has no cash or land and can sell sea made into land. who can approve taxi, ship, bus, train or high speed rail? only gilakab amno gomen which u vote


According to FMT it has been “stalled” lah ! What project ? What can the DAP do ?

Remo Anello

More walking for short distance and dont over dependent on cars.

Stay healthy.

David Loman

Yes. Please do not accelerate the melting ice cap with carbon emissions:


We need to walk 10000 steps a day as basic exercise.

tunglang supports Bersih 5 & coming Bersih 6

That 10K Steps to healthy lifestyle was launched in 2010 by Health Ministry in KL.
But the reward of health seems overshadowed by driving car conveniences!

tunglang supports Bersih 5 & coming Bersih 6

More highways, more tunnels, more swapping deals – just to accommodate cars is absolute vodka madness. Riding a donkey is already a dizzy x-perience (not to recommend) plus the ee-aww-ee-aww from one … make the whole issue noisy. And the costs of car ownership is getting more unaffordable – depreciating Ringgit + GST making car spare parts & service charges exorbitant. With stagnant salaries (of 1990s scale!), owning cars is beyond economic sense. Now back to global warming, it is found that animal agriculture contributes significantly to global warming – large tracts of forest land turned agri-land just to produce… Read more »


same no need to figure out why use a 4wd with front donkey bars rovering around in penang town when kancil can do a smarter work

tunglang supports Bersih 5 & coming Bersih 6

High Speed Rail signed.
Where is Transport Minister Liow?
So fast to sign?
“Now SingLander, keep 1MoneyDebtMampus case quiet for now, OK?”

tunglang supports Bersih 5 & coming Bersih 6

Mister LSL, 1MoneyDebtMampus can kautim like drinking plain water mah!
Oh yeah, plain raw water price – no GST, no increase, just flow across Johor Straits till Kingdom comes!
Deal done, just like drinking water!

gk ong

Singapore gets assurance of water supply in part of the deal with the joint development of Johor River Barrage? This is only reported on Singapore’s Channel News Asia, but not on Malaysian media.

Also not sure how much Singapore’s GLCs like Temasik could control the revenue from the HSR, if SingDollar is invested in the project?

David Loman

Singapore, Malaysia to boost fresh water yield from Johor River

Little report on this water matter on the Malaysian mainstream media, as if the authority is afraid to be perceived as giving in to Singapore as a trade off for the HSR partnership?

Seng Aun Teoh

Over to you, Chris.