A funny thing happened in Penang last week. Think City organised a talk by Yoga Adiwinarto, the Indonesia country director of the Institute of Transport and Development Planning (ITDP), on 16 January – with unexpected results.
In his presentation, Yoga spoke about the successes – and challenges – of the bus rapid system in Jakata which began in 2004.
The irony was that, during the question-and-answer session and later, a few members of the audience, obviously gung-ho in their support of the state government’s RM46bn Penang
land reclamation and property development masterplan ‘transport masterplan’, hogged the mike and tried their darndest to discredit the BRT – and even the ITDP.
Penang Forum members in the audience could only shake their heads in disbelief at some of their arguments. Yoga remained cool and calmly responded to their critique.
In fact, the ridership track record for Transjakarta since 2004 speaks for itself, the only dip around 2015 coming when it tried to implement a new smart card form of payment:
The striking ridership jumps in recent years came on the back of an increased number of buses and feeder buses and improved ‘last mile’ connectivity.
It is obvious that Penang doesn’t need to spend RM46bn on a jumble of expensive, poorly thought-out transport modes. It should go back to the drawing board and come up with a genuinely sustainable mobility plan, undertaken by recognised sustainable mobility experts, using the Halcrow blueprint as a reference.
As Yoga and others have pointed out, look at the existing Rapid Penang bus services and work from there. The My50 travel card coming soon would be a huge step in the right direction. (Please make this available to everyone, not just Malaysian citizens.)
Next adjust the roads to make it quicker for buses, even if it means dedicated lanes here and there. (Just remove some of the on-street parking). Improve last-mile connectivity by upgrading pavements and putting up covered walkways. Get an app going which shows the real-time arrivals of buses and expected journey times – something like a Grab app but for buses.
If we can improve the bus system in Penang and more people are drawn to it, we could see a drop in the number of cars on the road – and then we won’t need to spend unnecessary billions on highways and elevated light rail transit.
Some of these bus routes could later be scaled up to street-level modern trams/LRT, perhaps trackless and without overhead wires, as when passenger loads warrant them it and finances permitting.
Without exploring the full potential of buses (and our ferries and waterways for that matter), which potentially could offer a wider network of routes for a fraction of the cost of big-ticket projects, it doesn’t make sense to drool over elevated LRT and grand highways.
Yoga gave an example of what RM4bn could do: it could provide a 426km network for bus rapid transit in contrast to just 40km for LRT, 14km for an ‘elevated metro’ and only 7km for an underground rail system. Think of the improvements that could be done to Rapid Penang with even a fraction of that money.
Look, with that sort of money, the Jakarta bus rapid transit, Transjakarta – which covers a 225km network, with 13 corridors and 155 routes – is serving 190 million passengers per year (521,000 per day) in a city of 9.6 million people.
In contrast, the short single-line elevated LRT in Penang, which will cost double that, at RM8bn, is forecasted to carry 42 million riders per year (116,000 per day) in an island of 800,000 residents. Sounds impressive – but how can it be achieved with just one corridor and a lack of integration with other modes?
Of course, the project proponents argue they will put in feeder buses to the LRT stations. But then, Rapid Penang, with some 300 buses covering around 70 routes across the whole state, presently carries just 90,000 passengers daily. No wonder critics laugh out loud at how inflated that 116,000 daily LRT ridership projection appears. If they are going to have feeder buses, why not drastically improve the overall bus service right now?
Critics also wonder how Penang can afford the budget to maintain and operate an elevated LRT and highway system when even building a short stretch of the Bukit Kukus ‘paired road’ is already a burden for the Penang Island City Council – quite apart from the heavy environmental cost to the people of Penang.
So why are we talking about an exorbitant 19.5km highway and a short single elevated light rail transit route which will add up to a whopping RM17bn and won’t solve congestion elsewhere? Unless of course the real motivating factor behind this grandiose plan is massive land reclamation for high-end property development under the guise of a ‘transport masterplan’.