The above are the voices of youth at the Penang Speakers’ Square.
And the following was written by Dr Chee Heng Leng, a councillor with the Penang Island City Council, in response to a letter in the press.
I refer to Nicholas Theng’s letter “Let rational minds prevail”.
Theng argues, first of all, that because the federal Barisan Nasional government refused to build any monorails or LRTs in Penang for the last 10 years, Penangites developed a deep-rooted preference for, and habit of, relying on cars, and that it will take time for them to change.
Reasoning that since the LRT (from Komtar to Bayan Lepas) will take seven years to build, and giving one year for people to adapt, he concludes that this will mean another eight years of traffic congestion, and therefore the construction of strategic bypasses (presumably including highways) and public transport is necessary.
Theng’s argument contains assumptions but he is right to pinpoint time as a crucial factor in dealing with our transport problems. He neglects to point out, however, that highways and “strategic bypasses”, not just LRTs, also take a long time to build.
The Pan-Island Expressway 1 (PIL1), which is currently under public scrutiny, will also take between five and seven years to build, perhaps even more as the risk of delay is certainly high with 10.1km of its 19.5km being tunnels and much of the rest on viaducts.
Indeed, what will happen in the long years between the start and completion of the PIL1 and the LRT, both under Phase 1 of South Reclamation Scheme (SRS) Consortium’s transport proposal. And even when they are finally completed, we are only talking about one mass transit line and one highway.
These two projects are estimated to cost a whopping RM8bn (PIL1) and RM8.4bn (LRT). With RM16.4bn for one LRT line and one highway to be completed in seven years’ time, it is certainly more than reasonable for the public to ask for a review of the whole SRS version of the masterplan in order to seriously consider other alternatives.
In fact, the original Halcrow transport masterplan was estimated to cost only about RM10bn for the public transport component (without the three paired roads and tunnel). The whole Halcrow proposal would have cost an estimated RM27bn, and if we substitute an improved ferry service for the tunnel, it would be substantially less than that.
This means that for the price of the LRT and the PIL1, we could easily implement Halcrow’s proposed bus rapid transit and modern tramway systems (both of which can be built either on ground level or elevated) to link major populated parts of the island as well as mainland Penang.
Both bus rapid transport and modern tramway systems are more suited to the population size of Penang than are LRTs. Also, monorails are outdated and were never meant for public transport in the first place.
We need a well-connected flexible transport system that is easy and convenient to use, that has that first and last mile connectivity, and is reliable to the extent that people can plan their journeys on time tables.
Theng is right on another score – simply increasing the number of buses will not mean that the adoption rate of the public will increase – but if the hundreds of buses on our roads have the right of way in a bus rapid transit network, they will whiz past vehicles that are stuck in traffic, and this, more than anything else, will encourage people to switch to public transport.
The original Penang transport masterplan, the Halcrow Report, which was officially adopted by the Penang state government in March 2013, had in fact been initiated by professionals from civil society organisations in the coalition called Penang Forum. It is a holistic plan to move Penangites from a low usage of public transport (3% modal share of transport) to a much higher usage (40%) by 2030.
Indeed, I echo Theng’s call: “Let’s be practical, rational and use common sense.” Let us return to this earlier more affordable, more down-to-earth plan that would take a shorter time frame to achieve more connectivity. Let us move people, not cars!