Our guest writer today is Azlan Yaacob, who recently visited Penang with his family. Commendably, they decided to use public transport throughout their trip here – and he shares with us their experience. From this, you can see we have an interchange problem especially from the railway station to the ferry terminal. More can be done to make the passenger experience on the ferries pleasant.
Azlan is involved in developing low-carbon economies and innovation development, particularly clean technology and sustainable precision agriculture.
My family of four were in Penang during the recent Hari Raya Haji holidays, from Wednesday, 22 August (Hari Raya Haji Day) to Saturday. This is the second time we decided not to drive to Penang for our regular short vacation visits. My mother-in-law lives in Tanjung Bungah, and we see her almost twice a year.
In the past, we would drive and regardless of how we planned our trip (near major public holidays), it was still a 7-9-hour crawl along the North-South Highway (even the day after Raya or two days after Sunday, does not matter; it is still at least seven hours of being in the car). And once we reached Penang, we had to endure more congestion, and we were constantly looking for parking.
We made a visit earlier in the year without a car (took a flight, a bit pricey), and we marvelled at the ease of getting a Grab when moving around to our favorite makan places. My brother-in-law, who brought his car, was always 10 minutes late arriving to our destination. This revelation convinced me that Penang is best visited without a car.
This time around, we wanted to try many different modes of transport and not just depend on Grab.
On Wednesday, we took the 11.25am KTM ETS Platinum train from KL Sentral to Butterworth. The train was clean, efficient, and on time. The toilet was also clean. Food was available, which was reasonably priced (less than RM10 for mee mamak, nasi lemak, etc).
The best part of being on a train was that we could just do whatever we wanted. My youngest son would read his books, while we would surf the internet. Once in a while, we would just chat about things. Or take a nap. The train ride at 120km/h was quite stable and I would stretch my legs by walking from one end to the other. Stress free, it is the best way to travel.
Once the train stopped at the Butterworth station, we decided to take the ferry. Some renovation work still being done, and we could not walk straight to the Penang Sentral facility. We had to take a shuttle bus, but unfortunately the pathway was not properly designed. We had to skip over several small barriers, and it was a short wait before we got on the bus.
The bus, however, was packed with people and luggage; it was a bit cumbersome. The bus had all sorts of people – foreign tourists, foreign workers, and local Malaysians – either traveling on their own or with family. (I learned that the Penang Sentral access from the train station would be ready in December 2018 and this would make the experience much better).
Once we reached the ferry terminal, we had to go through a sort of maze, and it was a mad scramble for tickets. The waiting area was crammed and once full, it felt like we were packed like sardines. No lines were formed; just a free for all. The ferry was also late, by the way. On the notice board, the ferry was suppose to arrive at 4.10pm, but it only arrived at 4.30pm.
I was keen to be on the ferry. I had lots of wonderful childhood and teenage memories of the ferry. I was born in Penang in 1966, and I went to school in Kedah. Penang was a place I visited regularly in the 1980s. But I was soon to be disappointed with the ferry journey because I had to share the top floor space with cars. There was no place to sit, and we had to make do with leaning over the railings. But having a car next to you, with a warm engine, was not pleasant.
Once we arrived at the George Town side, we decided to take a Grab. One arrived within a minute, and off we went to the Hotel Flamingo in Tanjung Bungah.
We would take Grab almost every time we wanted to visit our favorite makan places, and it was always a three-minute wait. This was fantastic because in KL, Grab drivers would sometimes cancel on you. But it has never happened in Penang, at least to us.
On Friday, we decided to visit Taman Negara Penang. We took the Rapid Penang bus number 101, and it was a very short wait before the bus arrived. It was about 10am and the bus was full of Western tourists. The majority of them were like us; they all wanted to visit Taman Negara. The bus was clean and comfortable; the driver would shout out the names of major stops and this helped the Western tourists looking to disembark along the way.
On our way back, we waited for the bus, but it took a little bit longer, maybe 20 minutes. This time, we had many different tourists, both foreign and locals. I spotted Westerners, Arabs, Thais. The locals were a mixed group. The bus proved popular because along the way we would pick up many passengers, a mixed group of locals and Westerners plus local foreign workers. The bus was practically full.
The cost for one person on the 101 bus was RM2 for one way (Hotel Flamingo to Taman Negara). For the four of us, RM16 both ways. The Taman Negara visit was free.
I was made aware that there has been some debate with regard to building new highways in Penang, to ease traffic congestion. I do not live in Penang, and I am not in a position to comment about the merits of having new highways. I can only comment on how my visit went, and where I believe Penang can develop solutions to the methods of moving people around Penang.
Firstly, Penang should look at ‘institutionalising’ ride hailing services and incorporate it as part of the transport fabric. Perhaps target both local and foreign tourists. During holidays, encourage local tourists to not bring their cars, and instead use ride-hailing services. The state government could augment such services with small buses or perhaps provide a form of subsidy for those who are interested to be Grab service providers. Maybe a special temporary scheme during peak holiday periods.
Secondly, I think the bus model could work if the frequency is increased. I heard of bus rapid transit (BRT) as a possible solution, and instead of having a dedicated BRTlane, have a semi-dedicated lane that ends in an area where ride-hailing could augment the experience. Or better yet, reintroduce a more nimble mini-bus model where people could be moved more speedily. More studies should be done here.
Thirdly, and this may be the most important part, it is time Penang dwellers reduce their dependency on private vehicles. If the bus service is consistent, and not too full (you still would want a seat), then people could perhaps plan ahead. In KL, the MRT is a clear winner with early adopters with cars (like me), who would now use it more frequently especially when meetings are planned ahead. Mind you, I still own a car, but I use it less (about 30%).
Lastly, I think more can be done with Butterworth as part of relieving congestion on Penang Island. If the ferry services are more efficient, and designed for pedestrians, there could also be a development plan to make Butterworth tourist friendly. Food for thought. I also visited parts of Butterworth, and there is a sort of understated potential. New makan places?
I do hope that my sharing of experience could be useful to others who are keen to visit Penang without a car and to those who are active in city planning especially with regard to transport issues. I feel that the future is somehow tied to a digital service that would make vehicle assets more visible to potential users.