Just as the MPPP, despite all its scrimping to trim expenditure, has an elephant in the room in the form of the expensive Spice, so too the Penang Transport Masterplan has a huge behemoth overshadowing it.
The RM8bn worth of transport infrastructure projects – a tunnel and several highways – announced by the state government in May, at about the same time the transport masterplan consultants were engaged, threatens to derail the whole purpose of the masterplan. A masterplan should come up with the most sustainable long-term transport option for Penang. But these RM8bn worth of mega projects – which emphasise private motor vehicles – are driving us in another direction.
The transport masterplan consultants are from Halcrow, a company better known as an engineering and construction giant, and two other firms. (Halcrow Group was involved in the UK-France Channel Tunnel rail link project.) I don’t think the consultants even know if the tunnel is “committed”; so how are they going to come up with a meaningful masterplan? Shouldn’t they be the ones proposing progressive/sustainable transport solutions for Penang rather than state government leaders making spur-of-the-moment decisions that emphasise private motor vehicles without adequate study of transport needs?
Why is the state government coming up with all these projects at a time when the transport masterplan isn’t even ready? The masterplan is now only at the stage of identifying solutions and strategies. (Draft masterplans will be ready by the end of this year and early next year and the final plan in March next year.) In any case, the long-term target they are thinking of for public transport usage is just 40 per cent.
Interestingly, the consultant at the workshop pointed out that different sets of participants at the two workshops held this week felt that we should be moving away from cars and roads and focusing more on sustainable transport – better public transport and shaded bicycle lanes and pedestrian walkways. That came as a pleasant surprise. Unfortunately, the state government seems intent on taking us in another direction with more highways and tunnels and infrastructure for private motor vehicles.
One politician felt that Malaysians were so accustomed to using their cars they would simply not use public transport. I pointed out to him that Malaysians were more than happy to use good public transport systems abroad – so why do they use their cars here? Simply because we lack a reliable public transport system at home.
The resurrection of the northern tunnel project, first proposed by Samy Vellu in the form of a bridge-tunnel in 2001, suggests that we are bereft of any vision for promoting a really sustainable transport model. I remember writing an article for Aliran Monthly, sharply criticising Samy Vellu’s proposal and pointing out that the ferry service was operating well below the previous frequency. In fact, we only have half as many ferries operating now compared to the situation in the late 1970s, when we had an excellent service. But when one terminal collapsed in a tragedy in the late 1980s, a few years after the Penang Bridge was opened, the authorities preferred to neglect the ferries (presumably so that more people would use the bridge).
It is thus amazing that the present Penang state government is resurrecting the ‘Samy Vellu Tunnel’ and promoting greater private vehicle usage through its plans to construct more highways. This at a time when we are bound to see higher fuel oil costs in the future. In fact, the RM8bn in transport infrastructure projects dwarfs the amount that would have been spent on the controversial Penang Outer Ring Road project (during BN rule), which was strongly opposed by Penangites.
One of the workshop participants pointed out that state government leaders had rarely, if ever, encouraged people to use public transport in their speeches. Why not encourage more people to use the buses (we now have 300 buses) and improve the interchanges and other supporting infrastructure? I wondered aloud, if the state government could promote a “Cleaner, Greener Penang” and “No Plastic Bags”, why couldn’t it launch a concerted campaign to get Penangites to use public transport?
Another participant took it a step further and said it would be great if state government leaders could set an example and actually use public transport to work, like leaders in some countries have done. I know of one MPPP councillor now who actually cycles to work from Tanjung Bunga, risking life and limb to show the way forward. The Tanjung Bunga Adun himself often cycles around.
But then, I suspect, some people are more interested in mega infrastructure projects that are more in line with their fantasies of what an “international city” would look like. They are more taken up by big investor-driven top-down models of development. I suspect these people have little idea what the heritage and identity of Penang is all about.
I mentioned to the consultant that a poll on my blog showed that overwhelming numbers of you would choose public transport and leave your cars at home if Penang had a reliable public transport system.
To this, the consultant remarked that respondents of similar polls carried out everywhere else usually answered the same way, but what they meant is that they wanted other people to leave their cars at home and use public transport, and not them personally.
I don’t think this is the case here. But let’s find out. Let me ask you again, would you – yes, you yourself – really leave your cars at home and use public transport if we had a better public transport system in place?