Road to folly: Will building more roads solve traffic congestion?

Sources: Jeff Tan (2008); Spad; Wikipedia

MBPP councillor Dr Lim Mah Hui has written the following comment piece:

Conventional belief is wrong

Conventional belief has it that widening roads will reduce traffic congestion. This is still the mindset of our engineers and political leaders. But conventional wisdom is time and again proved factually wrong.

In fact, the counter-intuitive view is right: road widening creates more traffic congestion. While the counter-intuitive is not obvious, the factual evidence is staring in our face.

From Bangkok to Beijing, the endless spaghetti of super highways has only worsened traffic congestion. Beijing started with the first outer ring road to relieve city traffic congestion. Today it has eight such outer ring roads, and the traffic has got worse!

Graphic: Khoo Salma
Graphic: Khoo Salma

But the most recent evidence of the failure of road building and conversion to the new paradigm comes from Sylvester Turner, the new Mayor of Houston, a car-centred city.

In April 2016, he admitted that the city spent US$2.6bn (RM10bn) to construct the world’s widest highway with 26 lanes and this only contributed to worsening traffic congestion.

He then called for a new paradigm – move away from widening roads to public transport solutions and encourage car sharing and high-occupancy vehicle lanes.

Why road expansion results in worsening traffic congestion

The United States has spent trillions of dollars trying to reduce congestion by road widening but this has actually CREATED new car trips that would not have occurred without road widening.

Why? Because increasing the supply of roads only creates higher demand for its use. Two things happen.

First, like the mathematician, Braess, predicted decades ago, motorists who have taken alternative roads now converge on the widened road resulting in congestion.

Second, people who would have used public transport or other modes of transport now opt to drive as it is more convenient.

So we get back to square one; and we are worse off financially and environmentally.

Despite this overwhelming evidence, Penang, which prides itself as forward-looking and leading, is actually caught in a time warp.

Moving cars not people – the Penang reality

Despite Penang state government’s transport slogan of moving people not cars, it is actually the doing the opposite. This is evident from the priority the transport plan gives to road building both in terms of timing and expenditure.

Under the Halcrow transport plan 61 per cent of the RM27bn is for road improvement and building. Under the first phase of the proposed SRS transport plan, 50 per cent is for building roads. This is moving cars, not people.

The first phase of the SRS transport plan proposes to build the Pan Island Link (PIL1) and an LRT line from George Town to the SRS island B between 2017 and 2011. The PIL1 is estimated to cost RM6.1bn and the LRT line RM6.2bn for a total of RM12.3bn.

Disastrous to promote car usage and public transport at same time

If the state is serious about increasing the public transport modal share from the present paltry 3 per cent to 40 per cent by 2030 (which is unrealistic under the SRS proposal), it should spend most, if not all, of the money to build public transport and not roads.

It should simultaneously take proactive steps to discourage motorists from using private vehicles.

But the present strategy of the Penang state to prioritise and provide far higher investments in highways only serves to encourage motorists to drive and use the highways particularly when they are free of charge. This will discourage public transport use.

The SRS proposal is to spend RM6bn to build PIL 1 to the airport, cutting north-south travel time to 15 minutes. And no tolls will be collected. This whole strategy is fundamentally flawed from the start.

If it is cheaper and faster to use the PIL to get to the airport, people will shun the LRT for cars. This will lead to financial disaster as public ridership will be reduced. For example, the actual ridership of the KL Putra LRT line reached only 3 per cent of projected ridership in 1999 and 44 per cent four years after starting operation.

The experience in the KL-Klang region clearly demonstrates the folly of such a failed strategy where despite the provision of two LRT lines and one monorail line, public modal share of transport dropped from over 40 per cent in 1970s to 17 per cent in 2014 as shown in the graph above:

Financial failure of a non-balanced strategy

Furthermore, the bad financial experience of the two LRT companies (Smart and Putra) and the KL monorail should be an eye-opener for Penang. The two LRT companies faced financial difficulties within the first year of operation (circa 1998/99) due to poor ridership and were bailed out by the federal government.

In the case of the KL Monorail, the government gave a RM300m soft loan. Then in November 2001, the finance ministry issued RM5.5bn of bonds to finance the debts of the two LRT companies (Jeff Tan, 2008: 114).

For a public transport system to succeed, we need both the pull and the push factors. The pull factors are providing a convenient, punctual, frequent, affordable, accessible and well-connected public transport system.

But this alone will not do. The government must have the political will to implement push-factor policy measures to discourage the use of private vehicles, such as higher parking charges, restricted parking spaces, and road congestion charges. One without the other will not do.


Jeff Tan, 2008 Privatisation in Malaysia (Routledge).

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I am all for the expansion of public transit, especially LRT, MRT and monorail and my home is within 15 minutes walking distance of a Kelana Jaya Line LRT station in Petaling Jaya since service began and I quite often take the LRT when I need to go to Kuala Lumpur and more recently after the LRT extension, to Subang Jaya and Puchong. My most recent LRT trip was yesterday. However, allow me to provide a clearer context to the points made by the author and the graph provided with regards public transit witin the Klang Valely where I have… Read more »

David Loman

Helsinki to make cars unnecessary by 2050
While cars will not be banned, the city will do what it can to discourage people from using them, introducing better public transport, walkable green neighbourhoods brimming with services, and higher costs for parking.

Are cars in cities becoming a thing of the past?

The Urban Family’s Guide to Living Car-Free


Better public transport? Only federal Gomen can issue licence and expand rapid bus. But even federal Gomen Rapid bus become lembu bus if the roads are narrow and Penang forummers making noise when road side trees are forced to cut down or taken part of school field ??


More public and low-tech (e.g. bicycle, walking) transport means less of these: contracts, construction, tolls, tunnels, factories, fuel, congestion, accidents, pollution, insurance, car loans, medical treatment, doctors, bureaucrats, road repair, car maintenance, junkets, offshore wealth. This is against the “cepat kaya” principle of Kapitalism.


why dr lim no ask pg lang to work as bechah rider? reduce cars, good exercise, door 2 door and promote muhibbah 1malaysia

chanchong chau

it all seems to boil down to overly impractical assumptions. each life, road, vehicle or project has its inherent useful life span. the single primary factor cannot afford to be left out in carrying out from planning right up to de-commissioning as the time comes. any projection ignoring the fact is just delusion.


“Unfortunately, we, the assemblymen, ourselves don’t understand these mega projects because there are just too many,” he said. Citing ‘confusion’, Penang lawmakers want state to explain mega projects GEORGE TOWN, May 19 ― Penang lawmakers demanded today the state government provide a detailed explanation on the slew of proposed mega projects including its ambitious Transport Master Plan (TMP) and undersea tunnel. Yap Soo Huey (DAP ― Pulau Tikus) told the state legislative assembly it was difficult for elected representatives to provide information without having a clear picture of the issues involved. “The state government needs to reveal each detailed report… Read more »


anil how come u are not aware of unaccountable projects ongoing? soon will overtake singland in built up aress.


i oso dunno. reported above adun of penaga said pg gomen planned too many projects.


2 proj with different components. transport n reclamation eg build n~s highway.has to botak hills build bridges get bangla workers and build places to sleep anil you accountant 1 proj creates multiplying factors. what kind of bn adun is he? bn gomen slogan lagi satu proj


Anil, this is the Mother of All Swap-Deals of the new century.
The end of the tunnel will see many Penangites having to bear all the ‘after-costs’ of slippery grandeur of Cosmopolitan Penang. Inclusive of social-engineered migration of bo-bin-chui Penangites to the far flung of Malaya Nusantara. More spaces for highly profitable health tourists is more urgent to CAT & Niao Kong’s corporate-political tango than welfare of vote-giving Penangites who are fooled 4-yearly to give FREE-VOTES to CAT still singing overdue 308 ‘wo ai ni’.


migration good. at least all pg lang profit not 1 person pocket all. after make $¥£€ pg lang can migrate. then pg restore back to tranquility sleepy hollow. less people less botak less cars. very good say on migration.

chanchong chau

I am no mathematician but from what I read when you say you are trying to solve this or that equation it means you make assumptions, set initial and other boundary conditions and proceed from there. so it is the case in QM or -metrics you get your “optimum solution” (more than one actually allowed in most situation). in between the “conditions” you are entirely free to choose: choices are yours. theorists are actually very practical, whatever numbers of interpretations admitted as long as “the conditions” are met. it may be counter-intuitive but the state it is in.


Citing ‘confusion’, Penang lawmakers want state to explain mega projects


there is comment on other matter but no link received??


The Federal Govt, most national govt WANT increase demand for cars for the auto industry specifically Proton. There will be more cars whether Penang govt want it or not. The question is given an expanding demand for cars, how do you shift? Not building roads is not an option. Singapore is probably the country that tries to manage it with the most iron fisted and heavy investment in.public transport. Ask all its past LTA chief if it’s possible not to spend a significant amount on roads even today? For Penang, Lim Mah Hui suggestions are over simplistic rather than one… Read more »


singland today is still building roads busways cycle tracks mrts undergrd roads restricted zones and high car ownership cost. anymore suggestoons to stop road building?


now under armno federal, road tax is not for road improvemrnt as now new roads are tolled but support proton!?

Stylo Logan

Do not expect public transportation to succeed in Malaysia so long as Proton exists and no change to the National Automobile Policy.


Curbing car population growth in Penang is the way to go.

shelby z

Good point. Less car will mean less congestion and lesser need for road. Let’s implement electronic road pricing.


I support.


Can you see the clear disconnect between what LGE preaches and what he practices ? Every single thing that he blasted the previous Penang BN for is being done by him in a bigger scale and by throwing more public money. I cannot imagine what Penang would like in another 10 years time if we allow the Tokong to continue with his Business First philosophy. I see uncanny parallel with the way China govt operates – building frenzy at breakneck pace with no regards to the impact to environment or people and without considering the financial cost/benefit. The only people… Read more »


When will full SRS report be released as promised? It is easy to physically build public transport but it is much more difficult to manage and maintain them as financially viable projects. By Penang Forum In The Star today (17 May 2016), YB Chow Kon Yeow reportedly stated that the estimated number of passengers taking the LRT from George Town to the airport by 2023 will be 116,000 daily. This works out to 42.34 million yearly. Were these estimates provided by the SRS consultants in their report? If yes, they should be made public. Penang Forum had earlier written that… Read more »

Louis, anthony

One off subject_ The German Federal goverment just announced €4000/- subsidy and 10 years free road tax for electric cars.
Thank you .


No, No, No ! You can’t compare Beijing with Penang (or even Malaisia)!
Beijing has a population of over 21,700,000 and with an area of 16,410.54 km2 again, a GDP of US$ 350 billion which is behemoth beyond imagination and comparision !
BTW, have Dr.Lim actually been to Beijing personally ? Or I doubt if he really speak or read Chinese ?


micro cars must get permission from armno federal gomen. otherwise everyone can make n run go caet. licence zone. ah pek from villages n other states drive stop n pay fees jam up penang. must employ many jagas. operate cost more than collections. what happen drivers dont pay fine?
halcrow master plan oso flaw. if widen the roads, someone says smooth travel . then every driver will use that road. best still lrt no jam on time n frequent.


Dr Lim Mah Hui can reach out to more people to be more receptive to his talks/ideas if he can engage the sia boey folks in local dialects like hokkien.
Suggest he hold a public dialogue at Asia Cafe (LGE used to be there pre308 but now LGE has gone upmarket with GloriaJeanStarryBuck coffee) with locally brewed kopi then he can redeem himself as someone with “hood” with practical ideas to the masses.

Johan Khun Pana

Really should look into other options.
Such as imposing an entry tax on certain roads/districts ( Singapore style ).
We cannot stop people from buying cars , can we encourage them to buy smaller cars?
Usage of micro cars should be encourage.


Need to understand and overcome the bin chooi factor otherwise car buyers on installment over 10-15 years don’t feel burden spending extra RM30-50K for bigger size cars.

Many of my friends are seriously thinking of migrating elsewhere. Reason is that 1MDB and now the potentially burdening Penang Transport Master Plan will not leave much for your pockets upon retirements.


True, many would opt for bigger cars when taking 9 year installment plan as the difference in monthly payment is negligible when you can boost your bin chui factor with a bigger capacity car. Already many has too little in their EPF to enable the recommended RM820 monthly retirement spending for 10 years upon retiring at age 55.

David Loman

The amount in any retiree’s Employees’ Provident Fund (EPF) account dwindles each year, and the dividends declared by the EPF each year does not even begin to help boost their retirement savings in the least, especially when costs of living are rising so quickly. For many retirees, they live a frugal existence, and if lucky, supplemented by their children. EPF reported recently that only 22% of those aged 54 actually have enough to retire on next year, and the amount that they have in their EPF accounts may only have enough to last them a mere five years. This means… Read more »


federal Gomen import millions of foreign workers but retired 55 years old and what did senior citizen get in return? Only small discount in transport. The state Gomen with funding in shillings and not pounds received has to do the rest to aid senior citizens

David Loman

The answer is simple: spend wisely, save regularly, live within or below my means, see the magic of compound interest, take less risk, make less financial mistakes and do not simply throw away things which can still serve you.