Dr Lim Mah Hui has come up with another rejoinder for those fascinated with ultra-expensive six-lane elevated and underground highways and elevated light rail transit for Penang.
His article below:
Public policy and projects, especially those that leave a huge impact on society financially and ecologically, must be subjected to rigorous public debate, scrutiny and discourse.
I would stress that public policy decisions must be evidence-based and rational. They should not be based on political populism and jingoism.
I welcome the reactions of Jenna and Joshua to my article on why the proposed LRT in Penang is both “too early and too late”. One objective of my article was to spur the public into questioning the Penang government’s choice of the LRT and urging for a review.
Firstly, I agree with several of Jenna’s points. I am a staunch proponent of public transport and believe it is the only way to solve issues of mobility and congestion in societies that have been too car dependent. The only question is what public transport systems are most appropriate for Penang.
Sad to say, Malaysia falls squarely into this category: having one of the highest car ownership-to-population ratios in the world. So, Jenna is right. The root cause of congestion is the “alarming rate of personal vehicle ownership” and, if I may add, the use of personal vehicles.
I also agree that we need a larger and well-connected public transport network, that cost is not the only consideration, and that we should “build in stages”.
What are the points of disagreement? She says it is not right to cite the low ridership in KL as the LRT and monorail were built 20 years ago.
I request her to reread my article carefully. I said that 20 years after these systems were built, present day (not past) ridership still has not met their projected ridership target. This puts a constant financial strain on Prasarana as the service provider.
So, we must choose a public transport system that can be scaled up incrementally rather than a massive project with excess capacity that can be filled up only after 20 years.
She is sceptical about the suitability of the autonomous rail rapid transit (ART) technology for Penang. Yes, I agree the Penang government must undertake an in-depth study of this new technology and compare it with the LRT system. Others in the world are doing it.
I refer her to the important work of Professor Peter Newman, a world-renowned transport expert who has reviewed the ART system and found it to be a highly transformative technology. Cities in Australia are keen to introduce it. It would be remiss for Penang, which always likes to lead and become a smart city, to ignore this new technology that has captured the imagination of transport planners.
I have more agreements than disagreements with Jenna, but the same cannot be said for Joshua, who adduced seven reasons why the LRT is superior to BRT and ART. Of his seven reasons, five were related to his obsession with elevated tracks.
He begins by saying the LRT is safer because it is elevated and hence, will not collide with other road vehicles (reasons 1 and 3); vehicles do not need to stop for an elevated LRT (reason 4); the LRT can add more carriages without disrupting road users (reason 5); elevated LRT stations can be used as shelters (reason 6).
Using occasional accidents encountered by at-grade trams and buses with other road vehicles to reject trams, the BRT or ART is a red herring and cheap scare tactic. In the UK, it was found that travelling in a tram was 24 times safer than a car.
If Joshua is truly concerned about reducing accidents, he should oppose building more highways, as Malaysia has one of the world’s highest incidents of road deaths. In 2017, Malaysia witnessed 6,740 road fatalities (18.4 per day), out of which 4,348 involved motorcycles. In Penang alone, on average, one person dies every day from road accidents.
Yet, Joshua is a great supporter of the “Penang Transport Master Plan”, which aims to build 70km of highways. How many more deaths will we tolerate?
In contrast, using public transport will drastically reduce road accidents.
Yes, I agree with him that the LRT offers more comfort compared with the BRT. But it has no advantage over the ART in that respect. According to Newman’s report, the ART has all the speed (70km/h), ride quality and capacity of the light rail system.
Joshua’s argument that the LRT reduces CO2 emissions because other vehicles do not have to wait at traffic junctions and give way to the LRT is puerile. By this logic, we should do away with junctions and traffic lights as they increase the carbon footprint.
If Joshua is such a champion of reducing the carbon footprint, the largest emission of CO2 are private vehicles, especially single-occupancy vehicles. He should shout loudest against the building of more highways. The more roads you build, and the more convenient and cheaper it is for people to drive, the higher the carbon footprint. This, and not signal priority for public transport, is the real problem.
The last reason he gives for elevated LRT stations is almost laughable – building huge, expensive elevated stations can serve as shelters from rain for pedestrians and cyclists and, hold your breath, as possible emergency shelters. Can LRT stations act as bomb shelters?
If Joshua insists that elevated tracks are the only way to go, he should know that trams, the BRT and ART can operate on elevated roads as well as at-grade. Malaysia’s sole BRT system – the BRT Sunway Line – is an elevated BRT system.
Finally, let me address his last point that the LRT upholds the people’s democratic right to choose. The usual reason for opposing at-grade ART and BRT is that providing dedicated lanes takes away road space, deprives private vehicles of their right of way and worsens congestion.
It must be emphasised repeatedly that private vehicles take up road space, public transport frees up road space. Each bus takes 40 cars off the road, and each three-carriage modern tram or ART takes 200 cars off the road. Joshua should be reminded that elevated LRT lines, with their massive stations and heavy pillars, also take up road space.
In Penang, where such an extreme imbalance exists between private and public modal transport share (ie only 5% use buses versus 95% using private vehicles), it is not possible to equally promote public transport and private vehicle use at the same time. Building more roads and making it more convenient to use private vehicles will only serve to undermine public transport ridership.
The right policy is the carrot-and-the stick approach: provide a highly efficient, reliable, safe, frequent, comfortable and affordable public transport (carrot), coupled with disincentives for the use of private vehicles (stick).
The most effective disincentives for private vehicle usage are congestion charges and parking fees management, bolstered by strict enforcement. Contrary to Joshua’s claim, discouraging the use of private vehicles is more democratic and fairer than encouraging it. Road space should be shared with all users – public transport, cyclists and pedestrians.
Private motor vehicles are the greatest source of carbon emission; they generate externalities and environmental costs that are borne by the public, besides taking up a disproportionate amount of road space.
So, which policy is democratic and elitist?
To conclude, I fully support a good public transport system. The ART system is superior to the LRT for the following reasons:
- It can do everything that an LRT does, and better
- It can travel at-grade or on elevated roads
- It is fast to construct with minimal disruption to traffic
- It is cheaper to construct and to maintain (one tenth of, or even less than, the cost of an LRT)
- It is more flexible and scaleable (easy to increase capacity in stages)
Instead of building one expensive LRT line that serves only one population corridor, we should aim to build a public transport network – introducing the ART, improving bus and feeder bus services, and incorporating last mile and public realm improvements – with a coverage serving the entire city, thereby capturing the maximum ridership and converting people to quality public transport.