Why a street-level public transport system is suitable for Penang

A monster elevated LRT station

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.

Please help to support this blog if you can.

Read the commenting guidlelines for this blog.
Notify of

Most Voted
Newest Oldest
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Johan Khun Pana
Johan Khun Pana
11 Jan 2019 2.45pm

The trackless tram system or ART might be a serious contestant.
As more towns/cities are widening it’s road or building more highways therefore ART do fit in perfectly.
Since the ART is designed to imitate train system operation, punctuality is more or less assured. Unlike buses , which depended on the “mood swing” and temperament of it’s bus drivers.
Are trackless trams a game changer? Pls read the below link.

9 Jan 2019 3.35pm

The consumers who resist any threat to car culture are (1) the wealthy (2) the would-be wealthy (3) those who don’t want new routes too close (NIMBY), so as to preserve the value of their real estate or business, or who fear that the govt. will ignore their safety (from noise, smoke, etc.). As for car-related industries trying to protect the status quo, there are too many to mention. Propaganda efforts include comments online and on social media. Some of the hyped developments – electric cars and driverless cars – are more of the same. Govt’s are addicted to the… Read more »

11 Jan 2019 3.23pm

Don’t care black or white cat so long as it is good and effective.

So ground level or elevated or not, important is to serve the needs of users and passengers!

19 Jan 2019 10.09pm
Reply to  Tim

Bring back the bullock cart.

9 Jan 2019 12.04pm

Same old tale recycled many times already.
No headway so far?

19 Jan 2019 10.08pm

Aussie roads are very wide. Labour is very expensive to construct tramways and they are fond of industrial strikes. Further Aussies do not ride kapcais and waver in and out of the cars. Due to low population and vast road network, car density is very low. Throw a stone and will miss hitting a car. Same with China. There are 4 or 5 lanes one way with a special lane for e bikes and push bike. Does Penang has that luxury? First pg lang must totally give up cars. The 20k who sign online should take the lead. If 20k… Read more »

18 Jan 2019 3.39pm

Penang looks to boost aquaculture industry through oyster farming

11 Jan 2019 7.49am

Learn from mistakes by SingKaPo:
Singapore eco-tourism plan sparks squawks of protest
Read more at https://www.thestar.com.my/news/regional/2019/01/10/spore-ecotourism-plan-sparks-squawks-of-protest/#0Tqp5EEhWAiFHvaA.99

9 Jan 2019 8.37pm

Building at street level will mean more public service (maybe even toilets, instead of intimidating food shops to provide them), more transparency and less mega-dimensions (e.g. speed). Moreover, the lords who expect free flow for their grand cars and those of their children will be inconvenienced. The basis of extracting rent (unearned income) include unfair advantage, lack of accountability and secrecy. If you can’t make passengers wait in at a station high up, you cannot pay commission to a crony to buy the escalators, rent out stalls there, etc. If the stations are not far apart, you cannot corner the… Read more »

9 Jan 2019 4.49pm

Is “comfort” a euphemism for keeping away from the riff-raff? A few days ago, I say a photo of the Transport Minister trying out a “special” train coach (travel class) to be implemented soon. Inagine: we have such limited train services and yet, the govt. is wasting effort, time and money on elitist fantasies.

9 Jan 2019 1.11pm

Wonder why Sunway BRT was not built at street level?
hehe….maybe the disruption to existing traffic will be too disastrous to even contemplate….

10 Jan 2019 10.52am
Reply to  Anil Netto

so Sunway BRT is a failure and Pg forum want to repeat that in Penang ?

10 Jan 2019 3.50pm
Reply to  Anil Netto

a lot more BRTs around the world that fail.
Abundant low satisfaction of its jerking service, high ridership only happen in cities where there is no choice and no option to drive own car…nobody is interested in bus…you can keep dreaming about higher bus transport share model but it won’t happen…hehe