Penang at a crossroads: Building more highways or a good public transport system?

MBPP councillor Dr Lim Mah Hui wrote this commentary after an exchange with Roger Teoh, a PhD student in transport engineering, who is also a DAP member:

Over the past weeks, Roger Teoh, a PhD student in transport engineering, has contributed three articles in Malaysiakini on the proposed Penang transport masterplan. Based on an analysis of an extensive database of key transport statistics from 100 cities around the world, he has come to several important conclusions, many of which are very relevant for Penang.

First and foremost, he confirms, what is broadly accepted by academics, that supplying more highways simply creates more demand for their use (he calls it induced demand). Any initial improvement in traffic congestion will eventually be wiped out, i.e., building more roads does not solve traffic congestion; it only kicks the can down the road.

Unless engineers, politicians and transport planners understand this fundamental fact, we are forever doomed to repeat the same expensive mistakes.

His data analysis of 100 cities shows a very strong positive correlation between car use and highway supply, i.e. the more highways supplied the more a city is car dependent, regardless of public transport improvement.

He also showed that, compared to other cities, Penang has a relatively high per capita freeway supply (in fact higher than Singapore); and the Penang transport masterplan’s proposed highway construction will further increase this supply to make Penang even more car dependent.

In fact, his modelling showed that under the proposed Penang transport masterplan, car modal share will increase from 65 per cent to 72 per cent and public transport modal share will decrease to 12 per cent, well below the Penang state government’s target of 40 per cent public transport modal share by 2030. In other words, the Penang transport masterplan contradicts the state’s transport policy of moving people not cars.

He then argues that the only way to reduce car dependence is to build and improve on an urban rail system. He shows that cities with urban rail systems (trams, LRT or metro) reduce their car use, while those without any urban rail system increase their car dependence. His alternative scenario of constructing more urban rail for Penang will reduce car modal share by 4 per cent (from 66 per cent to 62 per cent) while increasing public transport usage to 20 per cent by 2022.

Penang is at an important crossroads. Which road will it take? Will the state ignore scientific evidence and make policies based on personal whims and populism by over-investing in highways to please car users? Or will it show far-sighted and courageous leadership by building and improving public transport – and educate and lead the public along this new road of sustainable public transport system?

Investing more and more on highways undermines a good public transport system.

Let me end by highlighting two facts. First, the state government cannot dismiss this critical view of the Penang transport masterplan as that of an NGO opposing for the sake of opposition. Roger Teoh is a DAP member and his conclusions are based on hard scientific analysis that the DAP leadership can ignore at its own peril.

Second, my first contact with Roger Teoh was when he wrote in Malaysiakini (22 May 2016) to rebut my earlier article in Malaysiakini (18 May 2016) on why building more roads does not solve traffic congestion. However, after indepth research, and faced with new data, he revised his original position. At least we now agree on the fundamental fact that investing in a first class public transport system, and not roads, is the way forward. He has exhibited a hallmark of true scholarship.

As John M Keynes once said, “When facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?

Will the DAP leadership do the same? That is the challenge.

One reply on “Penang at a crossroads: Building more highways or a good public transport system?”

A few years ago, the Penang governmant has spent more than RM 1 millon to commission a foreign consultant to produce the ” Harrow ” report on Penang Transport Master Plan . The report clearly empahsized the need ” to move people than the vechicles “. Unfortunately , the report has ended up sitting on the shelves to collect dust !

I am amused that, now, a post graduate student has done a study ” all over again” and arrived at the same conclusion !

Nevertheless I am indeed glad that we still have a learned City Councillor in MPBP, Dr Lim Mah Hui , to spearhead the need to ” move people”.

But the question remain : would Penang government leave the findings on the shelves to collect dust again ?

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