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

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, ie 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!

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).

3 replies on “Road to folly: Will building more roads solve traffic congestion?”

Does the Politicians and Government are building roads to reduce traffic congestion or to open up more prized Penang land for development or lucrative development projects…??? Much will be appreciated if Dr Lim Mah Hui could tailor his commentaries for more ” Reader Friendly” press statements. 90% of the population are lay working class with little knowledge of Urban Development policies and no understanding the jargon in town planning.

My 2 sens… Density control and decentralization will do more good in easing traffic woes than making more highways… Penang should restrict the Density and Heights of buildings of the Island and encourage the Development of the ample Mainland lands with more infrastructure and decentralizing of state governance and economic activities… but this may not go down well with politicians, government and the Developers who is in love with prized island land.

Adopt the Singapore public transport system. Enforce laws & regulations. No “tidak apa” attitudes to oblige. Have scanners in & around high traffic areas i.e townships to charge per entry. This will enhance patronage of public transport.

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