FOR five years now, we have heard the arguments for and against the Penang Transport Master Plan (PTMP).

On one side are naysayers comprising NGOs and individuals such as Roger Teoh, who gave five reasons why the plan should not proceed. On the other side are Penangites who struggle through traffic daily and come home fatigued.

This latter group understands the need for a revolutionary solution for Penang.

1. Population density

In his article labelling PTMP as a “white elephant”, Teoh was quick to ridicule the Penang South Reclamation (PSR) scheme and the expected population density.

What he failed to mention is that Penang Island is geographically and economically similar to Singapore and Hong Kong, where reclamation is the only practical solution to the problem of fast diminishing land that is needed for future growth.

PSR is to give birth to a “smart city” that will be the main attraction to businesses, building human capital through high-income jobs while ensuring optimum growth for Penang.

The Smart City blends sustainable living, featuring green and open spaces, public parks, beaches, pedestrian and cycling paths and recreational facilities.

The concept of housing is tied to connectivity, be it through integrated transport or ICT infrastructure.

This is the lifestyle of the future, but one that is achievable and one that Penang deserves.

It is not unrealistic to forecast population growth at an average of 6,000-7,000 pax per annum over a development timeframe of up to 50 years, which is only about 0.4% of the present population of Penang.

The population density of the whole island including a fully-occupied PSR will only reach 5,000 people per square kilometre, whereas an island such as Hong Kong has 17,000 people per square kilometre.

It is misleading to compare Penang’s population density with that of London and Paris, which have different city dynamics.

London, a 2,000-year-old city where properties are too expensive for most people to afford, will see its population growth limited to the super-rich or those inheriting from past generations.

The density of a city like Paris, half the size of inner London, will far supersede PSR and Penang island combined.

We just need to consult studies on population projections in major cities, such as the one by the Global Cities Institute at the University of Ontario, and projections by the Greater London Authority.

2. Comparing costs: apples and oranges

The second complaint is that the PIL 1 highway under the master plan will be one of the most expensive transport infrastructures in Malaysia.

This claim is not new, but we are prepared to rebut this again and again.

The comparison of PIL 1 to rail lines already fails the “apples and oranges” test. It is dishonest to mislead the public by comparing the cost per kilometre of a highway with that of a railway.

Let us provide some perspective on the differences in structural and other related aspects of PIL 1 and the East Coast Rail Link (ECRL).

There are several significant differences between PIL 1 and ECRL. These are in terms of:

a) The number and size of tunnels, where PIL 1’s are three times larger than ECRL’s.

b) Viaduct: PIL 1 is a six-lane highway as opposed to ECRL’s twin-track railway, not to mention that a highway is wider than a railway.

c) Contract: PIL 1 is by open tender unlike ECRL which was through direct negotiation.

d) Funding: PIL 1 is self-funded by the PSR while ECRL is financed by loan from a foreign country.

e) Environment: PIL 1 will be built to ease congestion in a dense city environment while ECRL is a greenfield project, not building on anything existing.

PIL 1 located in a hilly terrain consists of tunnels, unlike Kinrara-Damansara Expressway (Kidex) in a flat terrain which is fully elevated, a much cheaper construction method. While Kidex is a four-lane highway, PIL 1 will have six lanes.

PIL 1 is designed by taking into consideration the environment. Building tunnels through hills means avoiding the cutting of hills and clearing of forests, which are among the many concerns from environmentalists that were addressed from the onset. In addition, a cable bridge will be built over the Youth Park, and viaducts will be used instead of high-fill towers as not to disturb its continuing usage by public.

3. Ridership projection

It is said the 42 million annual ridership projection for the Penang LRT is “highly exaggerated”, therefore the economic benefits of the Penang LRT are also inflated.

Rail projects are designed to cater for the long term, so that they are not under-engineered as a long-term government asset.

One example is London’s Tube system, still in use after 150 years.

A rail line needs to be future-proof, more so in the city centre or in high-density urban places.

If the state were to achieve the 40% public transport mode share by 2030, a feasible and attractive option of a public transport system must be in place to encourage a shift from private vehicles to public transport.

This 40% mode share is a large increase from the current 5% who use public transport in Penang. Yet, it is lower than Hong Kong (85%), New York (67%), Singapore (65%), Seoul (64%), London (62%) and Tokyo (61%).

The forecast ridership obviously also depends on the projected population and employment and economic growth in Penang, as well as passenger increase for Penang airport, expansion of the Bayan Lepas industrial area, and the proposed South Reclamation Island, among others. It is certainly not based on business as usual.

Each rail line has its own land use, population and employment density, so comparing different networks is not easy. It is more difficult between cities and almost impossible between countries.

Take, for example, Singapore and London, both with extensive rail networks. If we take only the East-West line in Singapore, it shows a low ridership per population.

There is a need for a proper understanding of underlying assumptions and objective analysis as far as the PTMP is concerned.

The Kelana Jaya and Ampang LRT lines carry 6,400 and 4,700 daily passengers per station respectively, while the Sungai Buloh-Kajang MRT line carry 5,500 daily passengers per station. The LRT and MRT lines in Klang Valley carry 5,500 daily passengers per station.

In Singapore, the East-West line carries almost 30,000 daily passengers per station as compared to the whole MRT network which carries 22,100 daily passengers per station. The London Underground carries 14,000 daily passengers per station.

The Bayan Lepas LRT line will carry 4,300 daily passengers per station, taking into account that 40% are using public transport through various government measures.

Public transport including rail services is a public service, where capital expenditure should be borne by the government.

For public transport to be as operationally sustainable as demonstrated in developed cities, there are push and pull factors to be put in place, including the pricing of private vehicles and first and last mile connection.

Successful transit models such as Singapore depend on government support for upgrading and maintenance. Similarly, the Penang state government must initially fund the operating deficit through several possible means – for example, through a sinking fund via state government or city council contribution.

4. Traffic congestion to return?

The writer confidently predicts that traffic congestion will return to Penang within seven years of PIL 1’s operation, citing “independent studies from local universities and NGOs”.

PIL 1 is intended to alleviate the heavy traffic load on the Tun Dr Lim Chong Eu Expressway (LCE) and nearby roads such as Pengkalan Weld, Jalan Masjid Negeri, Jalan Jelutong and Jalan Sultan Azlan Shah.

With limited solutions to improve traffic on LCE, the alternative is to provide a second North-South spine road so that traffic is dispersed from the newly-opened Second Penang Bridge and future undersea tunnel.

PIL 1 will be able to cope with an increase in travel demands from the enlarged Penang International Airport, as well as a larger Bayan Lepas industrial zone and the reclaimed lands in the south.

PIL 1 will be a dual three-lane, purpose-built highway with limited points of access. This ensures certainty in speed and travel time. The alignment along the mountainous terrain also avoids congestion caused by future development. It will be built beyond the developed periphery of George Town, so that traffic will not converge in the extended parts of the city.

On completion, PIL 1 will significantly shorten north–south travel time to only 15 minutes from Gurney Drive to the airport, as opposed to 45 minutes required using the LCE. This is more or less the time taken to travel to Changi airport from the Singapore city centre.

5. 40% public transport modal share

Lastly, it was suggested that the goal of achieving a 40% public transport modal share target by 2030 cannot be achieved.

The 40% share for public transport means highways are still required to cater for the remaining 60%.

The 40% public transport modal share cannot be achieved overnight. People will still rely on roads for daily commute while rail transport is built in phases.

We agree with the statement in the article, “An Independent Review for an Optimised PTMP” that scaling back on highways does not mean completely restricting its construction. Highways should be built to divert traffic and connect areas with poor accessibility.

As George Town expands, PIL 1 is critical to enhancing the efficiency of local and regional traffic diversion. Still, PIL 1 will be reviewed before implementation, subject to the public’s needs.

Highways are here to stay

Roads and highways are the basis of a city’s transport system. Indeed, they fulfil the much talked-about first and last mile connection. Functionality and efficiency of roads and highways are crucial.

Highway opponents need only look at the poor road system in Penang. It’s not about how many highways are built; it’s about how to efficiently disperse traffic.

Every city in the world, including public transport-reliant Singapore and London, is planning for new highways.

So why isn’t Singapore restricting new highways and roads? Shouldn’t it aim for 100% public transport modal share, with no new highways, as suggested by those with dissenting views on PTMP?

The truth is, there is future in new highways: autonomous vehicles, e-bikes, on-demand ride services, and personal mobility devices are just a few of the things to come with sustainable transport.

The article was prepared by SRS Consortium the project delivery partner for the Penang Transport Master Plan appointed by the Penang State Government.