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How Penang should improve its mobility

By: Yoga Adiwinarto

The presentation that I gave in Penang on Jan 16 seems to have created another “BRT vs LRT” debate in the state.

A letter by Joshua Woo Sze Zeng suggesting that I was “sweet-talking” people into supporting Bus Rapid Transport (BRT) and his proposal for the Institute for Transportation & Development Policy (ITDP) to change its name to the Institute for BRT and Development Policy mocks our extensive work on the BRT system around the globe.

It is true that in general, the BRT is cheaper and faster to implement than any other rail-based mass transit. It could easily be implemented within the next five years, and it is already in the current Penang Transport Master Plan, along with other mass transit modes.

But it’s not just about the BRT or LRT

So the question is, should Penang have the BRT? Yes. Should it only focus on BRT? Definitely not.

A city as big as Penang needs mass transit systems urgently. With high-density developments spread around many areas on the island and in Butterworth, public transport is the solution to the mobility problem.

However, regardless of whether it is a BRT, LRT or MRT, a single mass transit corridor will not solve the entire problem. A good public transport network is needed in Penang.

The Rapid Penang bus network already has more than 60 routes – and some of them free – to serve both the island and the mainland, ferrying an average of 90,000 passengers daily.

Penang should be able to take advantage of the current bus network and expand the service to build a larger public transport network with mass transit corridors.

The current Penang Transport Masterplan already features multiple corridors of different mass transit, which is a good start to improve public transport.

The development of LRT, tram and BRT should go hand in hand and well integrated with the improvement of the Rapid Penang bus system. First and last mile connectivity is the key to having a well-established and effective public transport system in Penang.

And we should not rely on the Rapid Penang buses alone. Walking and cycling lanes must also be built.

Commercial, residential and industrial areas in Penang need to be well connected for pedestrians and cyclists, and a significant investment should be set aside for that.

Coming up with a mass transit system without any integration and connectivity will not provide a solution.

For example, Palembang, an Indonesian city with a 1.7 million population, recently built a stand-alone US$800 million LRT corridor without integrating it to the existing bus routes.

There was also no significant improvement in the infrastructure for pedestrians.

An LRT corridor that is designed to carry more than 5,000 passengers per hour per direction (PPHPD) currently only carries 300 passengers per hour in one direction during peak hours or less than 4% of its capacity.

Clearly, this is something that needs to be avoided in Penang.

Time to invest in pedestrian walkways and cycling lanes

So, how should Penang improve its mobility for its 1.7 million inhabitants?

It should start by investing in pedestrian facilities as well as cycling infrastructure, preferably where the lanes are segregated. This could be done in a relatively short time with a smaller budget than investment for highways.

The next improvement is in public transport, which includes improving and expanding the Rapid Penang bus services and building mass transit. Both investments are no doubt very important to accommodate the trips Penangites make to work, school and shop every day.

A debate about whether Penang should build the BRT, LRT or tram should be left behind already, as all three modes are included in the masterplan anyway.

Instead, the state government and the people should focus their energy on an integrated public transport network and system in Penang.

An integrated fare system for the entire public transport system, including the ferry services, should also be pushed earlier to ensure practicality and affordability of using public transport.

The success of the public transport system in cities such as Seoul, London and Singapore relies on the ease of payment and the affordability of using public transport.

By providing good walking and cycling facilities and a reliable public transport system, the Penang government will fulfil its obligation to provide efficient mobility for its people.

However, at times, providing these three things is not enough.

Limiting use of cars can also help

People need to be pushed out of their comfort zone, in this case, their passion for driving.

Limiting car use in some busy areas in Penang can be done through parking restrictions, licence plate restrictions and even congestion pricing like in Singapore or London.

This is necessary not only to discourage people from driving and helping to ease the traffic congestion in the city, but also to allow more space on the streets to be used for public transport users and pedestrians.

For example, on-street parking spaces can be converted into a sidewalk, and off-street parking sites can easily be transformed into a park or a public space, which will make Penang more liveable and enjoyable.

Of course, none of the above measures are easy to implement.

Even the mayor of Bogota in Colombia was nearly impeached when trying to reduce parking spaces almost two decades ago. The government needs to encourage people to start changing their mindset about relying on their cars.

People need to be motivated to walk and cycle more, especially for short trips. In the beginning, making these changes will be difficult, but as more people see the benefit of what they can get for themselves and for the whole city, hopefully, it will be smooth sailing from there to make Penang the most sustainable city in Asia.

Yoga Adiwinarto is the Southeast Asia Director of the Institute for Transportation & Development Policy.

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