Urban transport alternatives for Penang

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To promote environmentally friendly transport options, cheahst looks outside the box for solutions to traffic congestion in the Pearl of the Orient.

The need for a third link between Penang Island and the mainland is undeniable. The first link, the ferry service, has served Penang well since 1920. As the transportation mode started to change from mainly pedestrian and mass public transport (buses, trams, trains) to private motor vehicles (sedans and motorcycles), there has been an increasing need to cater to this growing trend in personal transportation between the mainland and the island. Hence, when the Penang Bridge was opened in 1985, there was a huge jump in users and ferry ridership took a nose dive.

Drivers like to feel that they are in control, and a moving vehicle gives the impression of expediency, never mind if the whole journey actually took longer than if they had used the ferry.

The reality is, a second bridge will not solve Penang Island’s transportation woes. It is a parochial knee-jerk reaction: bridge congested, build another. The issue is catering to mass transit and nothing short of a holistic approach will make any dent into the burgeoning problem of congestion.

Empirical data has shown the bridge traffic to be extremely volatile and susceptible to congestion. Logically, it is not unexpected. If one lane out of two is rendered unusable (e.g. accident, vehicle breakdown and maintenance), then the traffic flow is likely to be reduced by as much as 800 per cent! Imagine two lanes running at 80km/hr reduced to a single lane at 20km/hr because traffic will slow down to merge and drivers to rubber-neck.

Return of the ferry

An alternative would be to fully develop and exploit Penang’s unique untapped potential, the littoral transportation option. Most of Penang’s commercial and high density residential area lie on the eastern and northern coasts. It would make sense to fully exploit and upgrade the ferry services by building two additional terminals at Batu Kawan and Batu Maung. Ferry services can depart from either Butterworth or Batu Kawan and berth at Georgetown or Batu Maung. The traffic direction and volume may be adjusted to suit situational needs. This arrangement has four distinct advantages over the bridge:
•    not prone to congestion due to lane closure.
•    may be managed to suit situational needs (direction and frequency).
•    fully scalable, i.e. more ferries may be purchased as needed and to take advantage of new maritime technology.
•    more efficient and reduces environmental impact (fuel usage by individual private vehicles, bridge super-structure)

This ferry service may be further completed by passenger-only speedboats to provide
•    littoral transport to service high-density areas, e.g. Tanjung Bungah, Batu Uban and Bayan Bay/Bayan Lepas Free Industrial Zone, Batu Kawan new township
•    an inland boat service up to Komtar by fully developing the existing canal up to to Prangin Mall.
•    complementary service to boost the development of Pulau Jerejak and the adjacent Queensbay area. In fact, there are already existing canals within this area that can be used for light passenger traffic.  

Intra-city transport: One-track mind

Feeder service into and beyond these ‘beach-heads’ will best be served by mini-buses. Monorails require megalithic structures that may look impressive but they require expensive construction outlays and contentious land requisitions that will eclipse and cut an unwieldy swath across much of the heritage buildings and structures of inner city George Town. Once the track alignments are set, it is extremely costly to re-route to meet shifting population demographics.

Generally, rails (i.e. from the light rail, through commuter rail, to heavy rail) are better suited to haul higher ridership volumes between a few selective stations amongst high density areas such as business and commercial districts and high density high-rise apartment areas rather than neighbourhood friendly stops; otherwise the service will get increasingly sluggish as the short actual travel times pale against the huge cumulative station dwell times.

For a rail service to succeed economically, it has to run through high-density areas and requires feeder bus services to ferry passengers from housing areas to the rail stations.

It would be far more cost effective to redevelop the mini-bus service which is better suited to densely built townships like Penang. Consider the following advantages of minibuses over the monorail for inner-city travel for the following reasons:
1)    Mini-buses may be implemented in the blink of an eye and at a fraction of the cost compared to the monorail. The traffic and general environment could well become intolerable during the construction of the rail system.
2)    Greater penetration: mini-buses can provide valuable service deep into housing estates that may be inaccessible to rail.
3)    Greater flexibility and highly robust: frequency can be tailored and capacity re-routed to meet diurnal and hourly directional demands. Bus breakdowns can be easily replaced and would have relatively insignificant impact compared to rail.
4)    Easier accessibility for the physically challenged: It is much easier to board a bus than to access the boarding platform of rail stations. Also, bus stops may be placed at closer intervals (150-300m) compared to rail (400m-1500m)
5)    Fully scalable to meet demands and to take advantage of emerging technologies. Buses and fleet mix may be configured for different needs and to adopt latest propulsion technologies as these continue to evolve.
6)    Better use of existing resources: many existing bus stops and bus routes may be upgraded and complemented with better amenities that are also synergistic with bicycle use and walking – whereas a rail service would be exclusive and take up valuable inner city space permanently.
7)    Promotes revitalisation of inner city George Town! Day-trippers and tourists would have more opportunities to take pictures, enjoy the many heritage sites. They would be more inclined to step off to explore from street level buses than elevated rail platforms.

Granted, mini-buses have not engendered an endearing appeal to most people but, truth be told, it is not a fault of the transport mode but the failure in administrating and regulating it.

As an added bonus, a well-planned integrated inner-city transportation system will certainly boost George Town’s world heritage appeal.   

The unifying factor

The central theme in addressing traffic congestion is to reduce car user-ship (versus car ownership). This will require two essential elements: alternative transport and ample parking.

Minibuses and ferries make viable and efficient complementary modes of transport which are better suited to Penang’s build-up and lay of the land.

Reasonably priced, ample parking can be made available adjacent to ferry and minibus terminals. A touch-and-go system may be used to pay for parking as well as ferry or mini-bus fares. Discounted parking rates to promote the use of public transport could be given as incentives. This will be politically more palatable in managing congestion than Restricted Zone Entry (CBD) charges or car ownership surcharges (e.g. Singapore’s COE), which has negative connotations as ‘punishment’ or as a means of filling the government’s coffers.

Conclusion

There is much to be gain by taking another look at the revitalisation of existing utilities and amenities rather than engaging in the construction of mega projects to solve our transportation needs. Low-hanging fruit can be picked at a relatively low outlay. The key is to manage and make the best of what we already have instead of building more or relying on elevated rail to rise above the congestion.

The inner city traffic snarl is due to poor traffic and pavement management. The low traffic through-flow (capacity) is due to pavement encroachment by traders, illegal parking and obstruction, and due to the lack of Tar McAdam.

Quick facts:

Proposals:

Second Penang Bridge
Cost: RM4-5 billion
Length: 24km
Capacity: dual lanes, 100kph?

Penang Monorail
Cost: RM1 billion?
Length: ?
Capacity: ?


The Facts:

Original Penang Bridge
Cost: less than RM1B
Length: 13.5 km
Capacity: dual lanes, 80kph,
Currently: 70k to 100k daily

Penang ferries
Cost: RM14M each (RM3b will buy 214 ferries with change to spare)
Frequency: 8minutes average
Capacity: 30 cars each deck, or 350 passengers on upper deck.
Travel time: 15-20 minutes

Mini-bus:
Cost: RM300k each? (RM1b will buy 3,330 mini buses with change to spare)
Capacity: approx 40
Travel time: Approximately 30km/hr average

The author welcomes further discussion on the above as an alternative to solving Penang’s traffic woes as he is a true-blue Penangite who has the state’s interest close to his heart.

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