Get the basics right first: Walk before you sprint

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Photo credit: Wikipedia

The very foundation of a robust public transport network, namely the humble bus, has almost always been conveniently overlooked and consistently under-invested, says Petua.

This is in response to a recent article by an Alfie Nur titled “Stop attacking Penang Transport Master Plan”.

Kuala Lumpur has a web of lines comprising two KTM Komuter, three elevated light rail transit lines, a monorail line, a mass rapid transit line and a dedicated airport rail link with local and express services; yet the traffic condition in Kuala Lumpur could not improve as much as we had expected after the opening of the highly anticipated Sungai Buloh–Kajang mass rapid transit line.

The “Penang Transport Masterplan” (PTMP) proposed by SRS Consortium is very much modelled after that of the Klang Valley’s, which focuses on rail and highway, and where Gamuda, a major stakeholder of SRS Consortium contributed heavily in the building of its urban rail network. There is no doubt over their capacity to deliver these projects successfully.

However, what many fail to realise is that the PTMP is an unnecessarily costly, top-down, infrastructurally heavy approach to allegedly “fix” congestion without any empirical analyses on the appropriate response to local traffic and public transport issues in Penang. What the PTMP does is to import wholesale a solution found effective in other cities without first analysing the strategic differences between Penang and the sample cities.

Apart from that, the perception of free infrastructure that was marketed as reason for reclamation has been proven to be untrue with the announcement of RM10bn sukuk or Islamic bonds during the Penang State Assembly session back in November 2019.

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The overemphasis of hard infrastructure by Malaysian politicians has steered the perception of “good public transport service” among residents in the Klang Valley and the rest of the nation towards a rail-dominant transit network. This is not necessarily a reality especially when The overemphasis of hard infrastructure by Malaysian politicians has steered the perception of “good public transport service” among residents in the Klang Valley as well as the nation towards a rail-dominant transit network. This is not necessarily a reality especially when the very foundation of a robust public transport network, namely the humble bus, has almost always been conveniently overlooked and consistently under-invested in comparison to shinier and more politically expedient rail solutions. Hence, “trying to sprint before learning how to walk”. in comparison to shinier and more politically expedient rail solutions. Hence, “trying to sprint before learning how to walk”.

I was often told by people who defend the PTMP that we should look towards Singapore and Hong Kong, two cities with similar geography and culture but with a much larger urban rail network. While these three cities may be comparable in many aspects, many neglected to consider a very fundamental difference, ie our diverging histories of urban mobility and land-use patterns.

Cities often cited for their excellent public transport systems almost always share a common trait – that their first urban rail line(s) were built on entrenched corridors with high public transport demand generated by buses. Till this day, buses remain the core transport mode for their citizens to move around with rail-based services serving to complement the bus network.

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Bus and Rail comparison
Slide from my presentation during a public forum back on 5 October 2019 showing the comparison between the ridership figures of bus and urban rail in three exemplary cities.

The continued success of public transport in these cities is driven not just by urban rail but – and more importantly underpinned – by a more developed bus service.

Apart from that, investing in our buses creates far greater economic value for our community. In the long term, it leads to the creation of permanent jobs as opposed to the short-term jobs in building the massive PTMP. And sadly, most of the ringgit generated through the job offerings arising from the PTMP will be remitted out of Malaysia as th majority of our construction workers are temporary migrants.

A higher portion of those taking up jobs such as bus drivers, mechanics, bus builders and other supporting roles will be from local communities. They will spend their salaries on the local economy, thus generating long-lasting sustainable economic growth.

Finally, I renew my call for the current PTMP to be overhauled and to incorporate a systematic step-up approach to public transport investment based on results achieved in the preceding stages of public transport development.

Mock-up example of how investment within the transport masterplan should be systematically executed according to the results achieved by preceding stages of transport development.

PeTUA is a member of Penang Forum

This article was first published in FMT News.

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