Penang LRT proponents using straw man arguments to run down cheaper options

A comprehensive feeder bus network, BRT and road tram systems, when properly designed and integrated, can provide comfortable, efficient and safe journeys

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By Rosli Khan and Anil Netto

So the piece “Penang LRT decision, the result of comprehensive evaluation“, published by a news portal on 11 June turns out to be only the personal view of the author.

Three hours later, the same new portal reported: “Putrajaya, not state, will decide on Penang LRT, says Loke“.

For any discussion about a mass transit system in Penang, it is essential to critically analyse and challenge each of the five reasons provided in the first piece above.

Here is a detailed rebuttal:

LRT ‘moves more passengers in shortest comparable time’?

  • Traffic management improvements: Modern bus rapid transit (BRT) and road trams can be highly efficient with proper dedicated lanes along busy stretches. Busy intersections? Priority signalling or ramps over these junctions will do the trick. Cities like Curitiba, Bogotá, Istanbul and Jakarta have shown that well-designed BRT systems can handle large passenger volumes – more than an elevated ‘light or medium’ rail transit (LRT) system – and slash travel times. Also, if more commuters switch to buses and road trams, the numbers of private motor vehicles competing for road space will be reduced. Incentives could be introduced to encourage more people to leave their vehicles at home.
  • Flexibility and cost: Ground-level systems like trams and BRTs are more flexible and cost-effective compared to expensive elevated rail systems. They can be expanded or rerouted with less disruption and expense, accommodating evolving urban landscapes and changing commuter patterns.

‘LRT has low accident risk’?

  • Safety measures: Costly elevated rail systems are not the only way to ensure safety. Properly designed ground-level systems with dedicated lanes, pedestrian barriers and advanced signalling can also achieve high safety standards. Cities like Zurich, Melbourne and several others in Europe have implemented such measures effectively.
  • Statistical context: The pro-LRT article only focuses on accidents in some cities and ignores successful implementations in other places. In reality, accident rates are influenced by various factors, including city infrastructure and traffic culture – and not just the mode of public transport.

LRT needed ‘for future growth’?

  • Scalable solutions: Ground-level systems like BRT and trams are scalable. If demand increases, additional vehicles can be deployed or routes can be extended. The lower starting cost lets you invest and scale up gradually, based on actual ridership growth and available funds. In contrast, an elevated LRT needs to be built all at once and the full investment cost paid upfront.
  • Population density and demand: The argument in the pro-LRT article assumes a linear population growth of 1.77 million for both Seberang Perai and Penang Island. But demand for the proposed ‘Mutiara’ line (Penang airport – Komtar) should be calculated without mainland Penang residents of over 900,000, as they are located across the channel, a distance away from the initial elevated LRT catchment area. A re-evaluation of the demand figures must be undertaken and updated, as it appears to contain errors and discrepancies. For a start, the proposed three reclaimed islands, which were supposed to house over 300,000 people, has now been scaled down to just one.

Also, it is disingenuous to use the past population growth rate of 130% over five decades as a guide to Penang’s future population to justify the need for an LRT system. Similarly, a high future population figure of 2.5 million was touted in the past to justify the LRT.

In reality, the total fertility rate in Penang has plunged over the past five decades to only 1.3 children per woman. This is much lower than the population replacement rate of 2.1 children per woman.

So from now on, the population will only inch up from its present 1.8 million. It will probably take until around 2040 for the figure to surpass 2.0 million.

Meanwhile, any marked regional rise in the population is likely to come on mainland Penang, where home prices are cheaper – not on the island where the Mutiara line is supposed to be.

‘Systemic problems’?

  • Technological advances: Road trams and other modern transport technologies, such as articulated buses (BRT), are rapidly advancing. With continual innovations, these systems can overcome existing limitations and become viable alternatives to the elevated LRT. In the future, more road tram suppliers will enter the fray, minimising any technological dependence. In contrast, an elevated LRT systems, once in place, is likely to be highly inflexible, expensive to maintain and vulnerable to changing ridership patterns.
  • Case studies: The pro-LRT article selectively cites the negative aspects of road trams without acknowledging successful implementations or several ongoing improvements. More cities worldwide are now experimenting with more advanced versions of road trams. They are overcoming initial challenges and optimising performance. Look at the video (top) to see how trams have transformed a string of French cities.

Impact on roads?

  • Infrastructure development: Any new transport system, road trams and BRT included, will require infrastructure investment. Such systems can be integrated into existing road networks with smart engineering solutions, minimising disruption and any restrictions on private vehicles.
  • Economic efficiency: The cost of building and maintaining an elevated LRT system is much higher than upgrading roads for road trams or a BRT system. Ground-level systems are a cost-effective option that can be implemented quickly, reducing the financial burden on the government. Any cost involved in resurfacing roads that may be damaged by trams will pale in comparison to the whopping infrastructure and maintenance cost of an elevated LRT network.

Till today, we do not know even how much the elevated LRT network for Penang will cost. All we know is the LRT line from “Silicon Island” to Komtar will cost RM10bn (and even this figure is probably outdated). What about the lines from Komtar to Tanjung Bungah and from Komtar on the island to Penang Sentral on the mainland?

Wouldn’t we be better off exploring how to promote sustainable mobility in a more financially responsible manner? Remember, the bill for Penang’s expensive elevated LRT project will ultimately be borne by the ordinary people, even if it is the federal government that is financing it.

For a start, we could improve and expand our existing network of ferries and buses. We could also scale up certain busy bus routes to BRT and tram lines when and where necessary.

Let’s not get locked in!

The decision to opt for an elevated LRT system in Penang should be re-evaluated in light of the benefits of flexible, cost-effective, and scalable ground-level transport options.

Let’s not get locked into a costly, inflexible elevated LRT system – a hideous concrete blight on the streetscape.

A comprehensive feeder bus network, BRT and road tram systems, when properly designed and integrated, can provide comfortable, efficient and safe journeys.

To top it all, these cheaper options offer future-proof public transport solutions, catering to the diverse needs of Penang’s residents. They are friendlier for pedestrians, people with disabilities and other vulnerable groups. They encourage sustainable mobility and urban revitalisation across a broader land mass.

This is the way to go.

Rosli Khan, a traffic planning consultant, has a masters in transport planning and a PhD in transport economics from Cranfield University in England. Anil Netto, a chartered accountant and former Penang Transport Council member, is president of Aliran.

The views expressed in Aliran's media statements and the NGO statements we have endorsed reflect Aliran's official stand. Views and opinions expressed in other pieces published here do not necessarily reflect Aliran's official position.
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Simon Tan
23 Jun 2024 11.33pm

How much is rm10 billion? Kindly refer simple calculations;

If Penang State Government (PSG) got a ‘donation’ from a ‘Prince’ of rm10 billion and ask KWSP to invest and generate 5.5% (as in 2023), PSG will receive rm550 million per annum perpectually.

Singapore with population of about 6 million has close to 6000 commuting buses, a ratio of 1000 buses per 1M population. Studies by SOCDEM also shows that Hong Kong and London have similar ratio of buses to population . see reference below

At time of writing Rapid Pg has 250 buses ONLY to serve both Island and Seberang Prai.

How much to provide 1000 free buses Go KL style?
1000 buses x rm1,000 per day to CHARTER a Go KL style bus x 365 = rm365M ONLY

17 Jun 2024 6.42am

Jakarta BRT is a total failure. Not grade separated and reducing normal traffic lanes. Traffic lights and cross roads disrupts the smoirh flow of the BRT. Whichever system it must be grade separated.
Singapore got it right!! Why want to reinvent the wheel ?
Penang LRT has been tabled 10 years ago and now talking in tge ioriobs. Where were you people 10 years ago?? Do not object for the sake of objecting. Move onwards!

William Becwar
William Becwar
16 Jun 2024 11.11pm

Your comments are actually quite amusing. You accuse the LRT proponents of straw man arguments, then proceed to construct exactly that to promote your notion of a bus. Light rail can couple trams together as needed, so that single operator can carry hundreds, rather than the 70 of a bus. A five-car LRT carries 1,175 passengers. So you can pay one operator on one light rail train, or 14 drivers on 14 separate vehicles. That is at least 14 times the operating cost in labor. Yes, BRT is cheaper to build, but more expensive to operate. You build once. You pay a higher operating cost every minute of every day.