The Penang Transport Master Plan (PTMP) is devised by the Penang state government to solve urban transportation woes in Penang. However, there has also been differing alternative PTMPs proposed by different academics and NGOs in recent times.
With ongoing objections from academics and NGOs on the state government’s proposal, does it highlight the need for further discussion and iteration on the PTMP? If so, what are the feasibility and deliverability of the alternative PTMP proposals? This article attempts to address these questions and review different versions of the Transport Master Plan with an independent point of view.
Unintended consequences of the PTMP
Firstly, three highway projects are proposed by the Penang State Government in the Penang Transport Master Plan (PTMP). These include the Tanjung Bungah-Teluk Bahang coastal paired road, Air Itam-Lebuhraya Tun Dr Lim Chong Eu by-pass, as well as the Gurney Drive-Lebuhraya Tun Dr Lim Chong Eu by-pass.
While these projects highlight the Penang state government’s good intention to mitigate traffic congestion far into the future, transport research and literature demonstrated that an excessive highway construction in any city yields unintended consequences of increasing automobile use and dependence.
These highways proposed by the PTMP will no doubt solve inter-urban trips. However, traffic problems such as congestion and lack of parking within an urban area will continue to worsen.
This can be explained using the findings of Kodukula (2010), showing that a two-lane highway to a downtown typically adds about 10,000 additional vehicles a day to surface streets, which further increases local traffic problems.
In order to truly solve intra-urban traffic problems, more roads and parking spaces will be needed inside an urban area to accommodate the expected increase in vehicles. However, the problem arises with the limited amount of space available within an urban centre, making it costly and impractical to cater for more roads and parking spaces.
At present day, these problems highlighted above are now apparent on the Lim Chong Eu Expressway’s Jelutong and Weld Quay exits, where a build-up in traffic and the lack of parking spaces are observed near exit points. While there will be proposals of grade-separating the roads at exit points to solve this problem, this will only move traffic congestion further down the network.
Hence, instead of relying on costly road network improvements for marginal gains and diminishing returns, a paradigm shift is needed to solve Penang’s urban traffic problems.
Review of alternative PTMP proposals
Academics in general have achieved a consensus against the PTMP’s excessive highway construction in Penang. However, the alternative solutions proposed by different parties to tackle urban transport problems in Penang are mixed. For example, Dr Dorina Pojani from the University of Queensland suggested a Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system, which is not feasible in Penang due to the lack of wide roadways unlike South American cities.
On the other hand, Penang Forum, especially Dr Lim Mah Hui proposed a state-wide street level modern trams. This again is not politically deliverable due to the penalties of capacity reduction on the existing road network, which is expected to cause a public outcry.
Since modal shift towards sustainable modes do not occur overnight, traffic congestion in Penang is expected to worsen in the foreseeable future, especially during the construction and initial operational phase of modern-trams.
An optimised solution
A balanced and optimised solution to holistically solve Penang’s urban transportation problems is to scale back on excessive highway constructions, while redistributing investments towards constructing more grade-separated LRT lines alongside the proposed Penang Airport to Komtar route.
Since this optimised solution retains and expands the fundamental concepts of LRT’s as proposed in the Penang Transport Master Plan (PTMP), it only involve minor iterations instead of a radical change in approach, making it more practical, realistic and achievable.
While my previous articles supported highway constructions proposed by the PTMP, new findings from my research (Teoh, 2016), as well as understanding the detailed highway alignments prompted a shift in opinion and highlighted the need to scale back on new highway constructions in Penang.
Despite that, it is important to point out that scaling back on highways does not mean completely restricting its construction. This is consistent with the fundamental concepts raised in previous articles, stating that highways should only be constructed for traffic diversion purposes, as well as connecting areas with poor accessibility.
For instance, a new ring road around George Town is necessary to divert vehicular traffic away from its historic core. This will subsequently relief traffic congestion, as well as allowing trams to run at street level within the Unesco Heritage Area, which will not violate or endanger Penang in losing its prestige heritage status from PTMP developments.
Next, carefully planned highway construction can also be used to unlock areas with low accessibility such as Batu Feringghi. Since the urban density threshold level for public transit services to be viable is cited to be around 3500 people/km2 (Newman & Kosonen, 2015), the low density in Batu Feringghi makes it infeasible to serve these areas with high public transport service levels due to low demand.
On the other hand, areas such as Air Itam and Farlim have an urban density above the threshold level of 3500 people/km2. Since urban densities in Air Itam and Farlim are high enough to support quality public transport service levels such as rail-based LRT systems, it is unnecessary and inefficient to construct a new bypass linking it to Lebuhraya Tun Dr Lim Chong Eu.
In summary, both the PTMP proposed by the Penang State Government and Penang Forum are a tale of two extremes. Primarily, an excessive amount of highways is proposed in the PTMP which will lead to unintended consequences of increasing car modal share to unsustainable levels.
On the other hand, Penang Forum’s alternative PTMP suggests a complete restriction in new highway construction, as well as state-wide ground-level trams that is simply unrealistic and undeliverable. Most importantly, the key to resolving this deadlock is having a right balance of scaling back on highway construction, while promoting on more grade-separated LRT lines.
Regardless, with the existing PTMP proposals, not only will Penang fail to achieve a 40 percent public transit modal share by 2030, the research findings of Teoh (2016) based on case studies and statistical analysis on 100 selected global cities suggest that this target will be missed by a sizable margin of around 20 to 30 percent.
Kodukula, S (2010) Rising Automobile Dependency – How to break the trend? Eschborn, Germany, Deutsche Gesellschaft fur Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ). Report number: Sustainble Urban Transport Technical Document #8
Newman, P & Kosonen, L (2015) The theory of urban fabrics. Town Planning Reviews.
Teoh, R (2016) Applications and Barriers of Increasing Sustainable Transport Modes in Car Dependent Cities. MSc Transport Engineering. Imperial College London
Author’s research (Teoh, 2016) can be made available upon request.
ROGER TEOH is a postgraduate student studying for a PhD at the Centre for Transport Studies, Imperial College London.
This piece was originally published at: https://www.malaysiakini.com/letters/360367