Original publish date: 13/11/2016 https://www.freemalaysiatoday.com/category/opinion/2016/11/13/less-focus-on-cars-roads-is-better-for-all/
The link between transport policy and social equity is often an important issue left undiscussed in the developing world. This article attempts to provide a fresh perspective, analysing the element of social equity in the proposed Penang Transport Master Plan.
In addition, this article is also in response to Chris Lee, an MBPP Councillor and upcoming Penang ADUN (Why New Highways are Needed for Penang ). As I am a DAP member, I would like to provide alternate views within the party in a constructive debate on the PTMP.
It is highly crucial for the Penang state government to meet the mobility needs of all Penangites, which involves placing equal emphasis on improving all transport modes. However, as proposed in the PTMP, the motor car is further prioritised despite the state already having a very high amount of highways.
It is unanimously proven by transport research papers all around the world that a high accommodation in the car will inevitably lead to the deterioration of modal alternatives such as public transport, walking and cycling.
Excessive highway construction is expected to reduce public transport ridership, causing reduced revenues and scaling back of services and increased waiting times, further reducing its attractiveness and ridership, leading to a negative cycle.
Unavoidably, this implies that Penangites will have no choice but to buy a car. Since public transport is more affordable and significantly cheaper compared to paying for a car mortgage and its operational costs, an excessive highway construction is expected to unfairly impact low-income groups the hardest.
Lack of an inclusive transport system in the Penang Transport Master Plan will lead to social exclusion for the poor, further limiting their total mobility and chances of climbing up the social ladder.
People without a car as well as the poorest in society will be restricted from having equal opportunities. For instance, rather than using their time productively, their access to basic necessities such as employment opportunities, education and healthcare will be significantly limited due to inconvenience.
Therefore, this leaves an open question for the public: are the excessive highway constructions proposed by the PTMP beneficial to everyone, or does it only benefit social elites with car ownership?
There have been arguments that these new highways proposed by the PTMP are needed to boost economic development in Penang; however, quantitative evidence drawn from cities around the world fails to support this hypothesis.
Using the global cities database with 100 different cities around the world, it is very clear that cities prioritising in mass transit systems with lower car use (green circle – mainly European cities) on average have a higher GDP per capita in the long term, when compared to cities with high car use and highway supply (red circle – mainly North American cities).
Percentage of trips made by cars vs. GDP per capita in a city. (Author’s graphic.)
This can potentially be explained as traffic congestion in a city leading to a decrease in economic productivity and the deterioration of social welfare.
Although the Penang State Government will once again predictably point out that these highways are needed to solve traffic congestion, various transport research papers have all shown that urban transport woes such as parking limitation and traffic congestion is expected to remain.
Therefore, the economic argument in favour of excessive highway construction in the PTMP is again proven unjustified and extremely misleading to the general public. The key point is not for Penang to remain in status quo but to invest on the right transport infrastructure such as urban rail systems instead of highways.
Governments in the developed world are mandated by law to conduct an appropriate and high level stakeholder engagement for any large projects proposed.
It can be debated that the Penang State Government and its Project Delivery Partners did indeed conduct sessions to address NGO concerns. Such consultations unfortunately are not up to par.
For example, a high quality stakeholder engagement involves a two-way communication, together with a clear selection criteria and justification for every decision made at every stage of the project.
Since the PTMP will be the Penang State Government’s biggest project since coming into power in 2008, it is definitely disturbing that these fresh concerns raised in my previous articles were swept under the carpet.
This can be reflected in the reluctance of state representative Chris Lee in acknowledging and addressing these issues directly in his recent articles.
Stakeholder engagements and disagreements in any project is a normal process. The Penang State Government needs to understand that speaking out against the PTMP is not a vote against the DAP. However, failing to conduct a high quality stakeholder engagement will be regarded as clear negligence.
A high quality stakeholder engagement framework and methodology as at Business for Social Responsibility can be temporary adopted if the Penang State Government is committed towards a competent, accountable and transparent (CAT) administration similar to governments in the developed country.