Articles PTMP

Why Penang needs more urban rail

by Roger Teoh

This article discusses the need of an increased emphasis and investment towards LRT systems in the Penang Transport Master Plan (PTMP). As mentioned in my previous article, an urban rail system is a balanced and optimised solution to holistically solve Penang’s urban transportation woes.

The advantages of urban rail systems

Firstly, rail-based systems allow population density in a city to be further increased without being entrenched with increasing traffic congestion. This can be explained as urban rail systems uses significantly less space to transport each person when compared to the car, which is also a more efficient use of the limited amount of urban space available.

At present, urban density in areas such as Gurney Drive, Air Itam and Farlim are already too high for widespread automobile usage. This is consistent with the ‘congestion hotspots’ in Penang, with unacceptable congestion already observed around these areas. Similarly, severe congestion is also experienced around the Bayan Lepas Free Industrial Zone due to the high job densities, which the area does not have an adequate transport system to cater for its demand.

On the basis of the limited land available, as well as various developer’s intention to build even more sky-scrapers around these dense urban areas in Penang, it is clear that the way forward to accommodate for the projected increase in population and density is to construct more LRT lines.

Next, it is also more cost-efficient to increase transport capacity in the future using urban rail systems. For example, instead of constructing more roads, highways and parking in a finite urban space, new signalling systems can be upgraded to increase train frequency, while connecting more carriages for longer trains to boost capacity.

Overall, although highways appear to be cheaper in the short term, its effectiveness in solving urban transport problems is limited with a high cost, marginal gains and diminishing returns. Conversely, the long-term wider economic benefits of urban rail systems such as social agglomeration, liveability and air quality improvements are often not taken into account in the feasibility study.

The next section describes an innovative option to increase the attractiveness of Penang’s LRT system through minor iterations to the original Penang Transport Master Plan (PTMP).

Reinventing the undersea tunnel

One innovative idea to increase public transport modal share in Penang is to convert the proposed 6.5km undersea tunnel from car traffic to LRT usage with its dedicated right-of-way. By having a faster door-to-door travel time using an LRT, this provides a perfect opportunity to increase the attractiveness and usage of public transport in Penang.

For example, using calculations from Google Maps, it takes around 30 minutes to drive between Butterworth and Gurney Drive at present (figure 1). Assuming that an LRT has a speed of 80kph, journey times between these two areas will be dramatically slashed to only around 6 minutes.

Figure 1: Comparison of Journey times between Butterworth and Gurney Drive by car and LRT.
(Source: Google Maps)

In addition, repurposing the proposed Penang Undersea Tunnel towards LRT usage will also provide a secondary knock-on effect such as having more LRT lines and interchange stations. In other words, this will provide economies of scale and proper integration for travellers, which will now be able to travel around more places using the proposed LRT system in Penang.

On the other hand, if the Penang Undersea Tunnel is to be used by road traffic, the increase in convenience by driving suggests that even more cars will be attracted to an already congested Gurney Drive area with very limited parking spaces.

Therefore, the repurposing of the Penang Undersea Tunnel provides a perfect opportunity to increase the attractiveness using public transport, as well as solving urban transportation problems in a holistic manner by restricting the convenience of driving.

Lessons from developed cities

Politicians, especially those in developing countries often mistakenly perceive the need to construct more roads and highways in order to accommodate the large projected growth in road traffic. For example, Penang exco member YB Chow Kon Yeow suggested the need to ‘over-design’ and construct six-lane highways in order to cater for future travel needs in Penang (Filmer, 2016).

Although it is true that road traffic is growing by 7 percent per annum in Penang, accommodating for such high growth is not sustainable in the long term due to factors and unintended consequences discussed in my previous article.

Based on observations on different cities around the world, if urban traffic congestion gets bad enough, or when the road network in a city reaches capacity, further transport demand and growth will be shifted towards public transport with dedicated-right-of-way (Rogala, 2016).

However, the problem arises when Penang does not have any urban rail system in place at this moment to capture and transfer this growth away from road traffic. While one might argue that the PTMP already proposes a Penang International Airport – Komtar LRT route, this one LRT line only serves a limited area and therefore is insufficient to be regarded as a viable alternative to the car.

Looking at case studies formulated on Chinese cities such as Beijing, the local authorities once ignored the advice and recommendations from transport academics and professionals. Chinese officials once used to claim that their cities are significantly different compared to Western European Cities and therefore, bulldozed through the plan to construct an excessive amount of highways to solve congestion.

As a result, despite Beijing constructing six ring roads around its city with lots of grade-separated flyovers, traffic congestion worsened together with air quality deteriorating to unhealthy levels.

At present, there has been a transport paradigm shift in Beijing, which the city is now experiencing a record investment of constructing 550km of new metro lines. This emphasis towards urban rail has also been observed in second and third-tier Chinese cities with population sizes similar to Penang.

Nevertheless, the highlight of this case study is for Penang to avoid the same mistakes made by Chinese cities. Since Penang has a limited funding available, it has to make the correct decisions and investments now by avoiding excessive highway constructions.

It is important to note that these highway infrastructures proposed by the PTMP will be used for at least 50 years. As a consequence of this less-than-ideal decision made by the state government, Penangites will be ‘locked-in’ towards being car dependent with a limited number of LRT lines.

With the quantitative evidence available, it is certain that the existing PTMP will fail to holistically solve Penang’s transportation woes. It is still not too late for the Penang State Government to re-evaluate the Penang Transport Master Plan (PTMP). This is crucial as the PTMP is a long term project, and it is the future of the younger generation that is at stake and will have to live through the consequences of the decisions made today.


Filmer, A (2016) A Properly Financed Transport Plan for the Long Haul. Penang Institute [Online] Available here. [Accessed: Oct 29, 2016]

Rogala, A (2016) Todd Litman on the Costs of Congestion, the Drivers of Sprawl and Policies for Smarter Growth. The City Fix – World Resources Institute [Online] Available here. [Accessed: Oct 29, 2016]

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