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Trams are significantly safer than proposed Penang highway

Roger Teoh examines the safety of public mobility versus the private mobility which PTMP favours.

Article originally published on 17/08/2018 https://www.freemalaysiatoday.com/category/opinion/2018/08/17/trams-are-significantly-safer-than-proposed-penang-highway/

This latest article on the Penang Transport Master Plan (PTMP) is in response to the letter by Penang state representative and former MBSP councillor Joshua Woo, “LRT safer than trams for Penang”.

Before moving on to critically analyse the latest arguments put up by proponents of the PTMP, full credit should be given to Woo for exhibiting a hallmark of excellence by attempting to justify the PTMP with quantitative evidence. This is unlike his predecessors who resorted to personal attacks to silence PTMP critics, and the Penang chief minister who continuously accused NGOs of “spreading fake news”.

However, instead of addressing the questions and issues highlighted in my previous article, the issue of safety was brought up, which will be discussed in this article.

Firstly, the public should be reminded that the PTMP focuses heavily on roads over public transport. Phase One of the PTMP will construct significantly more roads and highways (PIL 1, PIL 2/2A, North Coast Paired Road, and the undersea tunnel) at a minimum cost of RM15 billion, but only one LRT line from George Town to Bayan Lepas costing RM8 billion.

Although a valid point was raised that an elevated LRT would pose less risk to the public than an on-ground tram system, the differences in safety statistics between trams and LRTs are negligible relative to motorised vehicles (which the PTMP is heavily focused on).

According to the statistics published by the UK Office of Rail and Road, the number of people killed in rail accidents was negligible (≈0 fatalities per billion passenger km) between 2006 and 2015, while the number of people killed in cars was 1.6 fatalities per billion passenger km, and 83 fatalities per billion passenger km for motorcycles in a similar time period. These fatality figures are significantly higher in Malaysia, given that Malaysia is ranked as one of the top three countries in the world with the deadliest roads (figure below).

A study from the Malaysian Digest in 2015 also showed that there were 321 road deaths in Penang in 2015, with motorcyclists accounting for 70% of road accidents. This equates to around four motorcyclist deaths a week in Penang.

It was recently highlighted that there are around 1.4 million motorcycles and 1.1 million cars in Penang. As a result of poor public transport services where travel time by bus takes at least two times longer relative to motorcycles and cars, a high proportion of Penangites have no choice but to use motorcycles as their main mode of transport, which unnecessarily increases their accident risk.

Therefore, with the heavy emphasis on vehicular traffic in the SRS-proposed PTMP, do we really want Penangites to increase their motorcycle usage at the expense of the heightened risk of fatality? If the Penang state government and SRS Consortium are truly concerned about transport safety, why did they decide to focus excessively on facilitating vehicular traffic over public transport?

Yes, the proposed George Town–Bayan Lepas LRT in Penang is certainly a very good initiative that will likely boost the public transport modal share in Penang. However, the main concerns lie in a lack of transparency in the decision-making process and the LRT’s feasibility study. Given that the Halcrow report clearly showed that BRTs and trams are significantly cheaper to build, maintain and operate, how did the Penang state government arrive at the conclusion to build LRTs over BRTs and trams? Was a comparative financial feasibility study done on the different public transport systems before choosing the LRT and monorail? Without the SRS transport master plan being open to the public, Penangites will not be able to obtain answers to the questions raised above.

Why is the Penang government so afraid to upload the SRS transport master plan online for public scrutiny? Is this an attempt to cover up the highly unrealistic LRT ridership forecast that was used to justify the mammoth price tag of the LRT project over trams?

To recap, the annual ridership for the Penang LRT is forecasted to be significantly higher than most MRT lines in London, Singapore and Kuala Lumpur on a per capita basis within its first year of operations. Failure to meet this forecasted ridership could cost the Penang state government at least RM1.2 billion in loss of ticket revenues over 10 years, threatening the financial viability of the LRT project and the state’s financial health.

More worryingly, concerns of these unrealistic ridership figures were raised on multiple occasions, but we have yet to see any representative from the Penang government coming out to refute these findings.

According to the American Public Transport Association, “a person can reduce his or her chance of being in an accident by more than 90% simply by taking public transit as opposed to commuting by car”. Of course, no one in Penang is campaigning for everyone to use public transport, nor are they calling for a complete ban all privately-owned cars from the roads. Such statements were recently used by the Penang chief minister himself as rhetoric to paint PTMP critics in a negative light and justify “more road building while developing the public transport system”. This is irresponsible and does not make any sense.

With a 96.8% car modal share in Penang, a definite way forward to improve transport safety and reduce traffic congestion is to increase Penang’s public transport modal share from 3.2% to a more respectable level of between 10% and 20%. Let us not forget that the Penang state government too has set itself a target of achieving a 40% public transport modal share by 2030. However, such a target will likely be missed by a significant margin in excess of 30% given that the SRS PTMP is heavily focused on roads over public transport.

Roger Teoh is a PhD postgraduate studying at the Centre for Transport Studies, Imperial College London. He is not a member or affiliate of any political party or NGO in Malaysia.

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