Expensive transport solutions may not be suitable for Penang. Only with decent information in place, reduced road congestion by proper planning and a bit of driving etiquette can the bus system become a valid alternative to private cars, says Florian Ladage.
I’ve been ‘enjoying’ Penang’s public transport system only for a few weeks now, but even after that short period of time, there can be no doubt that what is in place right now is not doing the job.
You regularly spend ages waiting at bus stops, and once a bus arrives, you’ll only be stuck at totally congested streets. Sure, traffic planning needs help.
But I’m afraid that those plans circulating around the media attack the issue from the wrong side of the equation. All these high-tech proposals, from a light rail or a monorail to water taxis or fancy double-decker buses – nice prestige projects, but very costly and not likely to be efficient. I’ve lived in several European countries and the US and experienced transport in several major Asian cities as well, so I’ve come to use a number of different solutions to transport issues – some good, others less so. Penang, however, seems to be aiming at the latter.
Planners here are just drawing the wrong comparisons. What’s the matter with Hong Kong, for example? That’s a densely populated city of seven million, whereas Penang Island is distributing its 750.000 people over a comparably large area of urban sprawl. How can you compare that? The number of inhabitants here will support one, or maybe two, lines of an LRT network – but what percentage of urban area is going to be covered by that?
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To spread the LRT network to every part of town would never be cost-efficient. To build a cost-efficient mass transit solution would mean focusing only on a couple of routes and that would leave a lot of people away from those routes and still dependent on their cars, thus not solving the problem of congestion. Same story with water taxis: at best they would be an addition, since they could only serve people living directly at the seafront – all the rest would still be in cars. Double-decker buses? Well, if those comparably small buses in use today are already constantly stuck, how is that supposed to be better with even less manoeuverable vehicles?
No, the problem is not in the buses in place itself, not even in the routes they’re taking. I agree the number and frequency of buses needs an increase, but apart from that, the transport system as such would be sufficient for a city the size of Penang. The catch is in the circumstances – bad road planning, lack of information, and the anarchic traffic behavior of motorists.
One way to stop jamming the roads would be to stop parking dead centre in the street to get food, or doing right turns by just driving into the oncoming traffic like a headless chicken, A huge part of the problem is simply self-created by lacking the least of road etiquette.
Beyond that, ask any local passer-by which bus to take to get to XYZ – in all likelihood, he won’t know. And how should he? There’s no information available at the bus stop, schedules are rough suggestions at best, and a decent route map cannot even be found online. How is anyone supposed to swap his car for a bus if it is easier to win the lottery than finding decent information on the bus routes?
Finally, yes, there is work that needs to be done, but not on the vehicles. The roads need some decent, conscious planning. There is a need for bus lanes that are kept free for the buses and not turned into makeshift parking lots – that does wonders for efficiency. The current one-way system that is mostly zig-zagging around is not helping traffic flow either. How to do it better can be seen in Barcelona, for example. The narrow interior of the old city used to be a traffic menace, but it has been turned into bearable conditions by creating an expansive one-way system where the roads just go straight. Simple as that. You can use the outside lanes for turning, and in the center, the traffic is free to flow without constantly creating bottlenecks for 90-degree turns.
Only with decent information in place, reduced road congestion by proper planning and a bit of driving etiquette can the bus system become a valid alternative to private cars. And only once it has become a serious alternative, maybe drivers can be convinced to leave their cars at home. It would still need a lot of effort in education, but it’s the only way I see forward.
The other suggestions circulating around won’t solve the problem, because the reach of those networks won’t be any improvement to what is in place now. All these prestige problems would do is eat up billions and billions of ringgit – money spent way better on other community issues beyond public transport.
Florian Ladage is a German university exchange student who tried to use the buses while in Penang for a month.