June 2016

Address to the Full Council Meeting of MBPP
May 30, 2016
By Dr Lim Mah Hui

Towards A Sustainable, Liveable Community and City

Selamat pagi dan selamat sejahtera. Dato’ Bandar Patahiyah, Ir. Ang Aing Thye, Ahli2 Majlis, Pengarah2 dan Ketua2 Jabatan, Para Wartawan, tuan2 dan puan2. Saya akan bincang tentang komuniti lestari. Saya minta izin memberi ucapan dalam Bahasa Inggeris.

Today I wish to share with you a short video on Curitiba, a medium sized city of 2 million people in eastern Brazil that transformed itself into one of the most liveable in the world. In 2010 it was given the Global Sustainable City Award .

It was the effort of a mayor, Jamie Lerner, an architect by profession, who had a vision and the political will to implement that vision that was and still is against conventional belief that building more highways and bringing in more cars into the city was the path to “development”. He was ahead of his time. But he had the political will to implement it against great odds and today, he and Curitiba are recognized internationally as vanguards of sustainable development.

The video highlights a few main points.

He implemented radical plans for urban landuse that featured pedestrianization of streets, strict controls on urban sprawl and an affordable and efficient public transport system. He prioritized public transport over private cars and transformed car lanes into dedicated bus lanes. When he took office buses were carrying 20,000 passengers per day; today they carry more than 2 million per day and the bus system is one of the few in the world that is financially self-sustaining. There is only one price, no matter how far you travel, and you pay at the bus stop. It has been a model for other cities trying to achieve more sustainable movement of people and is used by 85% of people living in the city.

Second, he created parks and green spaces and today the city has 4 times more green space (52 square metres) per person than the recommended one despite its population tripling in the last 20 years. Much of the green space was achieved by using federal funds for flood control to build small dams across rivers, creating lakes and parks for the city population. There are 28 parks and wooded areas in Curitiba, creating a city landscape unlike any other in a developing city

He thought outside the box and believed in simplicity and living within his means. He used sheep to graze in the parks instead of using lawn mowers.

He put people before all else. He maintained solidarity with the people, not as rhetoric, and cutting ribbons here and there. As he said, one has to feel inside the daily problems of the people. Authority must not regard the public and civil society as enemies and meet them only in Appeals Board. Much better to engage with people, listen to their concerns and encourage genuine participation before rather than after the fact.

That is why I have asked for regular public forums to be organized between the public and the council. It was adopted as a KPI at our retreats but has not been implemented. I hope this can be taken up this year.

Please click here to view “Curitiba: Citi of Dreams (2006)”


By Dr. Lim Mah Hui
City Councillor, Majlis Bandaraya Pulau Pinang
May 18, 2016

Conventional Belief is wrong

Conventional belief has it that widening roads will reduce traffic congestion. This is still the mindset our engineers and political leaders. But conventional wisdom is time and again proved factually wrong. In fact, the counter-intuitive is right, i.e., road widening creates more traffic congestion. While the counter-intuitive is not obvious, the factual evidence is staring in our face.

From Bangkok to Beijing, the endless spaghetti of super highways has only worsened traffic congestion. Beijing started with the first outer ring road to relieve city traffic congestion. Today it has eight such outer ring roads, and the traffic has gotten worse!

But the most recent evidence of the failure of road building and conversion to the new paradigm comes from Sylvester Turner, the new mayor of Houston, a car-centric city. In April 2016, he admitted that the city spent US$2.6 billion (RM10 billion) to construct the world’s widest highway with 26 lanes and this only contributed to worsening traffic congestion. He then called for a new paradigm -move away from widening roads to public transportation solutions and encourage car sharing and HOV (high-occupancy vehicle) lanes.

Why Road Expansion Results in Worsening Traffic Congestion

The U.S. has spent trillions of dollars trying to reduce congestion by road widening but this has actually CREATED new car trips that would not have occurred without road widening. Why? Because increasing the supply of roads only creates higher demand for its use. Two things happen. First, like the mathematician, Braess, predicted decades ago, motorists who have taken alternative roads now converge on the widened road resulting in congestion. Second, people who would have used public or other modes of transport now opt to drive as it is more convenient. So we get back to square one; and we are worse off financially and environmentally.

Despite this overwhelming evidence, Penang, that prides itself as forward looking and leading, is actually caught in a time warp.

Moving Cars Not People – the Penang Reality

Despite Penang state government’s transportation slogan of moving people not cars, it is actually the doing the opposite. This is evident from the priority the transport plan gives to road building both in terms of timing and expenditure.

Under the Halcrow transport plan 61% of the RM27 billion is for road improvement and building. Under the first phase of the proposed SRS transport plan, 50% is for building roads. This is moving cars, not people.

The first phase of the SRS transport plan proposes to build the Pan Island Link (PIL1) and a LRT line from George Town to the SRS island B between 2017-2022. The PIL1 is estimated to cost RM6.1 billion and the LRT line RM6.2 billion for a total of RM12.3 billion.

Disastrous to Promote Car Usage and Public Transport at Same Time

If the state is serious about increasing the public transport modal share from the present paltry 3% to 40% by 2030 (which is unrealistic under the SRS proposal), it should spend most, if not all, of the money to build public transport and not roads. It should simultaneously take proactive steps to discourage motorists from using private vehicles. However, the present strategy of the Penang state to prioritise and provide far higher investments in highways only serves to encourage motorists to drive and use the highways particularly when they are free of charge. This will discourage public transportation use. The SRS proposal is to spend RM6 billion to build the Pan Island Link (PIL 1) to the airport cutting north-south travel time to 15 minutes. And no tolls will be collected. This whole strategy is fundamentally flawed from the start. If it is cheaper and faster to use the PIL to get to the airport, people will shun the LRT for cars. This will lead to financial disaster as public ridership will be reduced. For example, the actual ridership of the KL PUTRA LRT line reached only 3% of projected ridership in 1999 and 44% four years after starting operation.

The experience in the KL-Klang region clearly demonstrates the folly of such a failed strategy where despite the provision of 2 LRT lines and 1 monorail line public modal share of transport dropped from over 40% in 1970s to 17% in 2014 as shown in below graph.
Sources: Jeff Tan (2008); SPAD; Wikipedia

Financial Failure of A Non-Balanced Strategy

Furthermore, the bad financial experience of the two LRT companies (SMART and PUTRA) and the KL monorail should be an eye-opener for Penang. The two LRT companies faced financial difficulties within the first year of operation (circa 1998/99) due to poor ridership and were bailed out by the federal government. In the case of the KL Monorail, the government gave a RM 300 million soft loan. Then in November 2001, the Ministry of Finance issued RM5.5 billion of bonds to purchase the debts of the two LRT companies (Jeff Tan, 2008: 114).

For a public transport system to succeed, we need both the pull and the push factors. The pull factors are providing convenient, punctual, frequent, affordable, accessible and well-connected public transport system. But this alone will not do. The government must have the political will to implement push factor policy measures to discourage the use of private vehicles, such as higher parking charges, restricting parking spaces, and road congestion charges. One without the other will not do.

Jeff Tan, 2008 Privatization in Malaysia (Routledge).

Statement by Dr. Lim Mah Hui
May 10, 2016

1. NGOs initiated the idea of a Penang master transport plan

Civil society is not against the Penang state government’s idea for a transport master plan. In fact it is NGOs that first suggested this idea in 2009 to the new Penang state government that just came into power. Many professionals from civil society volunteered their time freely and served in the Penang Transport Council and helped prepare the documentation for commissioning the master transport plan that was then awarded to the Halcrow consultants in mid-2011.

So the state government cannot accuse us of opposing the idea of a master transport plan. What we are questioning is the content of the present Penang Transport Master Plan as proposed by SRS consultant (SRS Consortium) with its many flaws. SRS is a joint-venture between Gamuda Berhad, Ideal Property Development Sdn Bhd and Loh Phoy Yen Holdings Sdn Bhd.

2. Release the SRS Report in Full

The Penang State government invited public participation. It has organized many briefing sessions by the SRS consultants to members of public. We welcome that. But we say this is only a small, though positive, part of a consultative process.

However, for the consultation to be truly genuine, the first and foremost condition is for the Penang state government to RELEASE IN FULL the report done by the SRS on the PTMP. So far it has only provided very selective and superficial parts of the study to the public in public forums and on its website. The public cannot be expected to give proper feedback when they are partially blind folded. This is not acceptable for a state that professes to practice CAT (competence, accountability and transparency).

If the state has nothing to hide, as it claims, it must answer satisfactorily why the full report is not shared with the public. Which parts are confidential and why? The state cannot hide behind legal excuses and the limitations in the freedom of information curtain for not releasing the report. We have wasted six months of precious time since the report was given to the state in November 2015. Members of the public have a right to know what is in the report so that they can engage more meaningfully with the state.

3. Go Beyond Top-Down Briefing Sessions

Second, the public sessions conducted are mainly top-down briefing sessions by the consultants followed by question and answer sessions. There is little follow up on how the questions and concerns raised are addressed. When several NGOs provided written feedback, instead of getting together to professionally discuss the concerns raised and going through the objections and facts scientifically, a press conference is called to debunk the NGOs who are accused of not doing their homework. There is no positive engagement.

Among the fundamental issues raised are the population and ridership assumptions, the costs of the different public transport systems, and the lack of financial feasibility studies for each of the proposed public transport system.
If these details are in the report, they MUST be made public. They cannot be hidden and then selectively and given in piece meal to the public.

4. Don’t Put Cart Before the Horse and Financially Burden Penangites

It is easy to propose building an LRT, monorail or a tram system from an engineering point of view. But it is more difficult to manage and run them efficiently and in a financially viable manner so as to not plunge the public into huge debt as has happened in many places including the LRT system in Kuala Lumpur that has to be bailed out by the government.

Hence we have been asking that a detailed financial feasibility study be provided to the public for each of these proposed systems. This includes not only the construction costs, but the operation and maintenance costs, the depreciation costs, the replacement cost, the ridership forecast, the projected revenue, the financial break even analysis, the expected profit or loss, how much would the state have to subsidize yearly etc. Such detailed analyses on each different system and options (e.g., an LRT versus tram line to the airport) MUST be done and considered BEFORE deciding which system is most suitable and financially viable

Among the answers we are getting is that AFTER the project is built, the government will then call for tender to manage and operate the project. This is putting the cart before the horse and is NOT international best practice. It puts too much financial risk on the people of Penang.

That is why we urgently call for a genuine and open consultative process and urge the state government not rush into signing multi-billion tender awards that may end up financially unviable and burdening Penangites of this and future generations.