I welcome Roger Teoh’s comments on my article, “Road to Folly: Will Building More Roads Resolve Traffic Congestion” as a healthy debate over an issue of great importance.

His objections are as follows:

  1. Road building is necessary because of obsolete roads left over from British days. New roads are needed to connect areas that are inaccessible and not connected.
  2. Road building promotes economic growth and roads are used not only for personal travel but also by businesses.
  3. After this round of road building, state should not build any more roads, as should be the case in K.L. and Selangor
  4. Penang cannot be compared to Houston as Houston has low density and Penang high density; hence roads are needed to transport people

Let me reply to each of these main objections.

The British left Malaysia six decades ago and the “obsolete” roads they left are mainly in the city of George Town, not the suburbs. Yes, the roads in the city are narrow and not meant for high vehicular traffic and we have to learn to live with them, unless Teoh is advocating tearing down houses and uprooting trees in our heritage city. These city roads cannot, and should not, be expanded to four or six lanes highways bringing more traffic into the city. In fact, all forward-looking cities in Europe are seeking ways to control and limit the entry of cars into cities in favour of public transport. I am surprised Teoh is arguing for the reverse.

As for needing new roads to link communities in Penang island, there is hardly any community outside of George Town that is not accessible or connected, be it on the north, south or western shores of the island. Penang has a good network of roads that connect all major communities. In fact, Penang state has more roads on a per capita population basis than Singapore. Penang has 2200 km of roads for a population of 1.6 million versus Singapore with 3500 km for 5.5 million people.

Yes, we do not have multiple main arterial roads going to Tanjung Bungah, Air Itam and Fahlim. But as Teoh rightly pointed out, these areas are densely populated. And precisely because they are densely populated (4449 persons per sq km in northeast part of Penang island), public transport is the logical solution. One bus will take 30 to 40 cars off the roads; one tram with five carriages will take 200 cars off the roads. This is a no brainer. It is therefore illogical to advocate building more roads to cater to private cars as the solution.

Teoh then argues that roads are necessary for economic growth and business because they are used not only by private cars but also trucks and vans doing business. The Halcrow’s traffic surveys show that only 20% of road users are for business and 80% are by personal travellers. Even more revealing, an MBPP traffic survey showed that 70% to 80% of private cars are single occupancy, not dissimilar to Houston’s 90%. So building more roads caters mainly to single occupancy vehicles. He also says that roads are needed for buses to travel. I will fully support building segregated bus or tram lanes, not roads for more private cars.

Furthermore, the highways proposed such as the north coast pair road, the Gurney Wharf 8- lanes highway, the 6-lanes Pan Island Link etc. are not for connecting “inaccessible” communities; they are meant to encourage higher volume of vehicular traffic in densely populated areas.

Finally, he says and hopes that Penang state should stop building new roads once this round of road-building frenzy is over. This is akin to asking someone high on drugs to stop consuming more drugs. Klang valley built so many highways over the past 30 years and traffic congestion only got worse; and they have not stopped building more highways.

Penang should not to go down the same treacherous path.

 

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