Sustainable Penang/New Mobility Agenda: 2015 Challenges

Lyon, 23 November 2014

malaysia penang dangerous street crossingDear Penang Friends and Participants in the Sustainable Penang/New Mobility Agenda program,

An end-year note from Lyon to let you know that in the year ahead my colleagues and I intend to persist in our efforts to support the efforts to bring sustainable transport to Penang.  For the time being and to keep the project alive, this takes the form of (a) maintaining our Sustainable Penang/New Mobility Agenda website at https://sustainablepenang.wordpress.com  (currently being kept up to date and followed by 153 people both in Penang and beyond) and the supporting Facebook site at https://www.facebook.com/SustainablePenang  (117).  (You can see a bit more about how these information and exchange points are working in the two maps at the end of this posting.)

After careful consideration I have come to two policy conclusions about the reality of the transport situation in Penang which I firmly believe are critical to your future and which I would now like to share with you.  Good news, and less good news.

Car Culture Scenarios

The less good news – let us call it bad news to be quite frank – is that transport policy in Penang is today firmly in the hands of the car culture. That is where the taxpayer money is being spent and that is where the largest projects and investments are being aimed.  This is not surprising because it is a common pattern at certain stages of development.  But it is disappointing.

The simple fact is that there is a well-known path of economic, social and transport development, which is shared by the majority of cities around the world, a vast majority of which in the still developing nations. There are basically three “models”.

  • Old Mobility: Cities that spend most of their public money on physical infrastructure, most of which favors private cars and motorised traffic, without any real thought that there may be a better way to go. (We call this the Old Mobility model, and incidentally there is not a city in history that has managed to jump this stage.  We all did it at one point, so there is no  shame there.).
  • Mixed Minds: In the second category are those cities and their leaders who are at least intellectually aware that the old “all-car” solutions are not the best, the most efficient, the fairest way to organize their cities, but who nonetheless continue to commit the majority of public money to support, de facto, the old mobility model: more highways, tunnels, bridges, road-widening, technologies that facilitate more traffic and higher speeds. Leadership in these cities are willing to allocate some funds to help public transport and a bit of cycling, pedestrian improvements here and there, and even shared transport.  But if we audit their actual expenses we will see that despite the rhetoric the money is still firmly behind the car culture.
  • The New Mobility Agenda: In the third and last category we find the leading cities that are taking advantage of technology and new ways of recognizing their cities, and thus concentrate their efforts on severely reducing the role of the private car and favoring more space-efficient cities and transportation arrangements. The leaders in this last respect are quite definitely the European cities who are showing the way, though since 1975 your perspicacious neighbors down the road in Singapore have also figured it out for themselves. (But their forty years old model should not necessarily be your model. You can do better.)

Penang and its political leadership are today firmly in the hands of the car culture, despite the rhetoric and the occasional project gestures to the contrary. As long as this continues Penang will never be a competitive city/state.  It will be a lively backwater, but nonetheless a backwater, somewhat anachronistic and by all evidence a lagger and not a leader.  And this will have economic as well as life quality consequences.  Fortunately all the news is not bad.

Which brings us to my second and more optimistic conclusion after more than a year of looking at, listening to and analyzing what you are doing and planning to do.

The Role of Civil Society

It is my firm belief that the lead to sustainable transport and a sustainable city in Penang at this point lies just about entirely in the hands of Civil Society — and it is a wonderful thing that Penang has such strong tradition in this respect. But there is a slight problem.

While the concerns of the various groups are of course very diverse, as they should be, and it appears to me that there is still great difficulty in getting them to speak on the issues fair and better mobility in Penang with a common voice. If you turn to the page https://sustainablepenang.wordpress.com/partners-sponsors/ you will see a listing of some two dozen organizations that are more or less directly concerned with bringing sustainable transport to Penang.  They need somehow to be brought together to make their voices heard as one in order to take an active leadership role.  These barriers need to be broken down, and given the intelligence, commitment and energy of these groups this should be entirely doable.  But we need to find the way to bring them together.

And in the meantime, the various lobbies, financial interests and alliances that have intentions quite other than the common interests continue to prove themselves a continuing menace to the entire concept of sustainable development and social justice. In short, it is a hard slog for democracy.  But I am hopeful that Civil Society will overcome these challenges in Penang.  In time, but hopefully soon.

Time:

There is no doubt that all of the good things that Penang could and should be doing today to create a New Mobility Agenda for the State and all who live there, will in time come to be. The problem is when?  If you stay on the track that you have given clear evidence of in the last years, it is going to take you a full decade or more to become a more efficient and more just city in terms of you mobility arrangements.  These changes will definitely take place because this is the leading model for the future. Thus it is now that challenge of Civil Society to push your political leadership in the right direction, and move away once and for all from the car culture that is currently strangling you.

And a final word: the move from the Old Mobility System to a New Mobility Agenda is not one in which people are obliged to give up their cars. There will still be penalty of cars in Penang in 2020.  But if you get together to lead policy in the sector it will not take you an hour each day to get to work ,because there are better ways of making that trip.  A Penang with a lot less traffic, more security in transit, less obesity, fewer accidents, fewer lives lost, cleaner air and more mobility choices for all, including the poorest and most vulnerable members of your community.

A genuinely democratic transportation system with full transparency in planning, policy and finance so that every planned investment or project can be openly and meticulously examined, step by step, ringgit by ringgit, by the public, civil society and the media. You have the brains and the means to do it. But are you ready to make it happen? This is the test for Civil Society in Penang.

What next from here?

From this end we will continue to contribute via the several indicated internet media, and at the same time will be sharing information as to what is going on at the leading edge cities here and in the pages of World Streets at http://worldstreets.wordpress.com/.

I hope you will continue to share your thoughts and counsel with us, if at all possible through the websites so that your thoughts and words will reach others. And should you chose to distribute this open letter to people and groups whom you know share our concerns and interests this would be a great way to keep this effort moving ahead. Also if you know people in the media who may share these concerns, I hope that you will keep them informed as well.

A few weeks ago I looked up and noticed that it was exactly one year that France and I returned from my two-week working and learning trip with you in Penang. And as I thought about it I suddenly became aware that I had left part of my heart in Penang. So I am not about to let this contact go, as long as I think we might be able to be of help you.

With all good wishes,

Eric Britton

Francis Eric Knight Britton, Managing Director / Editor
EcoPlan International.  Association Loi de 1901
World Streets    Toward a General Theory for Transport in Cities
New Mobility Consult | Sustainable Development  | The Gender Initiative  
9, rue Gabillot   69003 Lyon France  |  T. +339 8326 9459 
+336 5088 0787 | E. eric.britton@ecoplan.org  |  S. newmobility

 # # #

Who is reading Sustainable Penang today?

For the record, about two-thirds of the visitors to this site are from Malaysia (of course) and then in order from the US, Germany, Singapore, Australia, France, UK, India, etc. You can see the world pattern as it appear in our records as of this morning. The strong  interest of the Europeans is perhaps somewhat surprising (and gratifying)  as is the relative lack of interest in the US. In one way it makes sense however, since it is the european cities that are leading the way.  And with a couple of years o hard and smart work we can catapult  Penang in the world ranking leading cities.

malaysia penang SP reader map 22nov14

The distribution of interest within Malaysia itself is to me extremely interesting and suggests something that I had not anticipated.  Might is be because these other Malaysian cities and states are looking to Penang for innovations and modifications that they can consider for themselves?  If so that certainly puts a certain responsibility on your shoulders.

malaysia penang local reader map 22nov14

# # #

About the author: 

Eric Britton
9, rue Gabillot, 69003 Lyon France

Bio: Trained as a development economist, Eric Britton is a public entrepreneur specializing in the field of sustainability and social justice. Professor of Sustainable Development, Economy and Democracy at the Institut Supérieur de Gestion (Paris), he is also MD of EcoPlan Association, an independent advisory network providing strategic counsel for government and business on policy and decision issues involving complex systems, social-technical change and sustainable development. Founding editor of World Streets, his latest work focuses on the subject of equity, economy and efficiency in city transport and public space, and helping governments to ask the right questions and in the process, find practical solutions to urgent climate, mobility, life quality and job creation issues. Currently working on an open collaborative project, “BETTER CHOICES: Bringing Sustainable Transportation to Smaller Asian Cities” . More at: http://wp.me/PsKUY-2p7

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