On O-Bahns and Penang (Let’s keep government out of the technology business)

adelaide Oi-Bahn vehicle at station

O-Bahn at station in Adelaide

On Thursday my esteemed colleague Mr. Loh Lim Lin Lee posted a note and a question to our WhatsApp Sustainable Penang forum on the topic of an O-Bahn as a possibly attractive transportation option for Penang. He wrote:

I am a huge fan of the O-Bahn in Adelaide. Extra-long buses with concertina type middles to allow turning corners running on dedicated bus lanes on normal city roads. On exiting the inner city, the bus mounts 2′ high narrow tracks that run along river embankments (to save on land purchase) locks on magnetically, runs at 100km an hour. It’s non-intrusive, quiet, totally effective. Adelaide’s population & ours share many similarities. Monorails are not cost effective for us with insufficient payload. Our tree lined roads, heritage buildings and general Penang ambience are totally incompatible with monorails.

Eric, any wise words on the O-Bahn?

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Thanks so much for the offer to share my information on this technology with you, and please forgive me if I sound like a transportation professor who pretends to know all truths; I certainly do not.  But I have been working in this sector in cities around the world, including following new technology projects of a huge range of types (and success), and the original O-Bahn project in Essen had already caught my attention in the late seventies. And from the beginning there was a lot of BRT in it. The amazing thing about the O-Bahn was that out of hundreds of new technology concepts getting attention at the time, it actually got built.  Twice!

For starters however, I can certainly understand when you see it at work, it can look like a great idea for Penang’s crowded roads and unacceptably low level of public transport service. It is a very attractive concept.

But since you were so kind as to ask, let me offer three quick observations based on my own experience.

O-Bahn in Essen - montage

O-Bahn in Essen – Manfacturer’s photo montage

    At the same time the Daimler Benz group started to find a site in Germany for their new hybrid half-bus/half-tramway concept in the late seventies, I was working in Adelaide as an advisor with a team for the South Australian government to produce a strategic planning and policy report for their Department of Transport under the leadership of the far-sighted Dr. Derek Scrafton. The title of the report was “Adelaide into the Eighties”.  (I hope to be able to generate a clean PDF of the original that I can then share with our group if anyone here might wish to see it. Let me know if you are interested – britton@ecopan.org.  In the meantime, you will find a fairly good general resume of the system’s history in Wikipedia (pretty good on detail, less so on strategic planning aspects).When the possibility of building an O-Bahn in Adelaide to connect a nearby suburb, one of five designated regional centers within the Adelaide metropolis came up in the early eighties, I indicated to government that I was not at all favorable. Here was my reasoning which I sincerely believe is totally applicable to Penang today.
    They are not trained for it, they are out of their zone of competence, nor is it appropriate. But they do have an even more critical role to play. The role of government is not to start with this or that technology, but rather to define within a well thought-out global strategic plan the full range of defining performance and environmental parameters that need to be met to get a specific job done for their city or region. THAT is what government is supposed to be good at: understanding and defining needs and goals. But definitely not getting into the business of deciding which specific technologies are best suited to do the job.Here’s one example among many.  Governments time and again “decide” that they need electric of some other alternative technology fuels or buses.  That is silly, wasteful and amateurish for reasons that now are well known to the profession.  What they need is vehicles that meet the specific performance, cost, pollution, energy efficiency, etc. criteria.  So their role is to publish this full set of key parameters and then open up the market to hear from any industrial groups that thinks that their system is best for the job.  And then to analyze the alternatives with steel-eyed competence.In the case of the Adelaide project they got talked into the O-Bahn by the Daimler-Benz group who had earlier worked with the city of Essen as what basically was a somewhat more flexible tramway substitute.Does that mean that Adelaide made a bad choice thirty years ago?  Not exactly, but it could have been a lot better. But here it is 2016 and like the ancient but wondrous Wuppertal Schwebebahn now still hanging and getting there a century later, their O-Bahn a generation later is providing a pretty good service option instead of taking their car to town for a fair number of people in Adelaide. Certainly no one can complain about that.



Well, whatever. But in the meantime, in the last half century we have seen a huge revolution in technology and performance which has changed the game radically. We can do a lot better today.

That said, if you get a chance to go to Adelaide, be sure you take a spin on the O-Bahn.  And thinking of Penang’s crowded roads and lack of quality options, you too will also be impressed.

But in our new Sustainable Transport and Land Use Plan for Penang let’s keep government out of the technology business.  They have a lot more important things to keep them busy. And we here can help.


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A final comment on the fact that this fine independent Sustainable Penang citizen forum is giving full attention not only to the various bits and pieces of the transport sector, but also are giving deep and interesting thought to land use and space concerns.  They go together hand in hand, and any government that attempts to separate them will pay a high price.  Or, to be more accurate, the citizens will.  We have seen this again and again, and there is no good reason for it to happen in Penang.


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About the author:

Eric Britton
9, rue Gabillot, 69003 Lyon France

Bio: Britton is an American political scientist and sustainability activist who has lived and worked in Paris since 1969. 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 book, "BETTER CHOICES: Bringing Sustainable Transport to Your City" focuses on the subject of environment, equity, economy and efficiency in city transport and public space, and helping governments to ask the right questions. A pre-publication edition of Better Choices is currently undergoing an international peer review during Sept.- Oct. 2017, with the goal of publication in English and Chinese editions by end-year. If you wish to participate drop a line to BetterChoices@ecoplan.org .

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