Op-Ed. Response to Mr. Chow’s accusations of Penang Forum incompetence

Penang Forum’s ‘better, cheaper, faster’ transport plan not practical, says state

penang chow and britton eb

YB councillor Chow Kon Yeow _______Professor Eric Britton

A Moment of Truth

Lessons from “Better, Cheaper, Faster” and Civil Society in Penang

Dear Mr. Chow,

I want you to know that I have the highest respect for you, but as someone with a long career and recognized international competence on strategic policy issues of sustainable transportation, economic efficiency and social justice, I have a few bones to pick with you about some of the claims you made over the course of your 22 July interview.

At this time in Penang when everyone on all sides is asking for solid information, I would like to respond to a handful of the most steadily repeated and erroneous claims coming from your office. Let me deal with them first, and then go on to comment on a much broader and dangerous structural situation which underlies these misunderstandings between government, an unqualified consulting team, and numerous representatives of civil society in Penang.

My hope is that once a solid foundation and mutual understanding has been created, it will be possible to find a way out of this embarrassing and potentially hugely costly impasse. Once these issues have been cleared up, let’s then see what can be done to turn this from an embarrassing situation to a creative solution which has us all on the same winning side.


Eric Britton
Professor, Institut Supérieur de Gestion
Founding editor of World Streets: The Politics of Transport in Cities

Mr. Chow claims in article of 22 July 2016

  • Government authorities around the world fund city transport investments through the sale of real estate.

    * Truth: Sorry but this is quite simply not the case. There are examples of this but they are rare from a worldwide perspective and almost all historic cases.  In the vast majority of cities around the world who are either directly or indirectly managing their transportation systems, revenues come from a creative combination of ticket sales, advertising income, local government grants, national subsidies, and employer and commercial contributions.* Truth: The only way a city can move toward sustainable transportation is to find a way to ensure that economic instruments are strategically used to ensure that cars and other non-public transporters pay the full costs that they place on the city and its people as a whole. And for that you need a sophisticated understanding of how this works, a plan, a strategy and leadership. We call this “the bitter pill of sustainable transportation”, and it has to be swallowed, explained and enacted by elected government. It is a true test of democracy, communications and leadership.  These charges, whether in the form of tolls, access charges, parking fees, registration fees for cars, motorcycles, buses and trucks, can generate a sustainable amount of money for managing the transport system

* Truth: A special and very creative and successful financing variant was introduced back in the 70s of the last century which goes by the name most often of “value capture”, a type of public financing that recovers some or all of the value that public infrastructure generates for private landowners.  Most experts in the field consider this not only a reasonable but is a necessary way for the private sector to participate in the investments required to keep the city alive and vital.  For my part, I strongly recommended as part of the financing package, in addition to which there are a large number of other financial mechanisms which need to be exploited and thus far have been ignored.

  • Mr. Chow claims that the roads in Penang are not wide enough to allow for sharing between private vehicles and on-the-road trams. He believed this will contribute to even more traffic jams as the lanes for cars will have to be reduced for the tramlines.

* Truth: Two Problems Here, but first let me say Sir that I am afraid you are once again on the wrong side of the Continental Divide that sets apart old mid-20th century thinking on the topic and experience-proven leading edge 21st century policies and practices.  As a first step, let me quickly point you to the following photo taken from a quite good video on this topic that appeared recently in New Straits Times.  In one picture this sums up the current state of understanding by transport planners and policymakers in leading cities around the world, most of which in Europe and the OECD region. 

* Truth: Those two particular groups, namely politicians and engineers, have every reason for getting behind projects that involve new construction and widening of roads.  And this is true not only in the case of Penang.  The politicians because this is an easy-sell populist policy, and because they either do not know better or prefer to ignore the huge accumulated evidence that this approach does not work.  The engineers, no disrespect intended here, favor these solutions because that’s what they learned to do in school, but that was a long time ago and a great deal has changed since.

* Truth: For the sustainable mobility agenda to work in Penang or anywhere else, requires a carefully planned strategic transfer of road space away from private vehicles and to high occupancy vehicles (HOV’s).  And of course this can only work if the supply of other shared mobility systems is increased and qualitatively and financially attractive.

* Truth: And how do we reduce the number of LOV’s (Low Occupancy Vehicles) in the traffic stream – LOV’s, a category which includes all cars with less than three people in them and all motorized two wheelers — and that is obtained by putting legal and signing restraints to set off the HOV lanes, with one of several possible forms of road pricing or congestion charging.  Getting this right is not easy and requires careful technical preparation and strong leadership and communication, but that is why we try to elect competent governments.


  • According to Mr. Szeto, the costs of trams were not “cheaper” than the LRT as claimed because the additional space required for the tram lines would mean extra costs to acquire lands.

* Truth: The tram strategy is based in large part on recuperating road space through the transfer of lanes from mixed traffic used to HOV’s only, and in this case trams.  This question can in fact be responded to only after careful study of the alternative routes and projects.

  • They both said the state’s aim was to reach 40 per cent public transport share, but that this will not happen overnight as it takes years for commuters to switch to public transportation.

* Truth: Certainly the present SRS package that Mr. Chow is defending, having extended the program target out to 2065, permits such a leisurely attitude.  But if we take that this switch is not something for the distant future but something which should be accomplished in the years immediately ahead, and if we bear in mind that leading edge practices in the field are available to help us accelerate the shift not only to conventional public transport (buses and rail) but also the many forms of available 21st century shared transport which offer numerous variants and advantages, then the shift in modal share away from almost empty private cars to numerous high occupancy transport forms becomes far easier to achieve.  And the only thing that keeps that from happening is a lack of technical competence and leadership committing to improving all aspects of Penang’s mobility system — and why not? — starting right now.



  • Elevated structures for the Light Rapid Transit (LRT) are needed, so that it does not take up several lanes on the road.

* Truth to help you understand this in the Penang context we refer you to the clarification just above and to the following image which shows exactly why elevated LRT is not the way for Penang to go.  Both for reasons of aesthetics and life quality for all living and working in those areas but also sheer economics.


  • As for the project costs, Mr. Szeto admitted the total costs of the PTMP are estimated to run up to RM46 billion due to additional components for the mainland.

* Truth: This huge, this backbreaking bill has been run-up by “additional complements” proposed in the SRS Big Bang project that are not needed and will do little if anything to ameliorate the mobility arrangements for a population that will be ill-served by rail systems which offer point-to-point service, but today we live in a many to many world.  The proposals for a mega bouquet of LRTs, LRVs, BRTs, monorails, sky cabs, massive elevated structures, undersea tunnel (or alternatively a third bridge), and a huge program of road building and heavy infrastructure construction projects to facilitate unchecked car use, is a backbreaker for the taxpayer, a failure as a 21st century sustainable mobility intuitive, and a wide open door to unchecked new developer projects and coalitions.


  • BCF is not a TMP

* Truth: Mr. Chow, you are right here — but in fact that is not what the BCF project is working toward.  They have other objectives.

What all these civil society organizations and responsible citizens are responsibly plebisciting is to open up a total public discussion and eventual major but justified reorganization of the government’s present project-oriented transportation wish list, into something that truly resembles a world level, sustainable, 21st century Master Plan. these discussions should be open to cooperating international experts with high recognition for their contributions specifically in the area of sustainable transportation.

It is time for Penang to get back to the basics, all the way back to the basics which start with the last piece of competent work that has been done f Mona or government because that decision on the philosophical in Penang, namely the final independent recommendations and technical work created by the Halcrow project team the last months of 2012.

# # #

The competence gap in Penang?

Penang Halcrow report cover Insitutional PlanSince the Halcrow team departed in early 2013  the government of Penang has been poorly counselled, starting with their pressure on their very capable international transport consultant Halcrow to ensure that the State’s independently contracted, extremely high cost, large scale infrastructure projects also appeared and were favorably commented in the revised final report.  However, this was not the original position of the sustainable transport experts, and a careful reading of the reports by the expert reader will quickly bear that out.  The anomalies are just too many and too striking.

Once the Halcrow team left, local government badly needed technically competent counsel in order to move into the next phase of work, a need which the Halcrow group had early spotted, and found necessary to prepare an additional volume on Institutional requirements and competences to support development of a Transport Master Plan tha t will do the job for Penang and its future.

This volume and the other seven principal reports of the Halcrow team is freely available to all at https://drive.google.com/open?id=0B41h-Am2TpUHNWhIay1CdFJWVW8 .

As to the 20 volumes of the SRS report, these have been promised by the state government for more than two months now and have yet to be made freely available. The author looks forward with real interest to having an opportunity to study and understand them.


Conclusion and Recommendation

There is no good reason that Penang cannot develop a world level sustainable transport policy.  Open government, technical competence and taking a hard look at what this author believes to be a very bad plan on the part of the SRS group under the leadership of the state will allow you to solve this together.

This is a moment of truth for Penang. Let’s see how your government rises to the challenges.
# # #

About the author:

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Trained as a development economist, Francis Eric Knight Britton is managing director of EcoPlan International, 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. 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 find practical solutions to mobility, public space and job creation issues.  Founding editor of World Streets and World Transport Policy and Practice  he is Distinguished Professor of Sustainable Development at the Institut Supérieur de Gestion in Paris. His forthcoming book, “Competence: Toward a General Theory of Transport in Cities”, is being presented, discussed and critiqued in a series of international conferences, master classes, peer reviews and media events over 2016.  – – > More:   http://wp.me/PsKUY-2p7



Links and reports available from Sustainable Penang/New Mobility project


  1. How it works
    1. Big Bang SRS projects
    2. NGO Challenge
    3. NGO Media release 
    4. 2-minute NGO Intro 
    5. Penang Transport Primer
    6. BCF report and recommendations 
    7. Sign the NGO BCF petition 
    8. Government response to NGOs
    9. Stage 1 Policy Report
    10. Equal Time


  1. Survey report (787 pages)
    2. Overarching Master Plan Strategy
    3. Stakeholder/ Public Consultation
    4. The Institutional Plan
    5. Public Transport Improvement Plan
    6. Highway Improvement Plan
    7. Water Transport Study 
    8. “Recommended TMP Strategy”


– – > The Third Force
– – > Useful References for planners
– – > Sustainable Penang Public Library 
– – > Academia Collection 
– – > S/P Open House Archives 


BCF Intro in 2 minutes
The road (not) taken


– – > Facebook 
– – > WhatsApp 
– – > LinkedIn 
– – > Twitter 
– – > Google + 

SRS reports (20 volumes) as promised for public distribution by Mr. Chow


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