Towards a New Mobility Agenda for Penang: October 2016

Penang Forum meeting

Penang Forum meeting


An open letter to Mr. Joshua Woo
Special Officer to Member of Parliament of Bukit Mertajam

Subject: – Commentary on your article appearing in the Penang Monthly October issue under the title “Better, Cheaper, Faster – Really?” –

Dear Joshua,

It was good to have news from you via your recent article in the Penang Monthly because I had been worrying about the long silence.  That is not at all like you.

I have now had a good look at your piece and would like to share with you and our many friends and colleagues in and beyond Penang some of my thoughts and reactions on the points you bring up.  I’ll put numbers on the various points so that it will facilitate your and others’ comments and eventual later discussions.

  1. For starters, thank you, it was very nicely written. You are a good journalist and you have an eye and preference for detail and a willingness to pursue it.  Thanks for that.
  2. I would also like to congratulate you on your very droll title. “Better, Cheaper, Faster – Really?”  I like it.  Really!  It is always agreeable to start off on a serious inquiry on disputed matters with a smile.  You also are setting up your readers for that little “Really?” —  Meaning that in most cases the reader will approach your article with genuine curiosity in finding out what your Really? really means.
  3. But now let’s get to matters of content, the reason we are all here. Upon reflection I spot a fundamental weakness in your analysis, and it is, I’m sorry to say, fatal to what you announce you are intending to achieve.  Basically what you set out to do, and that you accomplish, is four things (a) to provide brief background by way of introduction on your PTMP in two sentences, and then (b) zero in on the proposed SRS LRT project, followed up with determined commentaries on two points of detail which are far too complex to be sorted out in a short generalist article: (c) the first on different ridership projections and (d) the second on cost differences between LRTs vs tramways.  You also slip in an important word at the end on (e) funding, how to pay for all this. And all that in 1953 words.
  4. You do a commendable job and argue your case steadily from your perspective. However, the problem, Joshua, is that what you have selected for commentary are not the key issues. At this point they are just details, eventually relevant but not what we should be looking at in October 2016.
  5. It’s not that you are wrong. Certainly the time will come when we need to have a sensible set of forecasts about ridership and behind that of course farebox recovery ratios. And certainly we will have to have highly detailed and professional information about cost and benefits of the eventual alternative proposals every step along the way, both in terms of standard business accounting practices and the more sophisticated and difficult analyses that are required to take into account the entire complex web of “external costs and benefits”.
  6. Let me dig into this just a bit further here because it is a fundamental issue for professional transport planners who are fully schooled in these most demanding technical niceties of their profession. So quickly now . . .
  7. When you talk about negative externalities (external costs or disbenefits) in transport we scrutinize such things as probable increases in traffic congestion, induced demand and trip length; air pollution; water pollution; noise; accidents; public health costs; climate change; impacts on nature, indigenous culture, tradition and quality of life; displaced homes, livelihoods, neighborhoods (communities); resource imports; family time; infrastructure wear and tear; policing and enforcement costs; equity, etc.
  8. This is the level of skill and detail which need to be brought into the overall transportation strategy, the analysis and the plans — which I believe is at the present time entirely lacking in the materials which I have had an opportunity to review (and I tried very hard to gain access to the famous twenty hidden volumes of the SRS reports which I very much hope will eventually be made available for the world to see and judge, including more than a hundred of my international colleagues who are trying to follow the events in Penang through our open collaborative web platform sustainable Penang: toward a new mobility agenda at and
  9. But, and this is something that you allude to in your final short paragraph, this is a level of analysis which the authorities in Penang have not yet carried out and which it really must if you are to have a transportation master plan worthy of the term.
  10. Now to get back your article: in closing in your final paragraph you make two interesting statements concerning both (a) the various reports, presentations, supporting statements, explanatory videos, etc. that have been prepared by Penang civil society as a challenge to present government policy – and (b) the other side the current government PTMP which is introduced so well in their website at I would like to comment briefly on them one at a time.
  11. You write “At best the BCF is a cautionary note to the state government and SRS to exercise extra care with the PTMP”.
    • Agreed: Now I find that a very interesting statement and in fact I would say that you’re hitting the nail right on the head. That to my mind is exactly what the Penang Forum and their many civil society collaborators are asking for.  That “extra care” is now called for without taking one more single step on the present timetable.
  12. In many your last sentence you say: “At worst, with the absence of a funding model and because of the usage of unreliable data, it is a false presentation to the public that the BCF is really an alternative when it is not.”
    • Partly agreed: I agree with you when you say that the BCF is not a full featured alternative, because it is not.  Nowhere near it.  It is rather as a call from responsible citizens in Penang for an alternative analysis and plan from the ground up, getting back to basics where the more than adequate Halcrow reports left off with their recommendations.  Let us call for at this point is a total rethink of the state government and SRS project proposals, to be carried out hand-in-hand with the many NGOs and civil society groups of which Penang can be rightly proud.

In conclusion, I think it is a great thing that Penang has a number of bright young people like you who can make important contributions in these areas.  I have been very impressed by the number of young people whom I met during my several weeks in Penang, and others with whom I have exchanged ideas and materials over these last three years, and not always in complete agreement.  Penang is lucky because you have what it takes to have a real exchange and competition of ideas.  That to my mind is what representative democracy is all about.

So Joshua, please let me conclude by quoting directly the most sensible short paragraph that I’ve heard on this topic since I arrived in Penang now more than three years ago.  The author is Dr. AH Abdul Hamid, a highly qualified traffic and transport engineer with extensive international experience from the School of Housing, Building and Planning at the USM.

Dr. Hamad takes a step back from the increasingly acrimonious public arguments and recommends that

“the government independent experts to study both the proposals by SRS and the NGOs, based on best scientific estimates of construction cost, acquisition cost, maintenance and operation cost, life cycle, opportunity costs and externalities, ridership, environmental and life quality impacts, cultural and heritage issues, impacts on vulnerable populations, etc. . . .  instead of keep on arguing.”

What about this? Let’s take Dr. Hamad’s good advice without further delay: Put an end to the arguing and let’s get on with that independent peer review by qualified international experts and a team of transport planning experts from Penang and, why not, from the federal government as well.

There is a huge amount of in-depth  analytic and technical planning work, accompanied by probing on street actions and affordable near term improvements that now needs to be prepared. We can accomplish far more by working together than throwing stones at each other’s ideas. Penang needs all of us, together at our best.  Let’s all get on the same side and make Penang proud.


# # #

About the author:

Eric Britton
9, rue Gabillot, 69003 Lyon France

Bio: Educated as an international development economist, Eric Britton is an American political scientist, teacher and sustainability activist who has worked on missions and advisory assignments on all continents. 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, civil society and sustainable development. Founding editor of World Streets: The Politics of Transport in Cities | See Britton online at and @ericbritton

View complete profile







Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s