Op-Ed: Sustainable Penang at a Crossroads



Commenting Mr. Chris Lee on Why new highways are needed for Penang

  • By Eric Britton. Institut Supérieur de Gestion. Paris, New York. 13 November 2016


Mr. Chris Lee Chun Kit in front of his vision of his problem

Mr. Chris Lee Chun Kit who represents the DAP on the Penang Island City Council makes some good points in his nicely written 12 November piece that appeared in Malaysiakini under the title on “Why new highways are needed for Penang”.  I agree with some but not all of them.

Let me take a handful of the points he brings up for brief comment. I have a goal in this, and that is that I hope to get us both on the same side: working for a better, healthier, happier life for all in Penang.  We need his brains and commitment.  So let’s have a look.

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  1. MORE CARS? Chris opens by reminding us all that Penang does not control its destiny as far as influencing car purchases and ownership both for first time owners and others updating their vehicles. He is right on target and indeed that is not good news for Penang’s sustainable transport strategy. The federal government of Malaysia is, for now at least, heavily committed to sustaining and supporting your national automotive industry. That’s a simple fact and a real constraint. But hey, that’s life and there are many of them — and it is the job of the decision makers and their planners who know their stuff to deal with this as best and imaginatively as possible.
  2. CAR USE? Anyway, the issue is not one of car ownership. It is one of CAR USE. Cars are great for those who can afford them, are able to drive them, etc., etc. But the issue here is not one of people buying cars, but of how they use them.  And that’s where your first class transportation strategy should start to kick in.
  3. TECHNICAL EXCELLENCE helps. In fact, I am willing to bet that if Penang could now come up with a world class transportation, mobility and access STRATEGY which is at the same time cost effective, equitable and exemplary, they would probably have a far better relationship with what shold be their key working partners in the nation’s capital.


  1. CRIPPLE ROADS AND HIGHWAYS? No one in their right mind will deny the importance of a well-working road network, and that some road construction (and improvement) is necessary. But it should be strategy and supported by sound data and state of the art analysis. Roads, as anyone who is informed about the transportation literature and practice are not the solution for congestion. But the proper management of them is. And that’s where most cities run into trouble.


  1. “100% PUBLIC TRANSPORT MODAL SHARE”. That’s a joke, right? The proverbial strawman? Nobody but nobody but nobody in their right mind would advance such a proposal. We will always have cars in our cities. But a lot — and I mean a LOT — fewer of them, and they will be used in startlingly different and far more efficient ways.


  1. “HAVE LIM OR THE PENANG FORUM EVER COME UP WITH ANY CREDIBLE OR IMPLEMENTABLE ALTERNATIVE PLANS?” Not any that I know of. Their “Better Cheaper Faster” campaign (http://www.bettercheaperfaster.my/) is above all a call for a totally revised sustainable transport strategy, as opposed to the government ‘s PTMP which for me and the international expert community is a pure disaster waiting to happen (sorry to have to say that, but it’s the simple truth). You can critique the Penang Forum team, for pushing the idea of tramways instead of LRTs, but that’s a detail.  Both tramways and light rail are entirely out of the question until someone gets down and gives you a strong systemic audit, technical analysis and strategy to base these discussions and eventually decisions on. At this point in the process such comparative discussions might as well be taking about blue versus red cars.  This level of detail is out of place.


  1. EXAMINE THE PRESENT HIGHWAY SYSTEM IN PENANG TO APPRECIATE ITS PRESENT DEFICIENCY. Wonderful idea. Please let’s do.   One of the many audits that are called for. (I will be pleased to give you a very long list of all the preparatory analysis which is needed for your new strategic sustainable transport action plan.


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Let’s leave it at that for today. There is still a great deal that needs to be sorted out on this important point, this crossroads for transport and happiness in a democratic and equitable Penang. But that can await another day,

If I may end with a personal point. I have been told that Mr. Lee is a committed and vigorous advocate for Universal Design as well as the rights of the disabled community in Penang. And so it would be a wonderful need at the time when the “Vulnerable users” audit is being carried out if you could get behind it strongly. That is the kind of activism that is needed now for the new plan and strategy that I very hope will be forthcoming in 2017.

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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 https://goo.gl/9CJXTh and @ericbritton

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