Once again, we hear of a foreigner lamenting on Rapid Penang’s lack of concern over making their bus routes, stops and timetables legible to users. The comment, which appears on today’s Aliran, also touches on transit-oriented city planning and Malaysia’s negative build-rail-to-solve-congestion mentality.
Behind the surface issues are, of course, the problems with policy-making & cooperation that make improving public transport so frustrating.
ALIRAN Newspaper, April 20, 2011
APRIL 20 — I’ve been “enjoying” Penang’s public transport system only for a few weeks now, but even after that short period of time, there can be no doubt that what is in place right now is not doing the job.
You regularly spend ages waiting at bus stops, and once a bus arrives, you’ll only be stuck at totally congested streets. Sure, traffic planning needs help.
But I’m afraid that those plans circulating around the media attack the issue from the wrong side of the equation. All these high-tech proposals, from a light rail or a monorail to water taxis or fancy double-decker buses — nice prestige projects, but very costly and not likely to be efficient.
[TRANSIT: It’s worth mentioning that most of the proposals for ‘prestige projects’ described by Florian are coming from Federal Government agencies. But we wish to point out that double deck buses should not be considered as a ‘prestige project’ (for reasons explained below).]
I’ve lived in several European countries and the US and experienced transport in several major Asian cities as well, so I’ve come to use a number of different solutions to transport issues — some good, others less so. Penang, however, seems to be aiming at the latter.
Planners here are just drawing the wrong comparisons. What’s the matter with Hong Kong, for example? That’s a densely populated city of seven million, whereas Penang Island is distributing its 750,000 people over a comparably large area of urban sprawl.
How can you compare that? The number of inhabitants here will support one, or maybe two, lines of an LRT network – but what percentage of urban area is going to be covered by that?
To spread the LRT network to every part of town would never be cost-efficient. To build a cost-efficient mass transit solution would mean focusing only on a couple of routes and that would leave a lot of people away from those routes and still dependent on their cars, thus not solving the problem of congestion.
Same story with water taxis: At best they would be an addition, since they could only serve people living directly at the seafront — all the rest would still be in cars. Double-decker buses? Well, if those comparably small buses in use today are already constantly stuck, how is that supposed to be better with even less maneuverable vehicles?
[TRANSIT: Double deck buses have the same 12m length as single deck buses but carry 40 extra passengers. RapidPenang would not be operating double deck buses in routes that are too narrow or congested.]
No, the problem is not in the buses in place itself, not even in the routes they’re taking. I agree the number and frequency of buses needs an increase, but apart from that, the transport system as such would be sufficient for a city the size of Penang. The catch is in the circumstances — bad road planning, lack of information, and the anarchic traffic behaviour of motorists.
One way to stop jamming the roads would be to stop parking dead centre in the street to get food, or doing right turns by just driving into the oncoming traffic like a headless chicken. A huge part of the problem is simply self-created by lacking the least of road etiquette.
Beyond that, ask any local passer-by which bus to take to get to XYZ — in all likelihood, he won’t know. And how should he? There’s no information available at the bus stop, schedules are rough suggestions at best, and a decent route map cannot even be found online. How is anyone supposed to swap his car for a bus if it is easier to win the lottery than finding decent information on the bus routes?
[TRANSIT: This is a common issue in Malaysia – and is it not interesting that routes designed by engineers would have route maps that look like electrical diagrams?By the way, one reason given for the lack of information at bus stops is because local councils ‘own’ the bus stops and technically, bus operators must pay advertising rates in order to put route information up at bus stops.]
Finally, yes, there is work that needs to be done, but not on the vehicles. The roads need some decent, conscious planning. There is a need for bus lanes that are kept free for the buses and not turned into makeshift parking lots — that does wonders for efficiency.
The current one-way system that is mostly zigzagging around is not helping traffic flow either. How to do it better can be seen in Barcelona, for example. The narrow interior of the old city used to be a traffic menace, but it has been turned into bearable conditions by creating an expansive one-way system where the roads just go straight. Simple as that. You can use the outside lanes for turning, and in the centre, the traffic is free to flow without constantly creating bottlenecks for 90-degree turns.
[TRANSIT: Road congestion and traffic management is handled by the local council, in this case the Penang Island Municipal Council (Majlis Perbandaran Pulau Pinang or MPPP).]
Only with decent information in place, reduced road congestion by proper planning and a bit of driving etiquette can the bus system become a valid alternative to private cars. And only once it has become a serious alternative, maybe drivers can be convinced to leave their cars at home. It would still need a lot of effort in education, but it’s the only way I see forward.
The other suggestions circulating around won’t solve the problem, because the reach of those networks won’t be any improvement to what is in place now. All these prestige problems would do is eat up billions and billions of ringgit — money spent way better on other community issues beyond public transport. — aliran.com
*Florian Ladage is a German university exchange student who tried to use the buses while in Penang for a month.
Florian’s comments are interesting and a good reflection of many of the planning & organization issues that are faced in our public transport industry.
Again, let’s be clear here – the problems in the public transport industry relate more to organization & management of transport, rather than the bus operators themselves. The ineffective and confusing separation of authority – with local council handling bus stops & traffic, state government handling overall issues related to roads, and Federal Government handling transport regulation – means that we cannot rely on a single agency to get things done.
The only way forward is to get cooperation between the various agencies involved – and the only way to get that done is to have them sit down and hammer out the issues.
The Penang Transport Council is supposed to be the place where these issues get hammered out from what we are seeing, they just aren’t getting enough done.
Ok, but why the big deal about what tourists & foreigners think?
Well, we at TRANSIT believes that criticisms from foreigners and Malaysians living abroad, (especially from regions with high transit facility and service standards), should serve as healthy inputs on providing user-centric services, not only for Rapid Penang, but for ALL local public transport administrators (RapidKL and NadiPutra, are you reading this?).
We thought RapidPenang had sought immediate actions to address a tourist’s concern on illegible bus routes few weeks ago. While there are limits to what RapidPenang can do without the cooperation of other agencies, there are things we expect them to do.
What do you expect RapidPenang to do?
We would like to highlight to transit administrators out there that a legible bus map should consist of routes that are overlaid on real urban maps (like google maps) with legible street names and familiar landmarks. In the case of Bloomington Transit’s map, we can see that there will be another set of map that covers the downtown area where many lines are expected to converge (as to make the main map legible), and that since public buses in America stops at almost every residential/commercial block, there isn’t the need to put the names of stops on maps. But since our road layouts are complicated (in violation of grid road layout), we need to really be able to pinpoint the exact stop on the map, and maps that indicate proper stop names and transit directions together with legible transit routes and underlying road and landmark layouts are necessary indeed.
In case RapidPenang got amnesia over the issue of illegible bus maps, TRANSIT would like to again publish a letter from an upset British tourist.
From The Star (Thursday February 3, 2011)
I RECENTLY returned from a holiday in Penang. We stayed in fascinating George Town and used the Rapid Penang buses to get around.
You have fine, modern buses but can I suggest two things to make them easier to use by those unfamiliar with the system.
Firstly, install smart, conspicuous bus stops with clear route numbers. There are some bus stops which are hard to see and which bear out-of-date route numbers.
In some cases, buses stop where there is no bus stop. Very puzzling!
Secondly, Rapid Penang produces good route diagrams but a single street map showing all the routes would be much more helpful.
It takes time to establish from the diagrams exactly which roads each route uses and whether more than one route will take me to my destination. And planning a journey involving interchanges between two or more routes (except perhaps at the jetty) needs a high IQ!
I hope to return to Penang one day and look forward to easy bus travel.
Again, this is not a post to blame anyone – just to identify an issue that currently is not being resolved – due to a lack of cooperation and activity.
But rest assured, we know that some people at RapidPenang are willing to do the work to improve what currently exists. And some of the feedback that has appeared in the comments below will be incredibly helpful to them.