Alternative Bus Transit Solution to Rapid Penang’s BEST

By Ong Eu Soon

It was reported on Kwong Wah newspaper that Rapid Penang is working together with the Penang state government to implement its proposal for a shuttle bus service across the Penang Bridge from the mainland to the island during peak hours.

The plan is quite similar to my proposal to ease congestion on the Penang Bridge. What makes the Rapid Penang’s proposal different from mine is the total lack of bus pick-up and drop-off points which is crucial for the smooth implementation of any public bus transit.

Instead of building bus pick-up and drop-off points, Rapid Penang wants to build a bus terminal for the proposed bus service, BEST (Bridge Express Shuttle Transit). What a public bus transit does not need is a bus terminal.  Bus terminals will make the terminal site a congested place with all vehicles converging at a single point to pick up and drop off commuters. We do not need another bus terminal that is an eyesore like the one at Komtar or Butterworth Bus Terminal. 

I would like to take the opportunity to amend my original proposal to offer the state government an alternative solution for it to use as a reference when negotiating with Rapid Penang on the implementation of BEST services.

Before the widening of the Penang Bridge, each day hundreds of thousands of Penangites faced traffic congestion as they commuted to work in their cars via the Penang Bridge. The impact from this congestion is substantial in time, resources, and pollution. The vehicle trips per day are estimated to be 120,000. It is estimated that the Penang Bridge congestion alone costs travelers 328 million hours of delay, 10 million liters of wasted fuel, and minimum RM140 million in toll fees per annum. With the view that the widening of the bridge is a short term measure to alleviate the traffic congestion, a second bridge is considered an urgent measure to meet future needs.

For financial and environmental reasons Penang cannot build its way out of congestion. Unfortunately the Penang state government and the federal government are no different when it comes to dealing with mass transit. Mass transit has been ignored for decades. The Penang state government as well as the federal government until today still continues to approach our traffic congestion problem with piecemeal solutions instead of developing an overarching strategy that could be used to guide the development of public mass transit; land use and development policies supportive of mass transit are totally absent.

For our transportation system to sustain future growth we must use road space and transit facilities more efficiently and we should not be too dependent on private vehicles. Penang, with its limited resources and land scarcity should use public bus transit in innovative ways to improve mobility. Why is public bus transit the ultimate transportation choice to create a more efficient and resilient public transit system?

Bus systems provide a versatile form of public transportation with the flexibility to serve a variety of access needs and unlimited range of locations throughout a metropolitan area. Buses also travel on urban roadways, so infrastructure investments can be substantially lower than the capital costs required for rail systems. As a result, bus services can be implemented cost-effectively on many routes. Yet, despite the inherent advantages of a bus service, conventional urban buses inching their way through congested streets don’t win much political support. The essence of a Bus Rapid Transit is to improve bus operating speed and reliability on arterial streets by reducing or eliminating the various types of delay.

The bus system of Curitiba, Brazil, exemplifies a model Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system, and plays a large part in making this a livable city. The buses run frequently — some as often as every 90 seconds — and reliably, and the stations are convenient, well-designed, comfortable, and attractive. Consequently, Curitiba has one of the most heavily used, yet low-cost, transit systems in the world. It offers many of the features of a subway system — vehicle movements unimpeded by traffic signals and congestion, fare collection prior to boarding, quick passenger loading and unloading — but it is above ground and visible. Around 70 percent of Curitiba’s commuters use the BRT to travel to work, resulting in congestion-free streets and pollution-free air for the 2.2 million inhabitants of greater Curitiba. (Source:

Curitiba’s buses are privately-owned by ten companies, managed by a quasi-public company. With this public-private collaboration, public sector concerns (e.g. safety, accessibility, and efficiency) are combined with private sector goals (e.g. low maintenance and operating costs). The bus companies receive no subsidies; instead all mass transit money collected goes to a fund and companies are paid on a distance travelled basis.

Curitiba’s buses carry 50 times more passengers than they did 20 years ago, but people spend only about 10 percent of their yearly income on transport. As a result, despite the second highest per capita car ownership rate in Brazil (one car for every three people), Curitiba’s gasoline use per capita is 30 percent below that of eight comparable Brazilian cities. Other results include negligible emissions levels, little congestion, and an extremely pleasant living environment. (Source: )

The question one may like to ask is how we are supposed to implement it.

The state government should use the effort to alleviate the Penang Bridge traffic congestion problem as a springboard to implement a statewide transport system that focuses on meeting the transportation needs of the people rather than those using private vehicles.

The estimated vehicle trips during peak hour bridge crossings are about 40,000 of which a majority of the vehicles are passenger vehicles with single passengers. If all car drivers opt for bus transit with a 40 seater capacity, only 1000 vehicle trips are needed to bring the commuters across the bridge.

The peak hour vehicle trips at the Penang Bridge are mainly work trips of those who work in the factories. Those are people who don’t really depend on automobiles while they are working.

So how are we going to design a public bus transit system that caters for the need of this group of people if we want them to opt for public transport rather than using private vehicles?

The public bus transit system should consist of the following components:

1. Express buses operate exclusively on the Penang Bridge and on the designated arteries’ dedicated bus-ways.

2. Park and ride (or incentive parking) facilities that allows commuters and other people wishing to travel across the bridge to leave their personal vehicles in a car park and transfer to a bus for the rest of their trip. The vehicle is stored in the car park during the day and retrieved when the commuter returns.

3. Factory buses and shuttle buses operate on both the pick-up and drop-off points along the arteries linked to all the factories.

4. “Rapid” buses operate on both the arteries and on other main streets that linked all the factories and all the park and ride facilities.

5. “Inter-district” buses bring passengers between the city’s sectors lying between the arteries, and thus provide a crucial link between the routes of the express and bi-articulated buses.

6. Finally, “feeder” buses mix with traffic on all other city streets and bring passengers to transfer stations or pick-up and drop-off points around which local urban development and commercial activity has flourished.

The first thing the state government should do is to identify the routes that should be use as the arteries of the public bus transit. For Example, the Jelutong Expressway, Bayan Lepas Expressway, Butterworth Kulim Expressway and the stretch of North-South Expressway between Juru Toll and Sungai Dua Toll.

In the Park and Ride scheme, the shopping complexes or malls play an important role of providing parking facilities to commuters. Without parking facilities, it will be very hard to persuade commuters to opt for public transports or carpooling. Most shopping complexes would be happy to provide the parking facilities at nominal fees in order to attract commuters to their complexes especially during economy downturn. During working days, majority of the parking lots are vacant, the state government should encourage shopping malls like Queensbay Shopping Mall, Giant, Tesco, Carrefour, Perai Mega Mall, Sunshine Square Shopping Complexes, Fajar, Jaya Jesco and others to allocate parking lots at nominal fees to help provide parking spaces for the Park and Ride facilities. The state government can even use PISA and the Sungai Nibong Pesta site for the Park and Ride scheme as both facilities are underutilized most of the time.

The state government can utilize the Park and Ride scheme to rejuvenate shopping malls that are in dire straits, i.e; the Perai Mega Mall; the Park and Ride scheme will attract commuters to shop in those shopping malls. Feeder buses will be used to ferry commuters to pick-up and drop-off points of a defined service areas.

Bus pick-up and drop-off points should be designed in such a way to facilitate factory buses or feeder buses that can go off regular routes to pick up and drop off passengers within a defined service area and ferry the workers to factories. The pick-up and drop-off point does not need to be a regular bus stop. Example of such a successful bus pick-up and drop-off point is the Boon Lay MRT station in Singapore. The station, a popular pick-up and drop-off point, is where private buses wait bumper-to-bumper in public bus bays, taxi stands and along Boon Lay Wayto pick up or drop off a crush of scurrying commuters, mainly those working in Tuas and Jurong. On the island, pick-up and drop-off points can be built along Bayan Lepas Expressway and Jelutong Expressway. On the main land, pick-up and drop-off points can be built at Sungai Juru Layby of North South Expressway and any other suitable areas.

What a public bus transit do not need is a bus terminal.  Bus terminal will make the terminal site a congested place with all vehicles converging at a single point to pick up and drop off commuters.  A bus pick-up and drop-off point is different from a bus terminal as it only allow all vehicles to stop for a short interval and is build along the route of bus services without detour to a bus terminal. A bus  pick-up and drop-off point should be conducive to a smooth traffic flow without vehicles simply park anywhere and create chaos for the traffic.

Bus pick-up and drop-off point should be modeled after the  Rest & Service Areas (RSA) or layby of North South Expressway.  A  bus pick-up and drop-off point should provide sufficient parking space for vehicles waiting to pick up the commuters.  It should be built with proper landscape to provide scenic view and commercial outlets  just like the Rest & Service Areas (RSA) of North South Expressway. 

When the BEST service is expanded, a smaller bus pick-up and drop-off point can be built modeled after the laybys of  North South Expressway. These laybys are without any restaurant or service facilities. Most are equipped with telephone and public toilets. The bus pick-up and drop-off point is a crucial solution for the state government to incorporate into any public transit oriented development. 

The state government should break the habits of car-use by initiating an austerity drive to stop wasteful spending with the aim to help the people spend less than 10 percent of their yearly income on transport.

The state government should adopt participatory approach that involves the following stakeholders:

  • Local authorities
  • NGOs
  • Service Users
  • Shopping malls or complexes that provide parking facilities
  • Human resource department of factories
  • Factory bus operators
  • Public bus transit operators

The involvement and empowerment of stakeholders in the planning and execution of the public bus transit management process is an important process aims at launching a campaign that create awareness of the need for austerity drive and encourages the breaking of car-use habits. It is also an important process to help the Penang state government overcome the problem stem from capacity constraint.

Whether the Penang state government under the leadership of Lim Guan Eng has the political will and wisdom to listen to ordinary voices instead of just  listening to the big business in its effort to make Penang a more livable place is still a question waiting for an answer.