Will Getting Around Penang Without A Car Become Possible Again?


On foot, by bicycle, by bus, via ride-sharing apps – Penang Monthly finds out how those without private vehicles move around the state.

Penang has ambitious public transport plans. It needs to if it is to keep its population on the move. The state’s transport masterplan – which seeks to reinstate George Town’s tram network, improve bicycle lanes and footpaths, and increase ferry services – is a step in this direction1. It seeks to “move people, not cars” by “adopt(ing) a holistic approach to transport, making a shift towards ensuring accessibility for all2”.

For these plans to succeed, transport options must be compelling enough for Malaysians – accustomed to the luxury of privately owned vehicles – to wean themselves off their cars.

If it seems hard to get around without a car, this isn’t an accident. Policies aimed at bolstering Malaysia’s automobile industry have long favoured private vehicles over public transport. Urban sprawl has also fuelled car dependence, as new suburbs grow beyond the reach of old train lines and struggling bus routes. Ninety per cent of vehicles in Malaysia are privately owned, almost one for every adult, with a roughly even split between motorcycles and cars3.

This car-dependency is bad news for our environment – both natural and urban. In addition to long-term concerns about greenhouse gas emissions, cars ruin air quality in our cities. Planning for cars undermines the social potential of our streets. Most worryingly, car-dependency can make our society more unequal4; our most affordable suburbs are often the most poorly served by public transport, so it is largely people with lower incomes who face problems accessing our city centres – and the services they have to offer.

Syerleena Abdul Rashid

Pedestrian crossing on Lebuh Farquhar.

So how easy is it to get around Penang without owning a car? And how can public and alternative modes of transport be improved?

Pedestrians Should be Prioritised

Dr Gwynn Jenkins is a consultant in architectural heritage and cultural anthropology. She has lived in George Town since 1998. Jenkins walks to work, using her bicycle for longer journeys. She raises concerns about cars affecting the city’s walkability: long vehicles parked outside of houses make it difficult to get from the fivefoot- ways to the street.

“The so-called footpaths now have a bright green bicycle path painted on them. They are non-accessible,” she says. The behaviour of motorcyclists, who often ride on footpaths to avoid traffic, is another issue that reduces George Town’s walkability. “Accessibility has nothing to do with the green paint. Five-foot-ways are covered in merchandise, blocked by roller shutters and sometimes even parked cars,” says Jenkins. Pedestrians are therefore forced onto the footpaths to compete with motorbikes and bicycles.

Despite a recent city council campaign called “Pedestrian is King”, the city’s footpaths are still unsafe for pedestrians: this has been a concern even at zebra crossings, where pedestrians have legal right of way5. "It will take time to change mindsets," says MBPP councillor Chris Lee Chun Kit. "Overall, traffic arrangements are being looked into to accommodate pedestrians."

Accessible and Equitable Buses

Rapid Penang buses are an integral part of the state’s public transport network, and for people with mobility issues, these buses are essential as they are the only wheelchairaccessible mode of public transport.

Khu Li Huang is a master’s student at USM. She is also a wheelchair user and relies on Rapid Penang buses to travel to university and to shop. Her experience highlights some of the issues that need to be addressed to make Penang’s public transport more accessible: “I have no other choice. In Penang, as a wheelchair user, I only can rely on the Rapid bus.” 

Karen Lai

Car Free Day in George Town.

While these buses are wheelchair accessible, there are still barriers to mobility. Poorly maintained footpaths, food stalls, bollards and protruding tree roots represent unnecessary obstacles for wheelchair users on Penang’s footpaths, affecting bus stops too. “Inaccessible sidewalks limit our ability to move,” says Khu.

There are other options for people in wheelchairs, such as private van services, but these can be expensive and limited. “For sure, the fees are more expensive compared to the bus. If we want to join activities in the early morning, it is very difficult to book their vans. Many centres for people with disabilities (OKU) have accessible vans but limit their services to members, or only use their vans for sending OKU to the hospital.”

According to Khu, there are also issues with travel to the mainland and accessing KTM services there. If Penang’s public transport is to be equitable, it must be accessible. Impediments to accessibility must be addressed if the state’s transport options are to be fair to all citizens.

Making Cycling a Habit

Cities across the world have been pumping money into cycling infrastructure to bolster their green credentials. The benefits of commuting by bike include lower carbon emissions, reduced congestion, and better public health.

If the state is to move beyond cars, these concerns need to be addressed. Cycling must feel safe to be a
real transport option for all commuters – not just the fittest and bravest ones.

For Mathijs Nanne, executive chef at Chulia Court, choosing two wheels was easy. “I stay in Tanjung Tokong and all the places I need to be at are within a 10km radius. I cycle because it saves me an enormous amount of time, especially if I need to go to a few different places in one trip.”

Originally from the Netherlands, where cycling is a way of life, Nanne sees room for improvement. “It takes a bit of thinking out of the box and bearing with the poor cycling infrastructure. Penang’s infrastructure is where the Netherlands was in the 1970s. They made some big and brave decisions there.” Nanne hopes that Penang planners will be as bold as Dutch planners were in previous decades, though he stresses that solutions can’t be imported wholesale.

A number of cyclists I spoke to raised other concerns: cars parked on bike lanes and motorcycles travelling in the wrong direction are frequently cited dangers. The behaviour of motorists is another factor that discourages people from cycling. If the state is to move beyond cars, these concerns need to be addressed. Cycling must feel safe to be a real transport option for all commuters – not just the fittest and bravest ones6.

Karen Lai

An App to Commute

Peter Chin is a performing artist. He commutes from his home in Bukit Mertajam to George Town, where he is involved with the performing arts troupe, Say It Like You Mean It.

“I used to go around by motorcycle. Nowadays I park my car and walk to my destination. If it’s too far to walk, I'll just Uber.” The use of ride-sharing apps like Uber represents a way in which car usage is being reconfigured into something communal.

For Chin, ride-sharing apps represent convenience, saving him time he’d otherwise spend searching for a parking spot. His travel choices have also been motivated by frustration with public transport: “It’s been a while since I took the bus. The arrival and departure of the buses are consistently not punctual.”

Uber offers Chin a level of ease that buses fail to match, allowing him to customise journeys without needing his own car. It has also raised the number of options for travel between the mainland and the island.

Ride-sharing apps are changing the way people commute. MyTeksi, for example, has been cited as the cause of a 500% increase in the number of taxi bookings in Penang7. For public transport to compete with these apps, punctuality and convenience need to be addressed. Chin says with cheaper, more reliable bus services, he might be tempted to swap his smartphone for a bus ticket again.

Penang’s transport network must be seen as an integrated whole, with each mode of transport working to complement other modes. Improvements are needed in terms of walkability and accessibility, coupled with more reliable public transport services, if the state is to reduce the number of cars on the road. As noted by the transportation expert Samuel I. Schwartz, a multi-modal transport network “won’t survive long-term unless it attracts the widest possible customer base8.”

In the meantime, it seems like private vehicles – some moonlighting as taxis through ridesharing apps – are likely to dominate Penang’s roads for a while yet.

1 Pejabat Setiausaha Kerajaan Pulau Pinang, Kajian/ Masterplan bagi Pengangkutan dan Pengurusan Lalu Lintas Pulau Pinang (Recommended Transport Masterplan Strategy), March 2013 (URL: http://ptc.penang.gov.my/images/stories/The%20 Recommended%20Transport%20Master%20 Plan%20Strategy%20%28summarized%20 version%29.pdf).

2 Recommended Transport Masterplan Strategy.

3 Jeyapalan Kasipillai & Pikkay Chan, “Travel Demand Management: Lessons for Malaysia”, Journal of Public Transportation 11.3 (2008): 42.

4 Nurwati Badarulzaman, “Planning for a Sustainable Retail Environment in Malaysia”, Towards a Sustainable Built Environment in Malaysia, edited by Mahyuddin Ramli & Hugh Byrd (Penang: Penerbit Universiti Sains Malaysia, 2012).

5 www.thestar.com.my/metro/ community/2016/02/18/cross-at-great-perilmotorists- not-giving-way-to-pedestrians-at-zebracrossing/

6 See: Charles Montgomery, Happy City: Transforming Our Lives Through Urban Design (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013), 210-13.

7 “Penang Transportation by Numbers”, Penang Monthly, January 2015 (URL: http://penangmonthly.com/ penang-transportation-by-the-numbers/).

8 Samuel I. Schwartz, Street Smart: The Rise of Cities and the Fall of Cars (New York: Public Affairs, 2015), 210.


Soon-Tzu Speechley studied History and Asian Studies at the University of Melbourne. He now works at the Architectural Conservation Lab at the Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD). His writing has appeared in a number of publications in Malaysia and Australia. He tweets @ speechleyish.

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