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Pedestrians shall be King!

Change takes time, but the city council’s campaign to prioritise pedestrians is a step in the right direction.

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A campaign was launched in November last year to improve Penang’s low walkability index and address the growing number of apathetic motorists on the road. An initiative of the Penang Island City Council (MBPP), the “Pedestrian is King” campaign aspires to make the island a safe haven for pedestrians.

It hasn’t been smooth sailing, though – the campaign got a mixed reception. Campaign-supervising councillor Muhammad Bakhtiar Wan Chik observes that almost 90% of motorists don’t stop for pedestrians: “Motorists in Penang are generally lax about violating traffic laws. They forget that it is illegal not to stop at zebra crossings, which is a good indication of just how little concern is shown for the well-being of our community.”

To correct this behaviour, the council has been actively promoting the campaign’s “You’re A Pedestrian Too” operation to remind the public of their civic duties to fellow pedestrians. “We motorists are often pedestrians ourselves, and it is our collective duty to ensure pedestrians’ safety by being mindful and responsible motorists,” says Bakhtiar.

On top of the soft approach, harsher punishments and stringent enforcement are also needed to keep motorists in line. “We need to teach Penangites hard lessons to deter them from committing traffic offences multiple times over,” says Bakhtiar. Currently, the council is educating the public about pedestrian priority while conducting a joint operation with the police to curb reckless driving. Motorists who fail to stop for a pedestrian on a zebra crossing can now “be issued a RM300 fine under the Road Transport Act 1987”. A harsher penalty is imposed under Section 41 (1) or Section 43 (1) of the Road Transport Act 1987 if the motorist hits a crossing pedestrian as well.

Motorists in Penang are generally lax about violating traffic laws. They forget that it is illegal not to stop at zebra crossings, which is a good indication of just how little concern is shown for the well-being of our community actually is.

Infrastructure Improvements

Taking a cue from Enrique Peñalosa, whose leadership as the mayor of Bogotá, Colombia transformed “one of the world’s most violent and corrupt cities into a relatively peaceful, clean city” through focusing on biking and walking, the restoration of green spaces and a focus on making streets liveable and safe, the council is presently working on upgrading pedestrian facilities at Lebuh Chulia and Lebuh Farquhar following findings from a two-year public space project conducted by Penang Institute’s Urban Studies Department highlighting the need for more space for pedestrians.

It documented pedestrian infrastructure all around George Town and found 18.1km of pavements, 23km of five-foot ways, 6.1km of other access lanes and another 10km of space without pedestrian infrastructure. Head of the Urban Studies Department, Stuart MacDonald says that “though the city has 80% of pedestrian infrastructure, the 20% gap is big enough to affect the walkability of the city.”

To bridge the gap, Bakhtiar says that plans are underway to set up pedestrian traffic lights at zebra crossings on both streets to help control the heavy traffic flow for the benefit of pedestrians and cyclists alike.

One example of the council’s efforts pertains to the widening of five-foot ways around the Unesco World Heritage Zone, with Lebuh Chulia selected as “the pilot initiative” to have its five-foot ways permanently cleared of blockages. “At present, pedestrians are forced onto the busy road if they want to walk the length of Lebuh Chulia because the five-foot ways are crowded with parked motorcycles, flower pots and tables and chairs from the kopitiams. Even the mamak shops’ roti canai stalls have spilled onto the five-foot ways.

Muhammad Bakhtiar Wan Chik.

“The council is working on having these blockages removed to create smooth, walkable passageways. Once these are cleared, we will then focus our attention on levelling the five-foot ways to make them more accessible for mobility and visually impaired individuals,” Bakhtiar says.

Though the city has 80% of pedestrian infrastructure, the 20% gap is big enough to affect the walkability of the city.

Obstructed five-foot ways in George Town.

Pedestrian crossing on Lebuh Farquhar.

New guidelines detailing the construction of roads in the future have also been developed. Road widths will now be increased from 40 ft to 50 ft to create walkways for pedestrians and cyclists on both sides of the roads. An additional four feet of road will also be reserved for the planting of trees to provide shelter from the sweltering heat.

It will take time for the “Pedestrian is King” campaign to be a success, but with concerted efforts from the local council, NGOs and the public, there is nothing to stop Penang from becoming a truly pedestrian-friendly city.

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