Old George Town’s Transportation in Numbers

August 2021 STATISTICS
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Source: Extracted from the chapter Improving the Transport System from Penang Past and Present 1786-1963.

LAST OF THE old-type vehicles to consider is the horsedrawn carriage. These were of two kinds, the private carriage and the Hackney carriage or gharry. The gharry was faced with fierce competition from before 1895. Gharries lessened steadily in number but the last of them proved difficult to eliminate. From 151 in 1895 they had dwindled to 20 in 1917 but then increased to 29 in 1920. There were six in 1931, four in 1932 and two in 1934. The last gharry disappeared in 1935. The private carriage took far longer to eliminate and there was still one registered in 1954. In the statistics which follow the horses are shown separately but these are nevertheless carriage horses, not horses for riding. A few carriages had two or more. It is interesting and surprising to note that carriages were at their most numerous in 1906 and far more common than they had been in 1895.

An odd thing about Table 1 is the fact that from 1934 to 1949 there were, on the whole, more carriages than horses. It would seem that some people had alternative carriages for the one horse; or else some old person would absentmindedly pay the license for a carriage no longer in use. It is also surprising to learn that there were 44 private carriages to be seen in George Town as late as 1928. Of the total of 316 for 1916, 291 are specifically called ‘Four-wheeled carriages’ and 25 ‘Two-wheeled’ but perhaps this should not be taken too literally.

From these statistics it is easy to see that the traffic of 1903, the year in which the Registrar of Vehicles set up his court, was not inconsiderable. By the end of the year there were 791 carriages, 73 gharries, 3,185 public jinrikishas, 323 private jinrikishas, 679 bullock carts and 803 handcarts on the road; 5,854 vehicles in all. These had to share some fifty miles of road with a few ridden horses and bicycles. Everything moved, however, at a sedate pace. Nor would there have seemed anything sinister in the Annual Report’s casual remark. ‘This is the first year that motor-cars have been used in Penang.’ They were merely curiosities, after all, too novel even to be registered. They were first licensed in the following year, three of them in the first six months and a fourth before the year ended. The Municipality continued to license cars until 1940 but lost control of them after World War II to the Federal Government when vehicle registration was taken over by the Road Transport Department in 1948.

Of other public conyevances the oldest was the bullock cart, the numbers of which might reasonably have diminished with the advance of civilisation. Instead, they increased for a time with the growth of prosperity, reaching their peak in 1903 (Table 2).

Table 3 refers only to private cars, the numbers of which rose from 4,127 in 1947 to 11,858 in 1955. To complete the picture, one must note the statistics relating to omnibuses, hired cars, lorries and motor cycles. From 1917 to 1928, the hired cars and omnibuses are classed together, unfortunately. The first three buses appear in 1913, the hired cars1 then numbering 15 – and 30 by 1914. The combined figure rises to 395 in 1927 and then splits for the following year into 256 buses and 139 cars for hire. The first regular private bus service opened in 1919, running to Tanjong Bungah. Buses fluctuated in number thereafter between 130 and 201 while the hired cars remained steady at a figure between 86 and 129 and averaging about 100. Motor lorries appear in 1912 but number only 25 in 1922. The rapid increase is from 45 in 1925 to 261 in 1930, and again from 246 in 1933 to 596 in 1940. Motor cycles multiplied in 1911, rising in number from 25 to the 1920 total of 155, and the 1926 total of 332. They reached their peak of popularity in 1928 when there were 462 of them, and then dwindled to the number of 208 in 1940.

The statistics given range far ahead of the period with which this chapter begins. The road and traffic problem was only just beginning to reveal itself in 1908. Nor would it be true to say that the future size of the problem was foreseen. Wrote the Registrar of Vehicles in his Report for 1913:

...... Horse drawn vehicles and horses are steadily decreasing in numbers, while motor cycles and cars, notably the former, are increasing very rapidly. I do not anticipate a very large increase in cars in the immediate future, it will be some time before they exceed 200.

They exceeded 200 by 1916. Still more striking is the fact that periods of trade depression, 1922, for example, and 1930/1933, barely checked the rate of increase. The actual fall in the total (1909 and 1932) are only fluctuations in the upward curve. Asians took to motoring very readily, as witnessed by the disappearance of private jinrikisha between 1925 and 1940. Where they were conservative was in continuing to prefer the jinrikisha or trisha to the taxi. The number of hire cars and taxis – a hundred or so – would about cater for visiting Europeans and strangers generally. To cater for the local population, they would have had to be far more numerous, and in fact they were little used by residents.

...... the better class Chinese community have a most unreasonable dislike of travelling in a car bearing any lettering upon it to show that it is for hire, though they do not object to hiring a jinrikisha ...... – Annual Report for 1922

For the fast-moving motor traffic which was first seen in 1903, the roads of Penang were quite unsuitable. They consisted of water-bound macadam-stone broken by the convicts in the Jail and rolled by bull-rollers or by the steamroller built in 1884 and bought in 1888. In 1894 a short length of Beach Street, from Union Street to Bishop Street, was surfaced with tarmacadam but “the initial outlay (is) very heavy and will prevent the adoption of this material to any great extent.” It had to be adopted, however, for the motor-car brought with it the problem of dust. A car moving at any speed creates a vacuum into which the surface dust is drawn. Its passing over the old sort of road left a cloud of dust in mid-air; which explains why the early motorists wore goggles.

With the advent of motor-cars and electric trams the dust nuisance has greatly increased. With all moving vehicles the air in front is necessarily displaced to make way for the vehicle while a partial vacuum is left behind. With a swiftly moving motor-car or electric tram the air is displaced much more rapidly. Part of the displaced air goes over the top of the car, part on each side and part below. Very nearly as much air goes under the car as over. The space below modern motor-cars with low bodies is very confined with the result that a large body of air is forced through the small space below the car at a high speed and stirs up the dust. As the air current rises behind to fill the partial vacuum it takes the dust with it and it becomes mixed with whirling air from the sides and top of the car and so causes the clouds of dust which motor-cars and electric-tram cars leave in their wake. – Municipal Engineer, 1908

The dust was not merely an inconvenience but a danger. It led directly to accidents. The remedy was to spray with water, even up to four times a day, and in 1908 no less than 47,704 gallons of water, were used daily for that purpose. Already however, in 1905 the experimental tarring on roads had begun. One reason why no more was done at the time is that other materials besides tar were being tried. Westrumite was used and then Calcium Chloride and Ermenite – all unsuccessfully – and so it was agreed to use tar after all. The costly process went on slowly and it was in 1915 that 25 (out of 55) miles of public road had been surfaced. The tar was brought from England and mixed with sand or granite dust. By 1913 there were five steam-rollers in use. There were 30 miles of tarred road by 1916, 46.5 by 1924 and 58.75 by 1929. By the last year there were only 7.35 miles of road not tarred or asphalted. In 1922 a tar heater and a sprayer were bought and also a tarmacadam drying and mixing plant. The use of bituminous macadam began in 1927. By then the dust problem had been solved but a new problem arose – the problem of traffic control, 1928 seeing the first painting of traffic lines and also the first traffic signals, one at the Simpang Lima junction and the other at the Burmah Road-Pangkor Road junction. At one time the task of control was supposed to fall on peons employed by the Registrar of Vehicles. This proved an ineffective system and responsibility was transferred to the police. But it remained the task of the Municipal Engineer to provide roads free of dust, and this was eventually done.

References
  • Fares for a hired car.
  • If the distance does not exceed one mile …… 15 cents per passenger. Subsequent mileage for every mile or part thereof ……. 10 cents per passenger. Passenger's luggage exceeding ½ picul in weight, or five articles in number …… 5 cents per mile.