A Street for Cars or for Walking Shoppers?
By Ernest Mah Herh SunAugust 2021 FEATURE
LEBUH CAMPBELL WAS where early Cantonese immigrants to the Island tended to gather, and it had a reputation as a red-light district. After World War II and from the 1950s till the 1970s, the area was given a facelift, and soon flourished as a shopping centre.
The proposal for the pedestrianisation of the street was mooted in the Municipal Council of Penang Island (MPPP, as MBPP was then known) Structure Plan of 1987, with the aim of making the inner city of George Town pedestrian-friendly and for conserving the rich living cultural heritage of the area.
“The inner city back then was one of the most densely populated areas in the state, where its residents contributed to robust daily economic, social and cultural activities,” says Tan Thean Siew, the former director of MPPP’s Department of Town Planning and Development.
“With the area serving as a commercial hub, and the advent of motor-cars, there was understandably an influx of vehicular traffic into the inner city. This no doubt affected the movement, safety and livelihood of residents and altered the culture of the area. It was hoped that by pedestrianising the streets, vehicular traffic flow would be better managed and the quality of living of residents elevated.”
An in-house team from MPPP was thus assembled and comprised different field experts who, through an experts’ exchange programme, worked with urban architects and town planners from Yokohama City to map out a detailed, action-oriented pedestrianisation plan for George Town, explains Tan.
Coverage in the original plan concentrated on Jalan Penang all the way up to Weld Quay, and included key areas like Jalan Masjid Kapitan Keling, Little India and Lebuh Pantai. Lebuh Campbell-Lebuh Buckingham was singled out as the pilot project; its pedestrianisation was executed entirely by a working team of town planners, architects, engineers and supporting technical staff from MPPP, PBA, JKR and TNB who sought to model the street after the “semi-pedestrian mall” concept inspired by Yokohama City.
This concept was chosen in favour of fully pedestrianising the street, after the team took into account the differing opinions and interests of the parties involved. “The plan was a collaborative effort between all stakeholders,” says Tan. “We had regular meetings and discussions with councillors, residents, traders, shopkeepers and other relevant stakeholders before the design was finalised and implemented. The plan itself was not necessarily a compromise, but rather the culmination of participation and input from all parties to ensure that their interests to an extent were acknowledged.”
By 1999, the upgrades to Lebuh Campbell were more or less completed. It boasted key structural changes, including the narrowing and curving of pavement to slow down vehicular traffic, the separation of pavement for a dedicated lane for slow-moving vehicles like trishaws and bicycles, and the construction and widening of disabled-friendly walkways on both sides of Lebuh Campbell, complete with an arch gate and benches, and other street furniture and landscaping. Roadside parking bays were limited and in the overall plan, multi-storey carparks were incorporated on Lebuh Union, Lorong Hutton and Lebuh Pantai.
The Lebuh Campbell semi-pedestrian mall project, totalling between RM2.3-2.5mil in cost, was primarily aimed at creating a “pedestrian priority zone”. Trees were also planted to beautify and increase shaded areas for pedestrians.
A Reversal Takes Place
But Lebuh Campbell’s significance as a commercial hub dipped with the rise of shopping malls, which was compounded even more by a clash of interests between prioritising convenience, as evidenced by locals’ general proclivity for parking in front of stores for easy access; and planning for further pedestrianisation for heritage and cultural preservation.
Penang’s notoriously high rate of car ownership and issues of traffic congestion eventually led to a reversal of a number of the initiatives. Some walkways were removed in 2015, and the vehicular pavements widened and straightened. “The walkways were also broadened to 1.2m on both sides of the street, making them wheelchair-friendly; and MBPP also appealed to shop owners to remove barricades obstructing the five-foot ways, for pedestrians to walk through freely,” says MBPP senior engineer Zainuddin Mohamad Shariff.
To meet rising public demand, more parking lots were also fitted in following the 1m-road widening on each side, adds Zainuddin, with further plans to increase the number of lots to 100 from about 40, and to allow parking on both sides of the street. But these have been temporarily suspended by the pandemic. MBPP is also looking into increasing the parking rates for longer parking durations to lessen car flow into the heritage zone.
An improvement to the area’s public transportation system would help resolve this multifaceted issue, but the time required for a comprehensive upgrade to Penang’s public transportation system, as well as the infeasibility of a centralised multi-storey carpark (given the Island’s land scarcity) have meant that the widening of roads remains the most viable solution for the time being.
But even more complications will arise, Tan foresees. “The more roads you widen, the more cars this will invite, and the worse the congestion in the area gets.” The use of public transport to reduce the number of cars on the road was spelt out in the original Structure Plan but to this day, remains a vision for the Penang state government.
The following is an excerpt from the Municipal Council of Penang Island Structure Plan 1987 detailing plans to upgrade the shopping district of George Town:
To consolidate the role of George Town as the regional shopping centre, as well as transforming it into an attractive tourist destination, a plan shall be prepared to upgrade the shopping district of George Town.
The plan shall be used to guide future improvement and redevelopment activities within the shopping district. It shall include policies on appropriate uses for different parts of the area, proposals for vehicular circulation and parking improvements, hawkers and petty traders, pedestrian movement paths and facilities, as well as other treatments like landscaping, tree planting and street furniture.
The shopping district of George Town shall include areas like Penang Road, Lebuh Campbell, KOMTAR and parts of Jalan Burmah and Jalan Macalister.
The whole area shall be physically linked together by suitably landscaped pedestrian walkways that will make shopping activities more convenient, comfortable and enjoyable. Specialised areas for the retail of certain specialised goods shall be identified and promoted to further enhance their attractiveness to shoppers, both local and from other states or countries.
Ernest Mah Herh Sun
is currently pursuing his Master’s in English Language Studies at Universiti Malaya. A member of the varsity debating team, he loves singing, enjoys speaking and writing, and dreams of becoming the Malaysian Ryan Seacrest.