Imagine a George Town Welcoming of Pedestrians

By Tan Cheng Keat

July 2024 FEATURE
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Flinders Street Station.

IT WAS A fine morning when my metro train arrived at the iconic Flinders Street station. The weather had started to get a bit chilly as we entered the winter season. Upon coming out of the majestic Edwardian Free Style station building, I waited patiently at the traffic light right in front of the exit. The wait was not long as the traffic system in Melbourne is pedestrian friendly, meaning shorter waiting intervals with sufficient crossing time.

I crossed the wide road with two-way traffic and a tram route in between with no hassle, and headed north on foot for about 10 minutes to reach my favourite restaurant in the city: Lulu’s Char Koay Teow! It serves the best and most authentic Penang Char Koay Teow I have ever had in Melbourne. Walking along Elizabeth Street from the train station was pleasant as I passed rows of shops and restaurants. The occasional street buskers along the way made my journey even more enjoyable. For those who are lazy to walk, there is always the option of the free tram system within the Central Business District (CBD) zone.

After pampering myself with an extra spicy Duck Egg Char Koay Teow and a hot cup of Malaysian Kopi, I walked further north for another 15 minutes to Queen Victoria Market, the largest open-air market in the Southern Hemisphere. Again, the tram option is still available if I were lazy to walk. Walking around the market’s huge floor space to burn the extra calories that I had just consumed, I checked out the wide variety of fresh, quality produce on display.

The National Gallery of Victoria.

From the market, I headed south to the State Library of Victoria. After finishing a lazy afternoon read with a cup of mocha without sugar, the free tram service took me further south to the other end of Melbourne’s CBD, where I checked out the latest exhibitions at the National Gallery of Victoria. I can easily spend at least two hours in this building just admiring the artworks. It was sunset by the time I finished my gallery tour—perfect timing to take an evening walk along Yarra River and finish the day with a nice dinner at Southbank before catching the next available train home.

The above itinerary shows that anyone can easily spend the entire day in Melbourne doing different things at ease without driving, simply relying on trains, trams and a pair of decent shoes. This is made possible thanks to the good public transport system that connects the surrounding suburbs to the city centre, complemented by a good network of pedestrian footpaths and trams serving all the different attractions within the CBD.

Southbank next to Yarra River with spacious footpath.

Melbourne is furthermore a pedestrian- and cyclist-friendly city, with wide footpaths and good bicycle lanes. To discourage people from driving into the city, a 40km/h speed limit is imposed, with a traffic light system that gives priority to the pedestrians. Traffic light cameras are everywhere to catch any red light offences—and the fines are substantial. It is also very difficult to find a parking spot within the city, and even if you do find one, parking fees are exorbitant. It makes sense then to just take the public transport and walk. It is healthier too.

Let us now turn our attention to Penang. I did a rough measure on Google Maps and was surprised to discover that the main heritage enclave of George Town has about the same area as Melbourne’s CBD. Like Melbourne, George Town has no shortage of interesting places and is definitely a great place to be. We have good eating places (Chulia, Campbell and Kimberley Street), lively markets (Chowrasta Market), museums, street art, parks and a promenade (Esplanade).

A typical five-footway in George Town.

Let us see what it would feel like if we were to do all the activities in George Town without driving. Assuming that I live in Sungai Ara, I do not think I will take public transport going into the city due to its unreliable schedules. Like the majority of people in Penang, I would most likely drive my own car to Komtar and park at the multi-storey carpark at First Avenue Mall (because it is by far better maintained than the one at Prangin Mall). I would then walk across the sky bridge from First Avenue to the old Komtar podium; meander through a labyrinth of shops selling mobile phones and computers; walk past KFC at Level 3 to the Urban Transformation Centre (UTC) public amenities centre (formerly the Super Komtar department store); take the escalator down to the ground floor and exit to Komtar Walk.

I would now find myself at a crossroads. I have two choices: use the Octopus pedestrian crossing, or take a short cut—crossing Jalan Dr. Lim Chwee Leong as and when I sense that my sprint across the road can beat the speed of the oncoming car turning in from Penang Road. The GPS in my head calculates that this is the shortest route to take, although I may risk my life.

All these just to walk across the busy traffic from Komtar! Just imagine what else I have to go through if I decide to walk to places like Tho Yuen for lunch, Armenian Street to snap pictures of the street art, or the Esplanade for a walk. After that, it will be an equally arduous journey back to Komtar to pick up my car.

The truth is, there is no way I would go to all these places on foot for one major reason—the absence of a well-connected footpath network under the intensely hot tropical sun. In Penang, footpaths tend to suddenly vanish and people find themselves on streets with busy traffic. The condition of the footpath itself also needs more care and maintenance to prevent people from tripping over the uneven surfaces. In addition, there is not enough trees and covered walkways to make the walking experience more enjoyable.

Since 2008, more effort has been put into preserving the architecture of individual heritage buildings. However, there is an absence of any comprehensive plan to improve and enhance pedestrians’ experience within the core heritage precinct. Our unique five-footways are an ingenious invention designed to enable people to move around the city protected from the natural elements. Unfortunately, individual residents and business owners have claimed the space for themselves by blocking the passageways with their motorbikes, planter boxes, plastic chairs, etc.

From the perspective of public policy, the five-footway is a low hanging fruit to improve visitors’ experience of the city. Authorities should look into reclaiming this valuable public space. George Town has huge potential to be a pedestrian-friendly city; it is small enough and is packed with rich cultural and historical elements.

Part of Penang’s Esplanade seawall walkway.

Melbourne is vibrant because it has an extensive public transport network that brings in people from all over the greater metro areas. It also has a comprehensive internal network within the CBD that links all its major attractions and landmarks. Don’t forget that the area of George Town is about the same as Melbourne’s CBD—I take this as a positive sign that it is indeed possible to make George Town a walking city. We are heading in the right direction with the announcement of the upcoming Mutiara Line that will definitely bring more people into our unique UNESCO World Heritage Site. The next challenge, however, will be to have a comprehensive approach in improving the walking experience within George Town by increasing the coverage area of footpaths and providing shade through landscaping or covered walkways.

Penang’s strength lies in the rich cultural and historical architecture that still stands in the urban centre. While most heritage buildings have been knocked down to give way to skyscrapers in most modern cities including Melbourne, George Town’s historical core remains largely intact. The challenge is to look at this area as a whole and seriously start focusing more on people’s experience during their visits to this beautiful city that we are all so proud of. It is time to unlock the hidden potentials of George Town and transform it into a truly livable global city.

Tan Cheng Keat

is a nostalgic Penangite based in Melbourne who believes that reading and sketching are the best vitamins for the mind. Penang's architecture and streetscapes are his favourite subjects to draw.