More highways, more cars?

THESE is a common saying in the public transport policy debate that, “supplying more highways simply creates more demand for their use”.

No. This is wrong. This is lazy thinking resulting from a simplistic comparison between an increase in highways and an increase in the number of cars.

There are two real factors that create demand for private cars in a city with a good public transport system: A growing population and increasing capital flow. When people who can afford private cars move into the city, and people in the city become more able to afford private cars, that’s when there is an increase in private car usage and an increase in traffic jams despite the availability of good public transport.

Take Hong Kong as an example. The city has one of the best public transportation systems in the world. About 90% of the population use public transport. Yet, new highways and roads are still being built to cater to an increased demand for road usage.

> Central-Wan Chai Bypass and Island Eastern Corridor Link: HK$36bil (RM19.1bil)

> Central Kowloon Route: HK$42.36bil (RM22.61bil)

> Road expansion for West Kowloon Reclamation Development: HK$845.8mil (RM451.45mil)

> Hiram’s Highway Improvement: HK$1.77bil (RM944.75mil)

> Widening of Tolo Highway/Fanling Highway: HK$4.32bil (RM2.3bil) (figures from

These ongoing projects cost about RM45.5bil all together. The amount spent on road projects alone in this city that has an excellent public transportation system is about the estimated cost of the entire Penang Transport Master Plan (PTMP).

Unless Hong Kong restricts population growth and capital inflow, its local council will need to continue to improve the city’s traffic dispersal network and the public transportation system to cater to the increasing demand for public mobility.

The only possible experiment to disprove this observation is one that no city with a good public transportation system would be willing to conduct. It requires the city to restrict population growth and capital inflow.

But this is not the point. The point is that it is wrong to conclude that supplying more highways will create more demand for private car usage, as if the availability of highways itself causes the increase in private car usage.

To pit the construction of a new highway to disperse traffic against building good public transport infrastructure is a pseudo conflict. No growing city would adopt this pseudo conflict as its principle to increase public mobility.

The NGOs who are against the PTMP object to it because it includes plans to build highways and roads to improve the traffic dispersal network. They say that Penang does not have a good public transportation system, so the focus should be to build one.

But Hong Kong is spending billions improve its traffic dispersal network despite the fact that it has an excellent public transportation system. This is not confined to Hong Kong. Other cities like Singapore and Zurich are doing the same. This simple fact does not register with the anti-PTMP NGOs because they have completely subscribed to the pseudo conflict mentioned above.

If Penang wants to continue growing, she has to continue to improve her traffic dispersal network and simultaneously build good public transport infrastructure. This is precisely what the PTMP aims to do.

The same goes for any other city. To improve public mobility, we need to ditch the pseudo conflict and get on to improving the traffic dispersal network and public transportation system.



Note: The writer was a member of the traffic management committee and urban planning committee of the Seberang Perai Municipal Council.

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