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Traffic problems in our cities need empirical solutions

Traffic problems in our cities need empirical solutions

Published by The Malaysian Insight • 15/02/2022 • 10:57 am

BACK in 2018 and 2019, I introduced an observation about public mobility, which differed from the view espoused by the Penang Forum, a Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM) professor, and three urban health researchers at the United Nations University International Institute for Global Health.


They have argued that the supply of more roads was the main cause of more private vehicles (“induced demand”), which then reduced public transport usage.


Therefore, they criticised the Penang Transport Master Plan for its new road projects.


Their view was wrong, and surprisingly many believed it. Besides them, I have also met a former consultant with McKinsey & Co who had likewise dismissed my observation.


To me, they were ignoring the obvious. Their view lacks empirical explanation for the city with the highest public transport usage in the world, ie Hong Kong, which had the highest public transport usage at 90% but the city still spent billions to build new roads.


Based on the example of Hong Kong, my observation was simply this: the cause of increasing private vehicles usage was not the supply of more roads but due to population growth and the increase of capital flow (more people became more able to afford the use of private vehicles).


In his response to me, the USM professor didn’t discredit my observation, instead he quoted a list of scholars from whom he derived his theory.


Some of the quoted scholars were writing their theories in the early 1960s, before Hong Kong developed the MTR.


None of them studied Hong Kong. All of them ignored “elephant in the room”, so to speak. The USM professor just followed and repeated.


The researchers from the United Nations University did the same, quoted books and articles that did not examine the case of Hong Kong.


Instead, they cited Zurich to support their argument without actually knowing that Zurich’s public mobility design involved the expansion of roads.


For example, Zurich spent RM804 million in 2017 alone to widen its northern bypass to six lanes.


From the exchanges I had with them, it was actually quite mind-boggling because these experts didn’t display rudimentary knowledge of Hong Kong, the city with the highest proportion of population making public transport journeys in the world.


Recently, a new research article appears to supplement my observation. The study, conducted by researchers from the University of Hong Kong and the University of Illinois, examined the 85 largest US cities from 2002-2017 and found that the “most influential factor” behind the decline of public transport usage was due to “declining cost of driving”, which in other words, private vehicles became more affordable.


The study concluded that an increase in transit services would mitigate further decline in public transport usage.


This was another observation showing that the Penang Forum, the USM professor, the researchers from the United Nations University, and the ex-McKinsey consultant were wrong.


That is a long way to bring up the point about the current public mobility problems in Malaysia. Are the universities and consultancy firms using reliable observation or simply relying on obsolete theories?


Unless we examine primary factors affecting the ratio of private vehicle/public transport usage, we will not be providing the right solutions to our cities’ traffic problems. – February 15, 2022.


* Joshua Woo reads The Malaysian Insight.

* This is the opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of The Malaysian Insight.

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