NB: This article was originally published in issue 11.12 of the Penang Monthly.

When one thinks of Penang today, a few things come to mind: the best food in the world, living heritage, multiculturalism, the hills, the beaches, CAT governance and, inevitably, traffic jams.

Of late, the last has been worsening, so much so that the Guinness Book of World Records should be invited to visit Penang Island on a long weekend to marvel at what is indisputably the world’s largest car park.

An oft-repeated statistic also never fails to astonish: Road Transport Department data from 2009 reveals that there are about 1.75 million motor vehicles in Penang, compared to an adult population of roughly one million. Yes, that amounts to almost two vehicles per adult.

Be that as it may, the extraordinary proportion of vehicles alone does not explain the nefarious traffic congestion. After all, one person can’t possibly drive two cars at the same time. What is really exacerbating the situation is a toxic combination of two factors: one a more recent phenomenon and the other a legacy issue.

Success breeds development

Firstly, there are more vehicles crisscrossing the island today because Penang has, to put it simply, become a more happening place. Excitement has grown over the last few years due in part to the conferment of Unesco World Heritage status on George Town, as well as an explosion of commercial activities stemming from an increasing number of development projects and multibillion ringgit manufacturing investments that translate into higher employment, stronger purchasing power and healthy consumerism; hence the mushrooming of boutique hotels, eclectic bistros and a revival of the social scene.

As various international commentators have noted, Penang is buzzing again. And news travels fast, especially when it is promoted by such sources of information as The Economist, Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg, New York Times, Yahoo! and even famed lifestyle magazine Monocle. As a result, more and more people now want to come to Penang.

In short, a confluence of culture, cash and cars has resulted in this seemingly interminable traffic malady which inflicts its worst on weekends and holidays.

At the same time, one cannot deny another direct corollary of success – development. And in a water-locked, land-scarce city, development will invariably take a vertical rather than a horizontal form, thus contributing to higher density per capita and, as a result, increased pressure on the existing infrastructure. Now, contrary to what one may instinctively think, this by itself isn’t necessarily a problem.

While density, especially in recent times, has become something of a taboo in Penang, it would be awfully imperceptive to blame density for the sake of it. Such a postulation would ignore the fact that many of the most liveable cities in the world, such as Vancouver, Sydney and Singapore, are also some of the most densely populated. After all, the viability of public transport is predicated upon a necessary level of density. A dense urban form also minimises per capita carbon emissions and reduces energy costs.

Yet density by itself does not work unless it is accompanied by sufficient infrastructure and a logical ecosystem. In other words, it has to go hand-in-hand with proper planning. Seen in this light, Penang’s success in the last four years has unfortunately also exposed a deep-seated flaw – Penang was simply not designed for it.

An irrational urban form

The reality of Penang today is that we have an urban form that is sprawled and disjointed, with a gaping disconnect between residential areas, commercial centres and public infrastructure. Such a design is in fact the hallmark of an urban model based on mid-20th century Americana-style zoning and a culture of automobile-dependence.

The premise of the post-war American dream was thus: owning a dream home (complete with garage, front lawn, backyard and swimming pool) on your own piece of land. Naturally, such forms of low-density residential development were only possible by expanding development into the peripheries of the metropolitan area. In short, cities began to spread outwards.

With the availability of cheap fuel, expansive highways and acres of parking spaces for malls built even further out, Suburbia was successfully created.

Unfortunately, such an urban form could only go so far. As populations (both human and vehicular) increased, Suburbia began to crack under pressure. With rising energy costs, waning income growth and diminishing availability of credit, the American urban sprawl model has now been revealed to be unsustainable and cost-ineffective.

In the case of Penang, the American influence is undeniable. Inspired by Suburbia, and having never imagined a day when vehicles would outnumber people on the island, Penang’s urban planners in the 1960s and 1970s began to adopt a sprawled and zoned approach. The previously densely-populated city core that once saw residential and commercial cohabitation was quickly hollowed out. New suburban residential areas were demarcated, and to ensure quality of life, commercial and industrial areas were kept as far away as possible. Public transport was ignored as it was believed that middle class suburban Penangites would be able to afford cars (and on this point they have not been disappointed).

As a result, we have inherited the situation today in which industrial estates have been carved out all the way to the south of the island and on the mainland, while residential developments pepper the northern coast and central valley. Such an urban form, considered ideal 40 years ago when the population was smaller and less people owned cars, is now the very reason why people find themselves stuck in intractable jams as they attempt to make the illogical commute from residential corridors to commercial and industrial zones through tarmac arteries that are simply unable to handle the rising volume.

Back to basics

There is of course no quick fix to this ignominious problem. However, it is comforting to note that the solution may not be impossible. Firstly, adequate infrastructure must be provided. This involves not only road constructions such as bypasses and highway building where appropriate, but also a major investment and prioritisation in public transport.

But even more importantly, whatever remedy taken must not only be evidence-based and designed in consideration of current and future mobility needs – an approach duly acknowledged by the state government’s commissioning of the soon-to-be-released Transport Masterplan, but must also form a logical part of a bigger and more holistic urban planning approach.

The good news is that no reinvention is required. As observed by MIT Media Lab director and architect Kent Larson, pre-automobile cities like Paris are actually agglomerations of smaller villages. On their own these villages are self-sustaining ecosystems, with the availability of every basic necessity within a 20-minute (or one-mile) radius – a school, a clinic, a gym, a grocer, a café, a post office.

Such a system works because it makes sense. No long travelling is required in order to access basic amenities and fulfil basic needs. Living, working and playing occur in the same neighbourhood. In fact, such a design naturally encourages walking and cycling. Any necessary outside travel is then undertaken via public transport which serves these dense, self-sustaining “villages”.

Believe it or not, Penang once upon a time used to display these very same features. Unlike the clusters and sprawls which typify the state today, Penang’s pre-automobile urban form was actually a sustainable one.

In pre-sprawl Penang, George Town was where most people lived, worked and played. Every necessary destination was reachable by foot or, if it was a little further, by bus. Today, the island has been completely delineated by zones which separate residential, commercial and industrial activities. At the same time, people have no choice but to travel between these zones by automobile because it is simply impossible for public transport to efficiently service the chaotic sprawl that Penang has become.

As Penang strives to become an internationally competitive city, it is imperative that we transform the incoherent urban form that we have inherited into one that works. In other words, we need to create a sustainable city that is able to connect people, via efficient public infrastructure, to homes, amenities, centres of employment and trade.

Moving forward requires us to look to the past.