On the Beat | By Wong Chun Wai

Traffic choking Pearl of the Orient

When Kuala Lumpur
hosted the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in 1990, I was assigned by
my editors to be in the team to cover the event.

When I reported for work at the company headquarters in
Petaling Jaya, I was given the transfer letter on the spot. No wonder my
earlier queries on my accommodation were left unanswered!

After more than 10 years of working in Kuala
Lumpur, I have considered the city my home. Although I
have no regrets about moving to the city, I do miss my hometown and my family
members who live there.

I would grab any opportunity to balik kampung but the
trips over the past year have been disappointing. Talk about KL's traffic crawl
– Penang is no different now.

While traffic flow in KL has improved tremendously
because of the effective road system, Penang roads are
becoming increasingly clogged up.

Last week, the North section of The Star reported that
almost 1.2 million cars and motorcycles choke up the state's highways and
narrow streets.

According to Road Transport Department statistics, the
state has about 724,000 motorcycles and 459,000 cars, as of June this year.

The figures, while not surprising, are worrisome because Penang
– which is only 1,030 sq metres in size – ranks fourth in the country after KL
(2.2 million), Johor (1.5 million) and Selangor (1.3 million).

The average ratio of private vehicle ownership to the
population is almost one to one while in Selangor, with a population of 3.6
million, records a ratio of one vehicle to two persons.

Most Penangites have a car and a motorcycle (to travel
short distances) but unlike other states, the motorcyclists there ride in the
middle of the road. Quite often, the rider returns a menacingly look if someone
honks him or her for bad road manners.

Most Penangites prefer their own vehicles because the
public transport system is much to be desired. Minibuses have long been banned
in KL but, in Penang, they seem to have been given a new
lease of life.

Ironic as it may seem, the taxi sapu service is quite
efficient. The metered taxi drivers, finding it hard to compete with these
illegal taxis, have no choice but to haggle with the notoriously thrifty
Penangites over the rates.

It will be difficult for the state government to impose
restrictions on the roads, such as preventing single-occupancy vehicles from
entering restricted areas, but it should seriously work on improving the road

Efforts by the authorities to ease traffic woes by coming
up with the Penang Outer Ring Road (PORR) project seem to have run into

The resistance comes primarily from concerns that old Penang,
with its leafy streets, would be gone.

Already, there are signs of the inner city dying. Most of
the pre-war houses in George Town
are now empty because of the imposition of quit rent.

Previously, the low rent had kept small businesses going,
providing employment and income. When the landlords increased the rents, many
preferred to close shop because it was no longer viable to continue running
their businesses.

The landlords now find no takers for their premises
despite renovating them. As a result, these shophouses stand empty.

Many of the shops in the city, where I used to buy my
books and clothes, have gone out of business.

Tourists would get the impression that all is not well.
After all, visitors want to browse in quaint-looking shops. They do not travel
for thousands of miles to shop in air-conditioned shopping complexes.

Politicians in Penang are arguing
whether the state deserves its Darul Sampah tag. The city needs to be cleaned
up but I don't think it has come to that stage. It is unfair to blame the state
government when the people should be more civic conscious first.

Fortunately, not everything in Penang
has deteriorated. After hearing complaints about the lack of quality food in
the state, I decided to check out some eating spots over the last few days.

For some of my friends in KL, they merely head for Gurney
Drive but Penangites will tell you that you have
to coffeeshop hop to eat the best dishes.

Penang is still a food haven,
without doubt. But something has to be done about its traffic system if the Pearl
of the Orient wants to keep its shine.