Another foreigner got upset with RapidPenang’s bus map (Update #1)

Once again, we hear of a foreigner lamenting on Rapid Penang’s lack of concern over making their bus routes, stops and timetables legible to users. The comment, which appears on today’s Aliran, also touches on transit-oriented city planning and Malaysia’s negative build-rail-to-solve-congestion mentality.

Behind the surface issues are, of course, the problems with policy-making & cooperation that make improving public transport so frustrating.

ALIRAN Newspaper, April 20, 2011

Penang: Easier to win lottery than to find bus routes info — Florian Ladage

APRIL 20 — I’ve been “enjoying” Penang’s public transport system only for a few weeks now, but even after that short period of time, there can be no doubt that what is in place right now is not doing the job.

You regularly spend ages waiting at bus stops, and once a bus arrives, you’ll only be stuck at totally congested streets. Sure, traffic planning needs help.

But I’m afraid that those plans circulating around the media attack the issue from the wrong side of the equation. All these high-tech proposals, from a light rail or a monorail to water taxis or fancy double-decker buses — nice prestige projects, but very costly and not likely to be efficient.

[TRANSIT: It’s worth mentioning that most of the proposals for ‘prestige projects’ described by Florian are coming from Federal Government agencies. But we wish to point out that double deck buses should not be considered as a ‘prestige project’ (for reasons explained below).]

I’ve lived in several European countries and the US and experienced transport in several major Asian cities as well, so I’ve come to use a number of different solutions to transport issues — some good, others less so. Penang, however, seems to be aiming at the latter.

Planners here are just drawing the wrong comparisons. What’s the matter with Hong Kong, for example? That’s a densely populated city of seven million, whereas Penang Island is distributing its 750,000 people over a comparably large area of urban sprawl.

How can you compare that? The number of inhabitants here will support one, or maybe two, lines of an LRT network – but what percentage of urban area is going to be covered by that?

To spread the LRT network to every part of town would never be cost-efficient. To build a cost-efficient mass transit solution would mean focusing only on a couple of routes and that would leave a lot of people away from those routes and still dependent on their cars, thus not solving the problem of congestion.

Same story with water taxis: At best they would be an addition, since they could only serve people living directly at the seafront — all the rest would still be in cars. Double-decker buses? Well, if those comparably small buses in use today are already constantly stuck, how is that supposed to be better with even less maneuverable vehicles?

[TRANSIT: Double deck buses have the same 12m length as single deck buses but carry 40 extra passengers. RapidPenang would not be operating double deck buses in routes that are too narrow or congested.]

No, the problem is not in the buses in place itself, not even in the routes they’re taking. I agree the number and frequency of buses needs an increase, but apart from that, the transport system as such would be sufficient for a city the size of Penang. The catch is in the circumstances — bad road planning, lack of information, and the anarchic traffic behaviour of motorists.

One way to stop jamming the roads would be to stop parking dead centre in the street to get food, or doing right turns by just driving into the oncoming traffic like a headless chicken. A huge part of the problem is simply self-created by lacking the least of road etiquette.

Beyond that, ask any local passer-by which bus to take to get to XYZ — in all likelihood, he won’t know. And how should he? There’s no information available at the bus stop, schedules are rough suggestions at best, and a decent route map cannot even be found online. How is anyone supposed to swap his car for a bus if it is easier to win the lottery than finding decent information on the bus routes?

RapidPenangs map is barely understandable and gives no connection to the actual geography of the area. Even the locals have hard time comprehending the map, let alone tourists. We see the same pattern with bus maps in Klang Valley and Putrajaya.

[TRANSIT: This is a common issue in Malaysia – and is it not interesting that routes designed by engineers would have route maps that look like electrical diagrams?By the way, one reason given for the lack of information at bus stops is because local councils ‘own’ the bus stops and technically, bus operators must pay advertising rates in order to put route information up at bus stops.]

Finally, yes, there is work that needs to be done, but not on the vehicles. The roads need some decent, conscious planning. There is a need for bus lanes that are kept free for the buses and not turned into makeshift parking lots — that does wonders for efficiency.

The current one-way system that is mostly zigzagging around is not helping traffic flow either. How to do it better can be seen in Barcelona, for example. The narrow interior of the old city used to be a traffic menace, but it has been turned into bearable conditions by creating an expansive one-way system where the roads just go straight. Simple as that. You can use the outside lanes for turning, and in the centre, the traffic is free to flow without constantly creating bottlenecks for 90-degree turns.

[TRANSIT: Road congestion and traffic management is handled by the local council, in this case the Penang Island Municipal Council (Majlis Perbandaran Pulau Pinang or MPPP).]

Only with decent information in place, reduced road congestion by proper planning and a bit of driving etiquette can the bus system become a valid alternative to private cars. And only once it has become a serious alternative, maybe drivers can be convinced to leave their cars at home. It would still need a lot of effort in education, but it’s the only way I see forward.

The other suggestions circulating around won’t solve the problem, because the reach of those networks won’t be any improvement to what is in place now. All these prestige problems would do is eat up billions and billions of ringgit — money spent way better on other community issues beyond public transport. — aliran.com

*Florian Ladage is a German university exchange student who tried to use the buses while in Penang for a month.

TRANSIT Says:

Florian’s comments are interesting and a good reflection of many of the planning & organization issues that are faced in our public transport industry.

Again, let’s be clear here – the problems in the public transport industry relate more to organization & management of transport, rather than the bus operators themselves. The ineffective and confusing separation of authority – with local council handling bus stops & traffic, state government handling overall issues related to roads, and Federal Government handling transport regulation – means that we cannot rely on a single agency to get things done.

The only way forward is to get cooperation between the various agencies involved – and the only way to get that done is to have them sit down and hammer out the issues.

The Penang Transport Council is supposed to be the place where these issues get hammered out from what we are seeing, they just aren’t getting enough done.

Ok, but why the big deal about what tourists & foreigners think?

Well, we at TRANSIT believes that criticisms from foreigners and Malaysians living abroad, (especially from regions with high transit facility and service standards), should serve as healthy inputs on providing user-centric services,  not only for Rapid Penang, but for ALL local public transport administrators (RapidKL and NadiPutra, are you reading this?).

We thought RapidPenang  had sought immediate actions to address a tourist’s concern on illegible bus routes few weeks ago. While there are limits to what RapidPenang can do without the cooperation of other agencies, there are things we expect them to do.

What do you expect RapidPenang to do?

We would like to highlight to transit administrators out there that a legible bus map should consist of routes that are overlaid on real urban maps (like google maps) with legible street names and familiar landmarks. In the case of Bloomington Transit’s map,  we can see that there will be another set of map that covers the downtown area where many lines are expected to converge (as to make the main map legible), and that since public buses in America stops at almost every residential/commercial block, there isn’t the need to put the names of stops on maps. But since our road layouts are complicated (in violation of grid road layout), we need to really be able to pinpoint the exact stop on the map, and maps that indicate proper stop names and transit directions together with legible transit routes and underlying road and landmark layouts are necessary indeed.

The name that appears on the stop sign should be the same as the one that appears on the bus schedule/map.

In case RapidPenang got amnesia over the issue of illegible bus maps, TRANSIT would like to again publish a letter from an upset British tourist.

From The Star (Thursday February 3, 2011)

Make it easier to use Rapid Penang buses

I RECENTLY returned from a holiday in Penang. We stayed in fascinating George Town and used the Rapid Penang buses to get around.

You have fine, modern buses but can I suggest two things to make them easier to use by those unfamiliar with the system.

Firstly, install smart, conspicuous bus stops with clear route numbers. There are some bus stops which are hard to see and which bear out-of-date route numbers.

In some cases, buses stop where there is no bus stop. Very puzzling!

Secondly, Rapid Penang produces good route diagrams but a single street map showing all the routes would be much more helpful.

It takes time to establish from the diagrams exactly which roads each route uses and whether more than one route will take me to my destination. And planning a journey involving interchanges between two or more routes (except perhaps at the jetty) needs a high IQ!

I hope to return to Penang one day and look forward to easy bus travel.

TIM MORTON,

London.

TRANSIT Says:

Again, this is not a post to blame anyone – just to identify an issue that currently is not being resolved – due to a lack of cooperation and activity.

But rest assured, we know that some people at RapidPenang are willing to do the work to improve what currently exists. And some of the feedback that has appeared in the comments below will be incredibly helpful to them.

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21 thoughts on “Another foreigner got upset with RapidPenang’s bus map (Update #1)”

    1. @Florian’s comments about public transport in Penang are reflective of some of the planning issues that even RapidPenang is forced to deal with.

      Traffic congestion is an issue for the MPPP to deal with, not RapidPenang. Bus stops are owned by the MPPP, not RapidPenang. Water Taxis are planned by the Federal Government through PPSB, not RapidPenang.

      Now, RapidPenang can do a lot to improve the delivery of information – and I think the placemarks that mypublictransport has provided are an excellent example of how to make public transport accessible to a lot of people.

      But eventually, we have to see some kind of cooperation between governments to facilitate better public transportation – a local public transport authority coming together, rather than different organizations handling things in their own separate ways.

      Regards, Moaz for TRANSIT

  1. Hi Transit

    i won’t comment any further on the article especially as you have already mentioned on the issues of mapping and Florian has also raised the issue of bus stops numbering which is pretty good b/cos it lays out logically the route path of the buses.

    However, there is a request which is are there any blogs on Urban Planning in Msia or would u care to invite some architects to start one. Urban planning and public transportation often goes hand in hand and one can’t do one without the other. topics that can be covered in issues of urban planning that are currently not covered here are like topics of congestion pricing / pricing of parking.

    whilst transportation is more concerned on issue of moving ppl around, urban planning focuses on the cost of space. without covering this, it is not quite possible to understand the full picture of the problems faced and to come out with a wholesome solutions to the problems

    1. William

      Thanks for the feedback. We will take a look for urban planning-related blogs based in Malaysia. In the meantime, may we suggest one of our favourites ‘international’ blogs on transport and urban design topics: Human Transit at http://www.humantransit.org

      Regards, Moaz for TRANSIT

  2. @Sabre23t

    It is very hard and almost impossible to do the same for Kuala Lumpur / Selangor as the one in Penang. This is because the informations for Penang bus stop are obtained by travelling all the routes at Penang.

    The RapidPG journey planner is great tools but come with alot bug. Sometimes the distance is just 200metres but the planner will ask to travel for more than 30km. Therefore it is better to visualise the routes for further references.

    1. @mypublictransport

      Have you seen the The BastrenKL Klang Valley Transit Map by Vector Designs?

      BastrenKL map of the Klang Valley

      While the map does not reflect the most up-to-date routes it is relatively good.

      Is it possible for you to transfer the information from the map to the Google Earth medium? The basic placemarks (for interchanges, terminals & major trip generators) could be added now, while more detailed placemarks (to show the various bus stops) could be added later – if we can find volunteers to ride the various routes.

      Regards, moaz for TRANSIT

  3. @Transit

    Thank you for your brilliant suggestions. I decided to come out 2 types of Klang valley Bus maps, first is by using some web application that will put all the routes in one single map with different layers. Second, it is possible for me to transfer the routes to Google Earth. However this may take some times.

  4. Transit / Mypublictransport

    just my 2 cents on this – a lot of times i browse through local blogs and sites and the design is rather poor (actually i also think the design of RapidPg website is pretty poor). yet, this shld not be so as a well designed site can not only be attractive but also more sellable, or even attract funding for a cause.

    in UK, there are a number of websites where designers help to design for NGOs for mebbe a small fee or even pro bono e.g. http://www.ideo.com.

    In Msia, one website i find is http://make-condition.com/thinklab which i think u can bounce off them. working with designers / architects can take us one step higher which is actually to visualize how a certain proposal or suggestion would look like etc

  5. Hi Transit
    another suggestion of best practices elsewhere. a Voucher Program for public transport can actually help Rapid Pg or Rapid KL or even the ferry in Pg to increase ridership.

    Reason being is this – a voucher can be purchased by say Organisation X for its employees at a discounted price to be given to its employees as a reward / benefit. So this can wean the employee of their cars and Organisation X also can claim to be environmental friendly. But what can be a real benefit to Org X is this – by letting its employees to use public transport, Org X can do away with parking spots which cost space + money. Furthermore, if there is a voucher program, it also creates a market where companies can hv CSR programs where they purchase + donate vouchers to the needy (not just hampers of Milo & condensed milk).

    1. Hi William

      Thanks again for the feedback. TRANSIT has been trying to encourage the government to find ways to provide discounts for public transport users so that they receive incentives for public transport use.

      One idea we have proposed and shared with the government is to provide tax credits on income taxes (and “green” activity) for individuals and companies that purchase monthly public transit passes regularly – for example, annual purchase through monthly debit or prepayment.

      The vouchers that you have suggested would fit well within those incentive schemes.

      Regards, Moaz for TRANSIT

  6. This boils back to the most basic thing, signage display. May it be LED display unit, LCD display unit etc or even a manila cardboard or even an A4 paper, one thing is for sure, Malaysia don’t have consistency and proper maintenance for our signange system especially for our bus, KTM commuter and lrt system. Any party can argue that they have already put up and maintain proper signange display or system but compare to our neighbour Singapore?? Malaysian signage system is nothing but a BIG JOKE and a mock of the CENTURY. Why should we always compare ourselves to less advanced or backward countries, areas or region if we want to achieve 2020??? We must admit that there is still a long way to go for Malaysia in terms of public transport even for a simple and the most basic thing like signage system. So forget about talking BIG dreams and BIG objectives for our public transport system if we cannot even get our most basic signage system properly maintained and display with consistency and accuracy.

    1. Jeffrey

      There certainly needs to be consistency in public transport signage. You would think that with a federal government company owning two of the major transport companies in two of the largest cities in the country there would be consistency – but it’s (as usual) “more complicated than that”

      That’s why TRANSIT has been saying that someone has to take ownership of how the routes & information system is managed and organized. Ideally this would be a local public transport authority – like the Penang Transport Council. But in order to do that they need to be active & have people with the right levels of training and experience.

      Regards, Moaz for TRANSIT

  7. @mypublictransport wrote:
    It is very hard and almost impossible to do the same for Kuala Lumpur / Selangor as the one in Penang. This is because the informations for Penang bus stop are obtained by travelling all the routes at Penang.

    I understand the NBTS (new bus ticketing system) on RapidKL buses have the GPS coordinates for every bus stops (about 3,000+) they serve in Klang Valley. Perhaps that can be obtained/requested from them and imported as Google Earth or Google Maps placemarks as @mypublictransport did?

    1. @Sabre23t

      That is a good idea. We would have to make a formal request on behalf of @mypublictransport and other users of google placemarks.

      Regards, Moaz for TRANSIT

  8. This is probably unrelated but I really love the picture of the big bus stop sign. I wish all bus stops in Malaysia have a big stop sign indicating the name of the stop and bus route. Not everyone is familiar with the city, even the KLites.

    I only know one bus route, U87 (From Midvalley to Pasar Seni via Bangsar), but couple of months ago I accidentally took the U84 bus (From Midvalley to Kelana Jaya). I was cool at first cos when I see the route info on the bus, I saw that will stop at Universiti and Asia Jaya both with connection to the LRT.

    I didn’t alight at Universiti because well, I felt adventurous but then I got a little scared after the bus stopped at a few bus stops. I looked at the route info but couldn’t determine how many stops has passed since it stopped at the Universiti Station and whether I have passed Asia Jaya. None of the bus stops had signs on them.

    I know I could’ve asked someone or the bus driver but I was unnecessarily embarassed. I also know that I could go all the way to Kelana Jaya (also connected to LRT) but that was too many bus stops away and I only paid a ringgit. Would the bus driver notice that I only paid a ringgit if I went all the way to Kelana Jaya?

    I finally decided to stop at a very busy bus stop where an equally busy bus stop was on the opposite other side of the road. I figured surely it had the same bus route back to Midvalley. As I crossed the road, I saw an LRT slowing down to stop. I assumed there was a station nearby and asked a passerby the way to the station. Lo and behold, when I arrived at the station, a big sign saying, “ASIA JAYA” greeted me.

    I ended up at Asia Jaya after all but why wasn’t there a big bus stop sign to indicate it like at the entrance of the LRT Station? Why wasn’t there any interactive bus route information inside the bus? The bus had two LCD TVs and yet they didn’t show any bus stop or route information on them. I understand that the LCD TVs are for advertisements but couldn’t they display bus stop information too like the ones in Tokyo http://2.bp.blogspot.com/_cvJuvrHzS5A/SxW_39ITx2I/AAAAAAAACD8/RMlfbW8F5ks/s1600-h/DSC06439.JPG ?

  9. There are thousands other western visitors (tourists, students, etc) that do not bother to share their horrible public transport experienced, to media / local forum but keeping to their heart, relatives & friends, portraying our 3rd world PT image.

    Taking Florian wonderful reversed experienced, it is our MOT, Rapid & Prasarana top decision-making officers that should experienced or involve in some kind of exchange program (with their university, council, town-planners, private companies) to transfer their superior PT system (& technology) back to Malaysia. Not just a one time trip like what they did when visiting MTR HK for the MRT. Worst case, sending special task group on self-study mission, spending few wks, on low government expenses. London, with native english speaking is a good one-stop learning center. But German as a whole has so much to offer from the hanging monorail in Wuppertel, extensive trams in Berlin, with none other the world-class standard of buses & underground rail network in Frankfurt, Stuttgart, Munich etc. I got the chance seeing and/or feeling their superior PT, long time ago, when visiting Autoliv AB on air-bag JV. Haven’t been to Berlin, Hamburg despite the top recommended cities to visit in German.

  10. sabre23t,
    if i not mistaken, you are working in RapidKL as GM of IT. can you provide the data on routes and bus stops ?

  11. Well this is not something new we heard everyday. All that grouses on terrible experience came from all peoples not just tourist but even the locals. The quandary of inefficient public transport network in Malaysia is definitely unsolvable for AGES! Either the federal government does not have enough funding for the development to enhance the transport system or it could be the poor management by the company itself. Vision 2020 for a developed nation by the government is nothing but just a pure DREAM!! Its time for them learn from our neighbouring country which has one of the best and efficient public transportation system.

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