Low-hanging fruit: Four easy ways to improve Penang’s bus service

Simon Tan

With a better bus service, we can convert motorists to bus users – and with fewer cars, there will be less congestion and safer roads, writes Simon Tan.

During my last trip to Singapore in May 2018, I started to use the buses there. Before that, I only used the republic’s Mass Rapid Transport (MRT) services.

It was during that trip that I discovered how easy it was to use the buses there with the help of the Maps and Moovit apps. I would simply key in my destination, and the apps would suggest the fastest combination of MRT and/or buses and the journey time. Best of all, the apps would show me my real-time location and which bus stop to alight.

The surprising thing was, most of the time, the apps suggested an all-bus journey. Why? In Singapore, buses have better coverage and more direct routes. The other plus points in the republic were user-friendly bus shelters and shady walkways.


Not impossible: Increasing bus ridership from 5% to 10%

After that trip, I became a regular Rapid Penang bus user and, together with Friends of Rapid Penang (FoRP), started promoting this “low-hanging fruit”. 

FoRP hopes to improve Rapid Penang ridership from its present 5% modal share to 10%. We are certain this will help to reduce the number of cars on the road, traffic congestion and air pollution, while at the same time improving the mobility of Penangites.

Whichever mode – light rail transit (LRT), modern trams, autonomous rail transit (ART) – the Penang state government adopts in future, we will still need feeder buses to ply the missing areas of coverage.

The construction of an RM8bn LRT system – the state’s preferred mode – is expected to take about seven years. So what are we going to do in the interim? Why not optimise the use of the present fleet of Rapid Penang buses? Who knows, with better knowledge, software and more buses, it could turn out that an improved bus service is all Penang needs to ease its transport woes.

In Singapore, in the 1980s – before the onset of the MRT system – buses were the main form of public transport . The bus system worked well for the nation. Today, buses in Singapore – like London buses – are used by more than half of public transport users, surpassing the number of those using trains.

The following suggestions and ideas have been contributed by members of FoRP, Rapid Penang staff and other public transport supporters, and I want to acknowledge them accordingly.

Due to limited resources this article only focuses on proposals for Penang Island. Hopefully, another group will work on mainland Penang and come up with suggestions for improvement there.

1) Reduce wait times – smarter routes and more buses

At the moment many routes use Komtar as a hub. But the roads leading in and out of Komtar – eg Dato Kramat, Lim Chwee Leong, Gudwara and Chulia – are often congested. 

So, set up other hubs around Penang – a similar concept to that of the KL Go Bus. New hubs could be located at the Masjid Negeri, Batu Lanchang Market, the Gurney Drive roundabout, Spice Convention Centre and Sungai Nibong.

Our proposal is that routes from Air Itam such as 201, 202, 203, 204, CAT1A and CAT1B should terminate at the Masjid Negeri hub. From there, double-decker buses on route 200 could carry riders travelling to Komtar and the jetty, thereby reducing congestion in George Town. By shortening the above routes (201, etc), bus frequencies would certainly improve.

Routes 102 and 304 could be rerouted to pick up riders who wish to travel north to Gurney Drive hub or south to Sungai Nibong and beyond. Many potential users do not need to go to Komtar; so this would shorten their travel times.

FoRP is working with the Rapid Penang strategic planning department to introduce route 105 by optimising route 102, which is currently too long (airport to Telok Bahang) and always slows down around Komtar.

The proposed route 105 would start at the airport, passing through the Spice hub, the Bukit Jambul Complex, the Sungai Nibong hub, the USM Bukit Gambir gate, Masjid Negeri Road, Scotland Road, Utama Road, Gottlieb Road and then end at the Tanjung Bungah Market.


Route 105 in yellow

Route 105 would connect over 50 schools (especially large secondary schools), colleges and a university to population centres north and south of Penang Island.

On top of that, users from Tanjung Bungah and Tanjung Tokong could efficiently take 105 to reach USM, Bukit Jambul, Bayan Baru (with feeder buses to the free trade zone), airport and vice versa, more quickly and frequently than route 102.

At the time of writing, Rapid Penang is still awaiting approval for this new route.

There are two other ways to increase bus frequencies and thus reduce waiting times for passengers:

  • shorten bus routes
  • avoid congested roads

An analysis by Rapid Penang shows that improvements could be made by rerouting 102 into the proposed route 105 – ie from airport to Tanjung Bungah instead of airport to Teluk Bahang – and by avoiding congested roads in and out of Komtar and Sunny point. The frequency would then improve from once every 30 minutes to once every 20 minutes – using the same number of buses that are currently in use for route 102.

2) Reduce travel times

Travel time is defined as the time when a passenger steps on the bus till the time he or she alights.

Travel time can be reduced in the following ways.

  • Cashless electronic payment eg using Touch ‘n Go cards or scanning QR codes which can reduce the buses stationary time significantly
  • Tactical transit lanes – These lanes can free up roads used by buses, thereby reducing travel time significantly. For example, many buses ply Jalan Air Itam and Jalan Dato Kramat. As such from Chung Ling School to Convent Dato Kramat, a special lane(s) should be dedicated for buses and motorcycles and only one lane for cars. Motorcycles generally do not block a lane and it is also safer to segregate motorcycles from cars. These transit lanes will also serve as visual reminders for car users to switch to buses – serving as a form of non-monetary congestion charge

3) Attract and retain more bus users

The last mile refers to the distance from a bus user’s home to the nearest bus stop. Walking for a distance of less than 1km would be tolerable especially if the area is shaded and the passenger carries an umbrella in case it rains. Generally this ‘last mile’ can be a disincentive for the public to opt for buses. Hence, we should study ways to make it more convenient.

Some alternative last-mile solutions:

  • self-riding – bicycles, motorcycles, motorised skateboards
  • shared vehicles – mini-buses, taxis, ride-hailing, electrified trishaws, tuk tuks and in the near future, compact self-driving cars

Park-and-ride is neither cost-effective for the car-park operator nor the vehicle owner: the attitude is generally, “Since we have a car, we might as well we drive it.”

In view of the varying needs of each constituency, last-mile solutions should be the responsibility of the respective state assembly members.

A good bus shelter should provide protection against wind, rain, sun and stray motor vehicles. The current Penang Island City Council ‘glass-house’ design can be improved significantly. On top of providing good shelter, all bus stops should have lighting and clear route maps.

The road space in front of the bus stop should be painted with zig-zag lines with the wording: “Buses only – Tow-away zone”. The council will need to beef up enforcement to ensure compliance and to see that cars and other non-designated vehicles do not encroach into the bus-stop zone.


Tow away illegally parked cars blocking bus stops and bus lanes. Why do thousands of bus users have to risk their lives or get wet?

The Bus Information System display screen at certain bus stops and Rapid Penang’s Journey Planner, currently on a trial run, are good enhancements. Rapid Penang should be commended for these initiatives.

The present standard and concession fares – RM75 adult monthly unlimited pass; RM35 for senior citizens, people with disabilities and students – are affordable, serving as a good economic incentive. Certainly driving a car and incurring costs on fuel, insurance, road tax, depreciation and maintenance is more expensive.

But a big challenge in Penang is that many commuters use motorcycles, the running costs of which are low. To discourage the use of cars and motorcycles in Penang Island, the Penang Island City Council should raise car and motorcycle parking charges annually. It should then use this income to finance public transport in a transparent way.

4) Empower bus users

Motorcyclists face the highest risk on the road. If those who drive cars and ride motorbikes are willing to switch to buses, there will be fewer vehicles on the road. This in turn will lead to fewer road accidents and an improvement in road safety.

To ensure personal safety, the city council should install CCTV cameras at all bus stops and ensure that there is adequate lighting along all walkways leading to bus stops.

Some of us view public transport in Penang as an orphan with many uncles but no real father. Different agencies control different aspects of public transport.

  • Licensing comes under the Land Public Transport Agency (Apad) under the Ministry of Transport
  • Bus stops are controlled by the Penang Island City Council and the Seberang Prai Municipal Council
  • Roads, markings, crossing and traffic lights are the responsibility of developers, the city council or the Public Works Department depending on particular circumstances
  • Buses are owned and operated by Rapid Penang, which is under Prasarana and the Ministry of Finance.

Perhaps the state and federal governments should work together and set up a body or institution to ensure better synergy and coordination among the various bodies involved. This requires resolute political will.

We should empower secondary students with user-friendly bus apps and improve their personal mobility to schools, tuition and extra-curricular activities. Parents can save time and petrol or school bus fares (RM100-RM200 per month) if their children use the RM35 monthly student pass. This is definitely a win-win situation for students, parents, schools and Rapid Penang.

Friends of Rapid Penang can help to promote Rapid Penang to schools with outreach programmes through the parent-teacher associations. Hopefully, these students will become the ambassadors of Rapid Penang and spread the benefits back to the older generations, who have become car lovers with a strong stigma and prejudice against using public buses.

With more buses, we can convert motorists to bus users. With few cars, there will be less congestion and safer roads – bringing about many benefits to Penangites.

  • Cleaner air
  • A lower carbon footprint
  • More efficient use of time while travelling on a bus
  • Higher disposable incomes through savings on petrol, car loan instalments, motor insurance and road tax

What’s not to like?

This article is first published on Aliran.com

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