Are We Happy with Our Buses or Are We Not?


Much has been said about how Penang’s public transport system can be improved. But what do people on the ground think?

Public transportation in Penang dates back to the 1880s, when the first steam-powered tram, measuring 12.5km, ran from Weld Quay jetty to Air Itam Road, with a branch to the Botanic Gardens. Subsequent versions of the tram transport, such as horse trams and electrical trams, firmly established Penang as a regional trendsetter for public transportation during that period. At the height of its operation from 1905 to 1922, the electrical tram in particular generated substantial profit, with up to 24 electrical trams operating an 11-minute service at peak hours on lines to Air Itam and Jelutong.

Trolleybuses were introduced in 1925 and these gradually replaced the electrical trams. They ran on rubber tires and were powered by electricity supplied by the tram power lines. They served as an important mode of public transport even during World War II.

It was not until after World War II that petrol and diesel engines paved the way for motorbuses to gain traction in the state, gradually displacing trolleybuses. By July 1961, motorbuses had been fully adopted into Penang’s public transport system.

Public bus operations back then were handled by different bus companies, such as the Hin Bus Company, the Penang Yellow Bus Company and the Lim Seng Seng Bus Company, in different areas in Penang. The subsequent introduction of minibuses, however, led to intense competition between bus companies. Lucrative routes saw overlapping of services while less popular routes were neglected.

An overall lack of organisation not only resulted in much dissatisfaction from Penangites, but also caused bus companies to be plagued by financial difficulties. Things came to a head in 2004, when the Penang Yellow Bus Company, arguably the biggest bus operator in Penang at that time, ceased operations after 58 years. This collapse drove the state, led by then chief minister Tan Sri Dr Koh Tsu Koon, to revamp the state’s crumbling public transport system.

Bus stop at the Penang International Airport.

When state efforts failed to improve the situation, Koh asked for federal intervention. Rapid Penang, a public bus system service similar to that of RapidKL, was formed to revitalise and transform the landscape of public transportation. Operations of Rapid Penang commenced officially on July 31, 2007.

Today, 404 Rapid Penang buses constitute the pillar of public transportation in the state, operating on a total of 71 routes (45 fare routes and 26 state shuttle services). Of the 71 routes, 37 are on Penang Island, while 34 are in Seberang Perai, including two cross-border interstate routes from Seberang Perai to the neighbouring states of Perak and Kedah. Prominent shuttle services under Rapid Penang include the three cross-strait routes between the Bayan Lepas Free Industrial Zone and Sunway Carnival Mall, known as the Bridge Express Shuttle Transit (BEST), and the recently launched Congestion Alleviation Transport (CAT).

As of 2018, Rapid Penang operates an average of 305 buses daily, managing an average daily ridership of about 85,000 passengers. The remaining buses in the fleet are typically under service to ensure optimum utilisation and minimal breakdowns.

A Main Commuting Tool

In our survey conducted to better understand ridership details of Rapid Penang, 148 out of 236 respondents (62.7%) stated that they do not own a personal vehicle, and for 132 out of 236 respondents, Rapid Penang buses are their daily mode of transportation. As many as 165 respondents (70.5%) commute on Rapid buses to get to school or work.

Recognising this and the long-standing issue of traffic congestion, the state government has constantly made an effort to improve Rapid Penang bus services. Most recently in April, the state launched a free bus service, CAT, which covers six routes each on the island and the mainland, in hopes of increasing public bus ridership during the morning and afternoon peak hours.

The Weld Quay bus station.

All aboard! The crowdedness of buses had a 41.53% approval rating.

In announcing the allocation of RM15mil for CAT while tabling the 2018 state budget back in November 2017, then chief minister Lim Guan Eng said the state was committed to working closely with Rapid Penang to “expand the service networks, revamp some of the routes to make bus journeys faster, more frequent and more reliable, and to put more buses on the road.” He believes that with CAT, a mutually beneficial relationship between the state and Rapid Penang can be attained.

Based on our survey, Rapid Penang buses are the main means of mobility within the state for our respondents, largely due to a few main reasons: 123 out of 236 respondents (52.1%) attributed it to not owning a personal vehicle, while 120 (50.9%) concurred that the Rapid bus fares are much more affordable in comparison with other means of travelling such as driving or using ride-hailing services like Grab. Another 101 (42.8%) felt that convenience is better attained by taking public buses as they are spared difficulties such as navigating traffic congestion and finding parking.

On a daily basis, the respondents also pointed to several factors that influenced their decision on whether or not to take public transport. A whopping 171 (72.5%) agreed that inclement weather would more likely deter them from boarding public buses to commute to their respective destinations. The meteoric rise in the popularity of ride-hailing services such as Grab is also evident among our respondents. As many as 136 (57.6%) concurred that they would occasionally opt to use Grab in favour of Rapid Penang buses. Moreover, 162 respondents (68.6%) said that they board Rapid Penang buses more during weekdays than weekends, attributing this to factors such as weekdays being working days and to the lower frequency of buses during weekends.

Public Satisfaction

In addition to finding out more about ridership demography and details, the survey also gauged the satisfaction with various aspects of Rapid Penang bus services, as well as looked into methods that would best improve ongoing services. Overall, on a scale of 1 to 10, our 236 respondents gave an average satisfaction score of 6.72, which indicates a generally favourable rating.

Encouragingly, an overwhelming 88.1% of respondents believe that services of Rapid Penang have improved over the course of the last 10 years. Indeed, since the commencement of its operations with 150 buses back in 2007, Rapid Penang has expanded its fleet as well as service coverage, including intercity links to Sungai Petani and Parit Buntar, to extend the privilege of mobility to more residents in the state.

Of all aspects of Rapid bus services in Penang, the affordable price of bus fares was most approved of by respondents, at an astounding 92.4% rating. The normal fare for Rapid Penang buses in Penang ranges from RM1.40 to RM4 depending on distance, while senior citizens, students in uniform and those with physical disabilities are entitled to concession fares, which essentially cost half the normal fares. For citizens who are frequent Rapid bus users, there are also a number of travel packages available for application, such as Rapid Preferred, Rapid Youth and Rapid Emas. Successful applicants obtain a concession card and enjoy unlimited travel with Rapid Penang buses for a monthly fee.

To put things in perspective, a Rapid bus trip from Tanjung Bungah to Komtar (a distance of around 10km) costs RM2, while the same trip in a Grab car would cost 6.5 times more at around RM13. If you are driving, you would need to bear both petrol cost and parking fee, which would all add up to at least four times the normal Rapid bus fare. This makes for a compelling comparison of how much more affordable commuting with Rapid Penang buses is compared to other modes of travelling.

The conduciveness of major bus hubs was also highly approved by our respondents, standing at a rating of 81.78%. The major hubs at Komtar, Weld Quay and Penang Sentral have several bus lanes, each designated for buses from a specific corridor. Having the buses segregated according to destination allows for smooth boarding or switching of buses on the part of passengers. For added convenience, seats are also built along the lanes for waiting passengers.

As many as 192 respondents (81.4%) are satisfied with the efficiency of the bus fare payment system in place under Rapid Penang. As it stands, there are two ways in which passengers can board the buses: one can either pay the exact bus fare directly to the bus captain, upon which a ticket will be issued, or show the Rapid travel card purchased under the aforementioned monthly travel packages of Rapid Penang to the bus captain.

The Komtar bus hub.

Other aspects of Rapid Penang that received favourable ratings from our respondents include the condition of buses (186, 78.8%) and the accessibility of buses (179, 75.9%). The buses in operation are generally clean and well maintained, and breakdowns, if any, are extremely rare. Rapid Penang also adopts Scania buses that incorporate low-floor designs, fully automated ramps as well as prioritised seating zones. These features make Rapid Penang buses more accessible for pertinent groups like the elderly, those with physical impairment, pregnant women and people carrying heavy goods. Some 164 respondents (69.5%) feel that the bus drivers of Rapid Penang by and large have a friendly attitude and are willing to offer help should passengers have queries on bus routes.

Also receiving good approval rating is the ease of reaching a bus stop from home. For 144 of our respondents (61.0%), the nearest bus stops from their respective homes are conveniently within manageable distance.

Specifically, as many as 112 respondents (47.5%) need to walk for less than five minutes from home to reach the nearest bus stop. Only 33 respondents (14.0%) are inconvenienced by the distance from their homes to the nearest bus stop, having to walk for more than 20 minutes.

In contrast, the one feature of Rapid Penang that received unfavourable ratings (22.5%) is the frequency of buses. From our survey, 113 respondents (47.9%) stated that they would have to wait for up to 30 minutes for the bus to arrive; 50 more (28.8%) have to endure a waiting time of more than 45 minutes. Other scenarios pertaining to time that contributed to the dissatisfaction of Rapid bus users include buses not arriving on schedule and the insufficient number of buses plying these routes. Elderlies from our survey pointed out with frustration that the long waiting time is taxing on them, and bus frequency in pertinent routes need to be increased.

Another facet that is deemed unfavourable is the crowdedness of Rapid Penang buses, which received a rating of 41.53%. This is in part due to the infrequency of buses in certain routes as well as the issue of morning and afternoon peak hours.

Moreover, with an approval rating of merely 58.5%, the safety of bus stops and terminals also comes into question. This is especially true at night, when bus frequencies are lower and the bus stops or terminals become relatively deserted.

Improving Bus Services of Rapid Penang

Our respondents generally feel that the state as well as Prasarana Malaysia should understand the myriad factors that hinder the efficiency and convenience of existing Rapid Penang bus services if they are to mitigate them effectively. An overwhelming 219 respondents (92.8%) feel that the government should increase fund allocations and investments to improve public transportation, especially bus services.

Riders suggested more digital signboards and savvy automated paying systems.

Bus Integrated System

Among the top suggestions for improving Rapid bus services in Penang are, understandably, those aimed at curbing tardiness of service.

For instance, 158 respondents (67.0%) proposed to install digital signboards or timetables of bus arrivals at bus stops and terminals. The displayed waiting time on the signboards would be a projection that utilises global positioning system (GPS) data to determine the location of buses, and takes into account external factors like traffic conditions. An accurate estimation of bus arrival time is crucial to elevate transit service quality as it accounts for better journey planning for passengers and resolves travel time uncertainty. It also increases the accountability of the bus drivers, who would then have to arrive at the terminals as scheduled.

In spite of the generally favourable reception towards existing bus fare payment methods, 106 respondents (44.9%) believe that the implementation of a card payment system (similar to a Touch ‘n Go system) would be greatly appreciated. This has been discussed for several years, since 2011 in fact, when the first test run of an e-ticketing system was carried out. Nothing has come of it yet.

The significance of an automated system is often underestimated. In fact, it extends beyond the intuitive benefit of making payment more convenient. It has the ability to yield practical information on ridership based on the Origin-Destination-Transfer (ODX) model proposed by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Transit Lab. Compared to speculation or public feedback, these quantifiable data can account for better route and service planning by the bus company. For instance, information on the ridership of each route can allow for a more equitable allocation of operating buses, while understanding the travel trends of bus users could prove helpful in the adjustment of bus frequencies.

Also, 125 respondents (53.0%) suggested the implementation of an automatic voice announcement system in Rapid Penang buses. Much like the LRT, MRT and monorail services in KL and the Klang Valley, automatic voice announcers would inform passengers of the arrival at each stop along the bus route. This would be particularly helpful to passengers who are unfamiliar with bus routes, to tourists and to those with visual impairment.

Another initiative that should be considered is increasing the functionality and interactivity of existing mobile applications launched by Rapid Penang, such as the Rapid Penang Bus Journey Planner and Penang Intelligent Traffic and Transport System (PiTTs). A comprehensive and well-developed application that provides real-time information on matters such as traffic conditions and the estimated arrival time of buses would make journey planning much smoother and increase convenience for public transport users, thereby encouraging ridership. At present, only 26 out of 236 respondents (11.0%) from our survey have used these applications by Rapid.

Fortunately for concerned commuters, the aforementioned aspects are recognised by Rapid Penang to be in need of improvement. According to Mohd Azmi Abdullah, chief operating officer of Rapid Penang, the company is in the midst of introducing the Bus Integrated System (BIS), a resource optimisation initiative to improve the efficiency and reliability of its bus operations.

Mechanisms outlined under BIS include the Passenger Information System (digital displays of bus arrival times which, according to the Penang Island City Council [MBPP], have already been installed at 32 bus stops across the state), automated fare collection that employs both cash and cashless systems, passenger announcement system on board as well as better developed journey planning mobile applications. These efforts are in line with the mission of the government to ease Penang public transportation woes and work towards seamless connectivity within the state.

More Buses, More Drivers, More Roads

On the issue of waiting time, 154 respondents (65.3%) believe that the number of buses in operation should be increased to improve bus frequencies. This can also help solve the issue of overcrowded buses on certain routes or during peak hours. In fact, many of our respondents believe that this is a more preferable option compared to increasing bus sizes, which only received slightly over 30% in support.

An ensuing problem that has to be tackled should the number of buses be increased would be ensuring that we have sufficient human resources to meet the increased demand. “With the addition of CAT services, we already have difficulty engaging enough bus drivers, which impacted the schedule and frequency of bus operations in existing routes,” says Chief Minister Chow Kon Yeow, who is also state exco for land matters and land development, transport, and information.

Another pertinent issue that would arise as a result of increasing the number of buses is the need for more strategic roads. From our survey, 199 respondents (84.3%) expressed their belief that more strategic roads are needed to reduce commute time.

“The problem we are facing now is that we do not have enough roads,” says Joshua Woo, former councillor of the Seberang Perai Municipal Council under the traffic management and urban planning committees. “Given that the current car modal share in Penang is over 96%, and to close off existing lanes and dedicate them solely for public buses would choke current road users, the construction of more strategic roads would complement an increase of public transport and improve the overall quality of public transit. Cities such as Zurich, Singapore and Stockholm attribute their superior public transportation services to good road networks.”

Conversely, Rapid Penang's Mohd Azmi believes that having dedicated bus lanes would decrease the number of private vehicles on the road, which would then improve the service level of public buses and increase ridership.

Additional Infrastructural Improvements

Another suggestion that received considerable support from our respondents (149, 63.1%) is to build sheltered walkways or underground stations. As mentioned, many passengers consider the weather a crucial factor in deciding whether or not to use public transport. Sheltered walkways or underground stations would add to the convenience of taking the bus. Heavy rain, thunderstorms or scorching weather tend to discourage people from taking public transportation.

In an effort to make accessing bus stops and terminals more convenient, MBPP has been upgrading walkways in key areas based on universal design, most notably along Jalan Kelawai in Pulau Tikus. The design prioritises connectivity to bus stops and the surrounding destinations; the upgrading of the walkways is being carried out in stages.

On safety at bus stops and terminals, 122 respondents (51.7%) highlighted the need to ensure that passengers feel safe while waiting for buses, especially at night. This could be achieved by upping safety measures, such as installing CCTV cameras or increasing police patrol.

In light of this, the state has in fact started yearly upgrades on our bus stops. Since 2015 MBPP along with Parisign Media have built new bus stops or upgraded existing ones using stainless steel and tempered glass, in compliance with universal designs. Furthermore, discussions of possibly installing CCTVs are also underway. At the same time, MBPP is also looking into installing WiFi at these bus stops.

Improving Last-Mile Connectivity

To maximise its comprehensiveness in the state, 112 respondents (47.5%) recommended authorities to extend the coverage of Rapid Penang bus services into new areas, especially housing or residential areas. In realising that, feeder buses that are smaller than the conventional buses can be adopted to better suit the generally more narrow roads in these areas.

Using the Hub-and-Spoke Model, the feeder buses would gather passengers from various points along the feeder route in a locality hub, after which they would be dropped off at a centralised bus stop on the main route. In doing so, passengers would no longer need to travel on foot to cover the distance from home to the nearest bus stops, as they have the option of boarding feeder buses that circulate their housing areas. Solving the prevalent “first mile/last mile” (FM/LM) problem would make public buses more accessible and, in turn, encourage public transport ridership in Penang.

On whether smaller feeder buses are feasible, Rapid Penang responded in the affirmative, but also noted that this depends heavily on ridership patterns.

Rapid Penang adopts Scania buses that incorporate prioritised seating zones.

Feeder bus services in Penang are currently in the form of the newly launched CAT shuttle service, operating on 12 routes in the state. In our survey, 181 respondents (76.7%) expressed their belief that CAT will reduce traffic congestion and make commuting more pleasant. As the shuttle service is still new, public response will need time to precipitate.

The transferring system with CAT buses could, however, entail a longer journey time for passengers. Chow attributed this to Rapid Penang cutting down on the number of buses plying routes covered under CAT as a deliberate strategy to minimise duplication of services. “We need to look into how we can improve CAT services without compromising existing services on trunk routes,” he says.

Operational Modifications

Woo expressed concern over the centralised ownership of public transport operations in the state under Prasarana Malaysia. Understanding that Penang’s demography encompasses people of diverse societal groups, he stressed the need for a decentralised public transport policy, where different bodies share the portfolio of public transportation in Penang. The government could explore bus-contracting models employed in Singapore and Australia, where several bus operators bid for the right to operate bus routes in separate corridors under a competitive tendering process. This decentralised policy can foster artificial competition between bus operators to improve service quality for commuters and secure operation ownership in their respective corridors.

There is also a suggestion to adopt an open data system, where relevant information such as operational data, maintenance schedule and driving report are made accessible to the public. Its proponents believe that this would increase the accountability of bus operators and enable problems to be more easily identified for rectification.

Sailing Across the Strait

Public transportation in Penang would not be complete without the inclusion of the iconic ferries that ply daily across the Penang Strait between the Raja Tun Uda Ferry Terminal in Weld Quay and the Sultan Abdul Halim Ferry Terminal in Butterworth. Penang boasts the oldest ferry service in Malaysia, which began operating in 1894. It was the only cross-strait link between the island and the mainland for many decades, until the opening of the Penang Bridge in 1985.

With the bridge, ferry ridership plummeted. This is reflected in our survey, in which 132 out of 236 respondents (55.9%) conceded to seldom or never taking the ferry to travel between the island and mainland.

The unsatisfactory ridership of ferries also led to what is believed to be a RM700 loss per trip incurred by ferry operators, with annual losses ballooning to about a whopping RM18mil.

Reception of ferry services in Penang is largely mixed. As many as 121 respondents (51.3%) believe that the ferries in operation are still in good condition, while 119 (50.4%) are pleased with the waiting time for ferry arrivals.

Earlier this year, ferry services in the state were acquired by Prasarana Malaysia from the Penang Port Commission, and subsequently rebranded as Rapid Ferry. This acquisition is believed to hold potential to greatly improve the efficiency and competitiveness of ferry services for Penangites, and allow for an integration of bus and ferry services.

In August, the Ministry of Transport announced that Prasarana Malaysia has plans to allocate RM90mil under the Penang Ferry Services Development Plan to upgrade the Penang ferry service terminal facilities, purchase new ferries and refurbish the six existing ferries in operation. In addition, Chow also proposed working closely with Prasarana Malaysia to introduce catamarans and water taxis as an upgrade to our water transportation.

Looking Ahead

The increasing emphasis on public mobility compounded with the current general operations of public transportation in Penang has raised questions on the need for additional modes of public transport, especially LRTs, in the near future. An overwhelming majority of 205 respondents (86.9%) from our survey concurred with that proposition, believing that LRTs, on top of existing Rapid bus services, will enhance public mobility, encourage public transport ridership and reduce the persistent issue of traffic congestion.

Accordingly, the proposed George Town-Bayan Lepas LRT line as well as the Pan Island Link 1 (PIL 1) highway are two components of the Penang Transport Master Plan (PTMP) that have become the focus of the state in enhancing mobility.

On the future of public transportation in Penang, Chow says the state is looking into realising a multimodal system that encompasses buses, rails, taxis and other modes of transport, as in cities such as Zurich, Paris and Prague. “In the PTMP, bus services would cater to last-mile connectivity from the stations to the destinations. They would serve as a complement to the rail network, as is the case in many other cities.”

However, the PTMP has also garnered much controversy, with many opposing it due to concerns about its feasibility (given the high cost for construction, operation and maintenance) as well as implications towards public transport ridership and the environment.

“The efficacy of institutional measures to promote public transport ridership can accrue only when we have a developed public transport infrastructure in place to ensure quality services,” Chow posited.

In line with the Penang 2030 action plan, Chow stated that one of the key initiatives of the state government will be to invest in the built environment, including public transport and road networks, stressing that these are “key ingredients to enhance quality of life and support socio-economic development”.

As heated debates and exchanges on the PTMP continue between different sides, the underlying denominator remains the same: public mobility should be a priority, and as Penang strives towards more sustainable development, the urgency of attaining a more efficient and comprehensive public transport system becomes more apparent.

Ernest Mah Herh Sun is a final year English for Professionals major at Universiti Sains Malaysia, Penang. A member of the varsity debating team, he loves singing, enjoys speaking, and dreams of becoming the Malaysian Ryan Seacrest.

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