Jeju and Penang: Two Islands, But Two So Very Different Bus Rides

loading Main street of Jeju Island, South Korea.

JEJU, PRESENT DAY: The electronic readout at the chrome and glass sheltered bus stop tells me my bus is two minutes away. The bus stop provides free Wi-Fi, so I log on to the public transport app Kakao and watch my bus animated in real-time, moving across the map. I follow its progress and see other buses moving around the nearby streets, like ants each following their designated trails, rectangular ants with bus numbers painted on their backs.

I look up from my phone and there is my bus, paused at the traffic lights, exactly where the app says it should be. The electronic display at the bus stop announces the bus’ arrival. Moments later the bus pulls up. I can pay with cash, or swipe a transport card. With the card I could get a small discount and transfer twice to other buses within a delay of 40 minutes for each transfer, at no extra cost. But I’ve just arrived on the island and this bus goes directly to my destination, so I opt for cash. The fare is fixed at a flat rate, the amount shown on a small electronic display. I put the notes and coins into the slot, then find my seat.

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Each seat comes equipped with a seatbelt. I look around and mimic my fellow passengers, buckling up, just like the notice on the back of the seat in front of me says I should. At least I assume that’s what it says. In any case the diagram makes it clear.

There’s free Wi-Fi onboard too, so I keep the app open, tracking my progress virtually, matching the streets and junctions and bridges to the ones I can see outside. As we move out past the suburbs I zoom out and switch to satellite view. The same fields and greenhouses I can see outside the window, are displayed, but from above, the numbered bus icon still following the road that hugs close to the island’s coast towards my destination, which the app informs me will take another 32 minutes to reach.

There’s a video display at the front of the bus, just behind the driver’s seat. It shows the upcoming stops and gives a countdown to the next stop. Each stop is announced with a recorded announcement too. The times displayed on the screen match those displayed on the app. The bus reaches every stop at exactly the time forecasted, partially because traffic is light, but mostly because there are no other vehicles in the designated bus lane.

A screenshot of the public transport
app Kakao.

The satellite view of the writer's bus journey to his hotel.

Between the stops, the video display shows short and entertaining public service announcements. The production values are high and the scenarios simple enough that the meaning is clear even if you don’t understand Korean: don’t block emergency access for ambulances or fire brigades; stop at pedestrian crossings and allow people to cross; separate household waste and use the public recycle bins found in each neighbourhood; and don’t park cars in bus lanes or at bus stops. That most of these are directed at motorists is telling.

I use the bus’ free Wi-Fi to access Street View and rehearse the short walk from the bus stop to the hotel I’ve booked. Even though I have never been here before, I know exactly when I am close to my destination. I take my time wrapping up with scarf and hat and overcoat, ready to leave the heated warmth of the bus and face the cold winter weather outside.

It wasn’t always this way. In 2017 Jeju’s local government decided to improve the island’s bus service and make it a realistic and affordable, and above all a convenient alternative for road users, whether residents or visitors. Jeju also boasts a large number of electric vehicles, whether hire-cars or privately owned.

It has long been understood that road use is affected by what is known as “induced demand”. In simple terms, road use increases proportionately to road capacity, or as Walt Disney famously allegedly said: build it and they will come.

It’s low season, and even though the flight from KL was completely full, relatively speaking there aren’t that many tourists on the island. But if the light traffic and the number of locals using the bus are any indication, three years on the changes to Jeju’s transport system appear to have made an impact.

Penang Island and Jeju have several things in common. The towns tend to be coastal, with fishery still playing a relatively important, if somewhat diminishing, role. Tourism, both domestic and international, is an important economic sector. Both islands have a largely undeveloped upland interior, though Jeju’s ancient volcanic Hallasan is more than double the height of Penang Hill, and Jeju’s Hallabong oranges are nearly as iconic as Balik Pulau’s durians, and just as economically important to the local farmers.

But Jeju is significantly larger than Penang, though if taking mainland Penang into account, Jeju is less than double the size. Jeju’s population is roughly half of Penang Island’s, with a population density of just one-sixth of Penang State’s.

Given a context where distances are greater and with fewer potential users per square kilometre, it seems counterintuitive that Jeju would have a more efficient public transport system. Usually a higher population density is ideal for public transport, with more potential users, and more traffic issues to be solved.

Yet despite starting with some relative disadvantages, compared to Penang, Jeju transformed its public transport system into a model of what can be achieved. Furthermore, it did this without making crippling investments.

It has long been understood that road use is affected by what is known as “induced demand”. In simple terms, road use increases proportionately to road capacity, or as Walt Disney famously allegedly said: build it and they will come. In short, adding more roads increases traffic.

It turns out that the converse is true as well. By using existing infrastructure, road use was curbed by the simple act of making designated bus lanes, meaning less road space for other vehicles, providing a disincentive for people to use cars, while adding a pull factor to that push by making buses faster now that they no longer have to deal with the same degree of traffic. And this isn’t just something that has been proven in Jeju. It is a simple model of road use and designation that has been successfully replicated all over the planet.

The next step was to increase the number of buses, adding an additional 267 buses to the existing fleet of 530, to make a new total of 797 buses plying Jeju’s roads – almost double the number of buses operated by Rapid Penang. This increased frequency reduced waiting times, meaning passengers reach their destination faster, and in air-conditioned or heated (depending on the season) comfort. Bus routes were strategised, with some new routes targeting popular destinations that had previously been unreachable by public transport, such as the trailheads to many of Jeju’s popular hikes.

The bus numbering system was simplified too, and buses were colour-coded to make them more easily identifiable. Express buses that made fewer stops were added, again, allowing passengers to reach their destinations faster. Bus shelters were improved, some even being heated during the cold winter months, providing mobile phone charging stations, in addition to Wi-Fi and reliable real-time information. And of course, there is the very useful, almost indispensable, Kakao App that I used to make my way around Jeju.

Road use in Jeju was curbed by the simple act of making designated bus lanes.

I arrive at the Penang International Airport. There is no clear signage for public transport. I could take a taxi, or use a ride hailing app, or give in to any of the many touts who greet me as I make my way through the Arrivals area, but I want to take the bus. I ask around. Someone points vaguely towards the outside. There is a bus parked at the stop, but I have to cross a line of traffic to reach it. No one stops at the pedestrian walkway. The bus stays parked for a long time. There is a bench to sit on, but it is fully in the sun, so I wait with the other potential passengers, hiding in the shade beside the traffic, fending off more taxi touts and coughing at their clouds of cigarette smoke and the exhaust fumes.

A bus driver appears, mounts the bus, closes the door and starts the engine. I knock on the door to attract his attention. The information of the times displayed at the bus stop is clearly inaccurate. It says there is a bus every 20 minutes. This is patently untrue. The bus driver ignores me and every other frustrated would-be traveller who tries to attract his attention.

Another bus appears. Passengers get off. “George Town?” I call out to this new driver. He shakes his head and points over his shoulder. “Next one.”

The next one arrives, eventually. I’ve been waiting almost three quarters of an hour. Most of the other people who started waiting with me have left, following the touts, or calling for cars via phone apps. The bus is almost full. I am hot and sweaty after my long wait. I am not the only one. Twenty minutes into the journey I finally get a seat. It takes more than an hour to travel the 20km from the airport to Komtar. Later, I message my experience to the apparently unironically-named Rapid Penang’s Facebook page. I never receive a reply.

Update: On June 18 Rapid Bus officially launched its data sharing through Google Maps for users to efficiently plan their journeys. This application will soon be expanded to include Rapid Penang and Rapid Kuantan as well.

Marc de Faoite is a freelance writer and editor based in Penang. Originally from Dublin, he has lived in Malaysia since 2007.

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