ART suggestion lacks proven track record — Joshua Woo

JANUARY 9 — My previous article posits seven reasons why the Light-Rail Transit (LRT) beats the Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) and Autonomous Rail Rapid Transit (ART) as a better public transport option for Penang. Lim Mah Hui and Jackie Moey have written responses that I wish to engage as my contribution to the on-going public discourse on this matter.[1]

Regrettably, I can only address the more repeated counterpoints to keep this reply brief.

Ambiguous ART

The 12th InnoTrans — the world’s largest rail industry fair — was held at Berlin in September last year. There were 3,062 exhibitors from 61 countries, with more than 400 rail-related innovations displayed.[2] Industrial giants showcase their most advanced, top technology at InnoTrans. And curiously, the ART was not there.

CRRC, the maker of ART, had an elaborate booth and launched their track-based train Cetrovo at InnoTrans, but nowhere was the trackless ART seen.[3] This has prompted internationally-renowned public transport expert Graham Currie to wonder, “Why would they not bring that along?”[4]

To many in the industry, the ART is basically a tram that moves on tyres, like a bus. The founding director of the Institute of Transport and Logistics Studies at University of Sydney, David Hensher, calls the ART a “BRT system.” To him, the branding of ART as “trackless tram” is a “clever use” to give “emotional attachment” to the tram, while it is practically a bus.[5]

This is not surprising as the label “Autonomous Rail Rapid Transit” is also a reference used by CRRC for self-driving buses. (https://www.facebook.com/CRRCGC/posts/1738249766202425)

The ambiguous ART has also been examined by other transport experts. Public transport researcher Zhuxiao Wong had written to “debunk some misconceptions” about the ART, responding to inflated claims and potentials of the technology. Wong’s list of misconceptions about the ART are the claims that it is a “revolutionary technology,” “have better ride quality,” and a “game-changing” system.[6]

After considering the ART, the New South Wales government is of the view that it is an “untested technology” and not a “viable option” for mass public transport.[7] Graham Currie, who wondered over the absence of ART at InnoTrans, says that the information about ART is “speculative data” that needs another 10 years of test to ascertain its feasibility.[8] In other words, the ART still lacks a track record.

Unlike the LRT, a transit system being used in many parts of the world and tested through time, the ART has not achieved consensus among transport experts as a viable option.

Urban mobility expert from University of Adelaide Jennifer Bonham is cautious to recommend ART just because it is cheap, “I certainly wouldn’t invest straight away based on the cost savings because they are still only assumptions.”[9]

Despite its ambiguity, proponents of ART insist that the state government should buy the unproven system for Penang – treating the rest of us as guinea pigs for their “emotional attachment” to trams?

Diversion from on-ground public transport risk

Lim and Jackie have raised questions over the construction of highways in view of road accidents. They state that the concern for accidents should stop new highways from being built, as there are more accidents on the road than accidents caused by buses and trams.[10] This is nothing but a diversion.

The main issue is deciding among modes of public transport for Penang, not deciding between public transport and building roads. As shown previously, LRT has the least risk compared to BRT and ART, and therefore it is a safer public transport mode.

Bringing in statistics of road accidents does not make LRT more accident-prone than BRT and ART. Neither does it make BRT and ART less accident-prone.

The fact remains that LRT is safer than the other two as it has zero chance of colliding with road vehicles. In fact, it gives us more reason to abandon BRT and ART precisely because they use roads which make them accident-prone.

Diversion is neither constructive nor illuminating. We should keep to the topic when discussing which mode of public transport should be implemented, and not divert to other things such as the pros and cons of building highways.

When the disadvantages of one’s preferred mode of public transport are revealed one should explain or make counter-claims over the revelation. Diverting to other topics is a desperate attempt to dismiss the revelation.

Free up road space?

Lim and others often claim that buses and trams free up road space. Public transport — be it LRT, BRT, or ART — do not free up road space. It is private car users who free up road space when they do not use their vehicles.

Likewise, a bus or tram system with dedicated lane does not take away cars from roads. They take away roads from cars.

Taking away roads from the current condition of 97 per cent private car usage will only frustrate private car users and also bus and tram users as their journey will be disrupted by intersection, junctions, and pedestrian crossings. One just needs to visit Kota Tua in Jakarta to experience this.[11]

Doesn’t the LRT elevated track take up road space too? That depends on the alignment design, where to build the supporting beams with minimal reduction of road space. This option is not available for dedicated bus/tram lanes unless new roads are built.

Besides, I cannot see how choking the 97 per cent of current road users is democratic and fair, as believed by Lim. He wrote that, “Road space should be shared with all users — public transport, cyclists and pedestrians.” As far as I know, there is no banning of buses, cyclists and pedestrians from using the roads.

It is undeniable that certain roads are user-friendlier to one group than others, yet to write as if bus passengers, cyclists, and pedestrians are banned from using the roads is rhetorical rather than factual.

Besides, if most road users are private car users, then the most democratic way is to allocate more space for them, since 97 per cent is by any count very representative of the people.

Any policy change to public mobility should therefore take very serious consideration of the plight of the 97 per cent. The focus of public mobility should be to educate and encourage. Not by choking the traffic to force private vehicle users to use public transport, which is authoritarian.

Better mobile option with least traffic disruption, more comfortable ride experience, and safer mode of transportation must be made available to incentivise more private vehicle users to free up road space.

That option was definitely not the one missing at InnoTrans 2018.

* This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of Malay Mail.

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