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Making Cities Work
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Hong Kong vs. Singapore
The Competition Heats Up
A Comparison
Different Lifestyles

A devil of a job in the City of Angels

Jam Today

overall rank: 6

country: Malaysia

population: 1,080,000

snapshot: The City at a Glance

Penang people like to think of their city as a little bit of serendipity. It has one of the finest collections of 19th-century heritage buildings in Southeast Asia. It has hills for quick getaways, swimming off the west coast beaches and it is cosy without being parochial. Store manager Mary Choo has been feeling less kindly about her hometown recently. When the traffic backs up, it takes her at least an hour to drive the 12 kilometers downtown (while Georgetown is the built-up center, Penang island is usually regarded as one community).

In this former colonial port of one million people, life is less frenetic than in Kuala Lumpur. But Malaysia's rapid development has also had an impact here. Hills that offer cool respite have lost significant green cover to overzealous building, leading to mud slides and, recently, flash floods. In the past month, several hundred people had to be evacuated, prompting the construction of a channel to divert the flow from a major river. Garbage pile-ups are an emerging issue. But the biggest gripe is congestion. After eight years of 10% growth in private cars, there are now more than 400 vehicles per kilometer of road at peak times.

Early this year, the city came up with an idea to reduce car use for short city trips: a free bus service circling the major business locations, government offices and tourist sites. "It is the best project to have come out of the municipal council," says Dr. Choong Sim Poey, who heads a citizens' transport lobby. It would not only reduce congestion but also air and noise pollution. Except the shuttle plan is in a jam too. Federal authorities overseeing public transport have yet to approve it.

Residents like Dr. Choong find the hold-up frustrating, especially when the Penang state government is ready to fund the service. Says traffic planner Ganesh Rasagam: "Decision-makers in KL are not always aware of the local situation." Some see this as a case for more autonomy. City governments should have greater say over matters affecting their day-to-day functioning, says state councilor Toh Kin Woon. "It will allow them to be more proactive in improving public services."

The municipal council is not short on ideas. Campbell Street, a traditional shopping area, is getting a makeover, with limits on vehicle entry, widened pavements, street furniture and plenty of trees. If the experiment takes off, says town planning director Tan Thean Siew, residents can expect more pedestrian-friendly town squares. Of course, you have to allow for bias when the locals insist "Penang is the best place to live." But it is undoubtedly a community with verve. The traffic can be fixed, too, Rasagam says - "if we have the right sorts of policies."

- By Irene Liow

Snapshot: The City at a glance

City AverageRank
Overall Score66526
Average Income US$12,2858,76311
State Educational Spending Per Cap/$147.42200.2217
a Ratio of House Price to Income5.7244
Hospital Beds per 1,0004062
Dust/Suspended Particles(ug/m3)110*240.7322
Vehicles per KM City Roads66*224.627
Criminal Cases per 10,0003.9*814
TV Sets per 1,000230241.6916

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a = Average house price divided by average annual income.
b = Household income.
c = Based on household income.
d = Officially, land cannot be bought or sold.
e = National figure.
f = U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Pollutants Standards Index.
g = Air Pollutant Index.
h = Per 100 families
i = Per 1,000 families
j = Per 75,000 people.
k = National figure, TV sets per 1,000 people.
m = % of households with TV sets.
n = Measured in Parts per Million (ppm).
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