Make walking our way of life again, Please!

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Three-and-a-half million years ago, our human ancestors began to walk on their hind legs, distinguishing themselves for the first time from quadrupeds. Then, 1.5 million years ago, Homo ergaster, the African predecessor of Homo erectus, developed bipedal movements similar to ours today.

In short, we have been walking for millennia.

 

Cities today, however, are built in a way that ignores our fundamental behaviour of movement, walking. People who have ever tried to walk in Malaysian cities and towns, or even those like me who jog around their neighbourhoods, know how awkwardly placed the pedestrian is on our roads and streets. Pedestrians have to keep looking out for, stopping for and avoiding cars. The frustration goes deep; our roads were never designed for walkers in the first place.

At a seminar conducted by Jan Gehl in Kuala Lumpur recently, the renowned urban architect said that development planning today is suffering from “Brasilia Syndrome”, referring to the capital of Brazil built in the mid-20th century by Oscar Niemeyer, the father of modernism in architecture. In other words, townships were planned “5,000m from above ground”. I call it the “god’s eye-view planning”. It is as if someone looked down from the sky on a vacant piece of land, and imagined the sort of view he or she likes to see, and then, similar to constructing little Lego blocks, began putting the buildings and infrastructure together. This is typified by the kind of site plan submitted to the One-Stop Centre of the local planning authority, an aerial plan. The operating word is “order” – you have a great mosaic view of highly organised buildings, parks and streets from the sky.

The problem with such planning is that it ignores the human dimension. The human dimension is more than simply roads connecting one place to another or beautiful topographies. The god’s eye-view kind of planning often overlooks what Gehl called “the People Scale, the city at eye level and at five kilometres per hour”. We design neatly arranged uniform blocks of buildings; housing on one part, the factories on another, the malls on another and the parks on another – a sprawl, in other words. What happens then is we have to build long and wide arterial roads for cars.

It also doesn’t help that the modern city is designed with the market economy in mind, to be filled with as many expensive real estate and commercial activities as possible. Naturally, infrastructures are built to maximise the comfort and convenience of the property-owning upper class. Once again, the focus is back on those with cars. Those who actually still prefer to move on their two feet are delegated to whatever small spaces they can find along the roads otherwise occupied by cars, mobile or stationary.

Kwong Wah Yit Poh.

A road and transport system that encourages people instead of merely vehicle permeability is ultimately a social equaliser. Pedestrians should not become second-class citizens in the city, nor should bikes and buses be secondary to cars. Enrique Peñalosa, the former mayor of Bogotá, the capital of Colombia often cited for its innovative solutions to traffic congestion, puts it beautifully: “A bus with 100 passengers has a right to 100 times more road space than a car with one.”

Today, the Penang state government has committed to build 12.5km of dedicated cycling lanes along the coast on the island, and plans are being made for cycling lanes in Seberang Perai. It has also provided free bus services across the Penang Bridge to the main industrial park in Bayan Lepas during peak hours, from Bukit Mertajam, Juru and Seberang Jaya. Several street greening projects are taking place within the George Town heritage enclave. Every Sunday in George Town, several roads are closed to motorised vehicles. All these measures improve people permeability in the state, thus allowing and encouraging people to walk, cycle or take public transport instead of drive.

Such projects however should not be novelties reserved for tourist sites or industrial areas. Better roads for pedestrians need to be a permanent and prominent feature in planning. To imagine a five kilometres per hour pedestrian traffic would mean imagining vibrant social activities along the pavements, from cafes to cultural activities to community interactions. If our pavements are large enough, our famous Malaysian street hawkers can be accommodated – provided, of course, that they abide strictly by public hygiene regulations and do not obstruct pedestrian traffic. Imagine jogging to work in the morning, along the way buying a packet of your favourite char koay teow or nasi lemak, and then walking back home after work and stopping at one of the street cafes for dinner and a quick drink with friends. This is the human dimension, People Scale in the city.

However, it must also be noted that improvements to pedestrian permeability cannot be accomplished in isolation. There is little, if any, policy for a good public transportation system. On top of that, planning cannot be done effectively because of our over-centralised system of governance. The state and local planning authority, for example, does not have the power to decide where schools, police stations and fire stations should be built. While the local government approves development plans, it has no control over public transport, including bus routes.

Kwong Wah Yit Poh.

For Penang, these important planning decisions are made almost 400km away in Putrajaya. In our highly partisan situation today, even if the state government is willing to pay, it is not able to improve people (or even vehicle) permeability simply because many features towards such improvements lie exclusively under the control of the federal government.

Once, my wife and I hosted a young couple from Hong Kong. They were at first surprised that we each had one car and thought it was a waste of money – neither of them own any private vehicles. But after a couple of days in Malaysia, they realised that no one could go anywhere without their own car. When my wife and I were in Singapore recently, it was interesting to observe how we kept getting answers framed in walkability when we asked for directions. People whom we approached usually said, "That place is x minutes away by foot." In this city, people walk. But in Malaysian cities, those who walk are engaged in a constant life-and-death competition with cars, and the rules of the game are advantageous to the latter.

It is time for Penang and Malaysia to retrace the steps of our ancestors and respect what has been a ubiquitous form of human movement for more than three millennia. Let's make our cities, towns and neighbourhoods safe for walking again.

Steven Sim is the senior executive officer of the Penang Institute and a councillor of the MPSP.



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