Give pedestrians more room

KUALA Lumpur will be hosting the World Urban Forum (WUF) 2018 next month. This year's meeting of the world conference on urban issues is themed "Cities 2030, Cities for all: Implementing the New Urban Agenda".

This theme places cities at the centre of achieving sustainable development goals. Liveable, pedestrian-friendly and vibrant cities are part of these efforts.

In preparation, Dewan Bandaraya Kuala Lumpur (DBKL) has started the pilot project of marking out separate bicycle lanes around business and tourist hot-spots in the city centre. It is also encouraging its employees to use bicycles as a means of transport where possible.

Besides promoting cycling, local authorities should place emphasis on the importance of walkability in city centres. Walking can replace the usage of cars, especially for short distances.

This will reduce the carbon footprint and traffic congestion. To accomplish this objective, local authorities should make sure that there are pleasant and safe walkways to encourage people to walk, especially to schools, markets and convenience stores.

Safety is a real issue when considering biking or walking in cities. With more cars on urban roads each day, crossing them can be a pedestrian's nightmare.

Many overhead bridges are badly located and not friendly at all to senior citizens, physically handicapped and parents with babies and small children.

The same goes for zebra crossings. They are meant for pedestrians to cross the roads safely. The contrasting colour combination of its alternating dark and white stripes is meant to alert motorists to be cautious of pedestrians crossing the road to avoid any accident.

A zebra crossing typically gives pedestrians special right of way when they step in the crossing.

However, in Malaysia, one cannot assume that cars will stop and respect the rights of pedestrians. It is much safer for one to look at both sides of the crossing before walking as there are motorists who are not law-abiding.

In fact, there are those who seem to take pleasure in scaring the wits out of pedestrians, as if to proclaim, "How dare you intrude into my space!"

Additionally, a sprinkling of overhead bridges, zebra crossings and pedestrian malls does not make a pedestrian-friendly city. The prioritising of walking, including the rights and needs of pedestrians, must permeate every aspect of urban development.

There are many examples of pedestrian-friendly cities in the world. Many of these are the older cities of Europe, including Barcelona in Spain, Bologna in Italy and Paris in France.

Some of the most economically vibrant cities in the United States, including New York, San Francisco and Boston, are considered very walkable.

Often, it is reasoned that Malaysia's hot and wet climate does not encourage walking. This is just an excuse.

With appropriate urban design, modern technology and planting of suitable trees along roads, we can think of ways to provide adequate shade and protection for walking. After all, friendly cities are man-made, not natural phenomena.

In Barcelona, the famous Las Ramblas, even though a busy street accommodating cars and public transit, is designed to provide shade and areas for biking, walking, and street-side cafés.

In Bologna, the streets are built in such a way that the centre lanes are for vehicles while both sides of the lanes are bounded and covered pedestrian arcades which are the integral parts of the buildings lining the streets.

Malaysians do not have to visit Bologna to understand the attraction of arcaded pedestrian walkways.

Shophouses in cities here that were built during the colonial period have five-foot ways or "kaki-lima" that provide shade from the sun and rain.

Unfortunately, many of these shop houses have been demolished and replaced by so-called modern buildings that do away with shaded five-foot ways.

Many of the remaining five-foot ways are used as display areas or work spaces or parking areas for motorcycles, leaving little room for pedestrians. We should be protecting such architectural amenities in our cities.

It is possible and desirable to design city streets that are not only pedestrian-friendly but also a joy to walk. At the very least, every primary city centre street should have paved sidewalks, pleasant landscaping and adequate shading, good street lighting and safe crossing facilities at regular intervals.

"Walking is man's best medicine," said Hippocrates in around 400BC and this still holds true today, particularly in our rapidly growing cities. The objectives of the World Urban Forum should reinforce the notion that prioritising healthy, safe, vibrant and walkable cities will only provide more benefits in the long run.

Datuk Dr Goh Ban Lee is interested in urban governance, housing and urban planning. Comments: