Jerom Theunissen Photography

Kuala Lumpur

November 24-28

City in Context

Greater Kuala Lumpur (including Kuala Lumpur the federal territory and surrounding municipalities) is a city of great diversity. One can find a Muslim mosque, a Hindu shrine, a Christian church, and a Buddhist temple can be found along the same street in KL. This cultural and ethnic diversity is reflected also in the diversity of urban forms. The center of the city contains some of the most impressive skyscrapers in the world, notably the Petronas Towers and the KL Tower. High-end shopping malls and luxury apartments are popping up all over the place, and construction of high density residential areas and intermediate density, planned estates can be found across the Greater Kuala Lumpur region. 

In terms of transport, new train lines and highways are being constructed across the city in a move to help transport the growing population of 7.2 million in the metro area. Like many other developing cities, the roads are clogged with ever-increasing numbers of cars, exacerbated by low density urban development and the National Automotive Policy.  As of 2014, Malaysia had the third highest rate of car ownership in the world, with 93 percent of households owning a car. Residents of Greater Kuala Lumpur spend more than 250 million hours a year stuck in traffic, or around 20 days a year per person. 

At the root of the traffic problem are land use policies that encourage low density urban development. These raise the cost of delivering efficient urban transport to a population spread over a large area, and are burdensome for equitable urban development.

However, there are efforts underway to improve urban mobility in the city. The Land Public Transport Agency (APAD) is a multi-disciplinary planning and regulatory agency at the national that oversees construction of the MRT and Light Rail Transit (LRT) extensions. Prasarana Malaysia, the largest public transport operator in Kuala Lumpur and the Klang Valley, has taken steps to boost public transport’s share of journeys to 40% by 2030. As of 2014, 17% of commuters in Kuala Lumpur used public transport, compared with 62% in Singapore and 89% in Hong Kong.

But as it currently stands, the city is built for cars, with packed highways dissecting the city. Public transport lines must be expanded and non-existent sidewalks must put people back at the heart of the city’s development. The kind of a future for mobility in the greater Kuala Lumpur region is greatly in flux, and by visiting I was keen to learn about what specifically is being done to enhance urban mobility and livability in Kuala Lumpur.

To read more about the status of sustainable urban transport in Malaysia, click here for an article by UN ESCAP, or here for a World Bank report about transforming urban transport in the country.

Physical Problems of KL Streets and the Impact on Livability: A Case for Better Sidewalks and Bike Lanes

One of the main complaints about mobility inthe city of Kuala Lumpur is the disagreeable first- and last-mile state infrastructure,particularly when it comes to walking and cycling. As one resident has said theexperience of walking around downtown is “unpleasant if not harrowing” and that“walking is a constant obstacle course where if you’re lucky you might get thechance to out-maneuver a sinkhole, cars whizzing by pose a constant life ordeath threat, cursing out pedestrians when they should be the ones slowingdown.”

Unfortunately, the state of affairs is not muchbetter in surrounding towns within greater Kuala Lumpur. Pavements are of unpredictablequality, if they exist at all. For public transport tobecome the first choice for many KL residents, improved and seamless access tostations will need to focus on making the environments surrounding stations (ideallywithin a quarter mile or 400m) safe and enjoyable. The first measure it to redesign, renovateand properly maintain walking infrastructure, including pavements, suitable street furniture and seating, and natural cover toprotect users from adverse weather conditions. Park and ride facilities forbicycles, motorcycles and automobiles offer intermodal connections that canentice more users to use public transportation.

One step KL has taken in recent years to improve access to public transport facilities has been the installation of 11 kilometers of bicycle lanes in early 2018. As part of the 9th World Urban Forum (WUF) in Kuala Lumpur, the city wanted to promote the bicycle as an alternative form of transport that is healthy, cheaper and far more space efficient than the private automobile.

However, implementation and enforcement of these bike lanes is lacking. Walking past the newly installed cycling lanes along Jalan Raja showed various vehicles misusing the bicycle lane as parking spots. Motorcyclists use the cycle lane as their own exclusive lane. Sometimes, the lanes suddenly switch from the left side of the road to the right. Watch the video below by a KL cyclist who highlights the inconsistency of Kuala Lumpur’s new bike lane.

Despite the issuesbike lanes are facing in Kuala Lumpur, thecity’s mayor has committed to making the city more accessible by bike. “They (Europeannations) have mapped out bicycle lanes long ago but we just started, so give ustime to improve,” referring to European ministers that visited KL as part ofthe 9th WUF. The logical follow-up would be to expand the cycleslanes across Greater Kuala Lumpur so that cyclists have a widespread network toaccess. A standard bike lane design guide should be adopted so that consistencycan be achieved across the Greater KL area. Coordination with otherstakeholders such as rail operator Prasarana is proving fruitful; bicycleparking at train stations and allowing bikes to travel on trains are policiesthat are seen in successful cycling cities like Copenhagen. 

For the near future, KualaLumpur may struggle to emulate its sister cities in Scandinavia in theNetherlands. But cities there have been tinkering with policy for decades. Whilethe hurdles are challenging to pursue car-lite mobility such as bike lanes, consistentand coherent policy efforts can create a pay-off that can optimize transport inthe city while delivering a vibrant quality of life. This is codified in the draft Planning and DesignGuidelines for Compact and Livable Development, calling for “…a mix of highintensity uses within 400m radius of rail or bus-based transit station. Publictransportation, walking and cycling are the main modes...” 

Parting Thoughts

Visiting Kuala Lumpur offered a glimpse into mobility and development patterns in the diverse country of Malaysia. The challenges of urban sprawl and traffic congestion can be mitigated by following a polycentric city structure, with concentrated and dense building occurring around transit modes. More transit connections between outlying regions can relieve congestion in the city center, as has been implemented by KL's sister city of Singapore. In terms of livability, better transport conditions can go a long way in improving the built environments of the Klang Valley, especially when planners focus on moving people, not cars. Creating environments friendly to pedestrians, cyclists, and public transport users are the first step in nudging behavior towards the goal of 60% of trips made by public transport. I look forward to revisiting Kuala Lumpur in a few years to see how the city has developed with these principles in mind.

Using Format