Spurred on by the wors­en­ing traf­fic con­ges­tion in the Klang Val­ley, Daniel Goh tries to un­der­stand how bet­ter ur­ban plan­ning of the greater Kuala Lumpur area could have made a difference.


Ev­ery day, it takes me 60 min­utes to drive 30km to work and, dur­ing peak hour traf­fic, it goes up to about 90 min­utes one way. Both ways is 180 min­utes and, in an av­er­age five-day work week, that to­tals up to about 15 hours just on the com­mute. So, on av­er­age, each year, I spend 720 hours or just about 30 full days stuck in Klang Val­ley traf­fic. Keeping in mind that the av­er­age adult sleeps about eight hours a day, if you do the math, each year, one-eighth of my wak­ing hours would be spent behind a steer­ing wheel, star­ing at the seem­ingly end­less stream of brake lights that dot the greater Kuala Lumpur city roads. And you won­der why Malaysians con­stantly com­plain about traf­fic.

Ac­cord­ing to the World Bank’s 2015 Malaysia’s Eco­nomic Mon­i­tor re­port, it was es­ti­mated that about five mil­lion peo­ple get stuck in the Klang Val­ley traf­fic ev­ery day. That’s be­tween 270 and 500 mil­lion man­hours wasted and 1.2 bil­lion litres of fuel burned while idling in traf­fic, and it cost the country 1.1 to 2.2 per cent of its GDP in 2014. Con­vinced that this is­sue is not just one man’s ex­is­ten­tial cri­sis, I set out to find the root of this prob­lem and, in my quest to do so, I learnt that the key to not just al­le­vi­at­ing the traf­fic, but to im­prove the qual­ity of life within the greater Kuala Lumpur city area was ur­ban plan­ning.


First, let’s start with the prob­lem. Why is get­ting in and out of KL dur­ing rush hour such a night­mare? To an­swer this ques­tion, I spoke to the Mayor of Kuala Lumpur, Datuk Seri Hj Mhd Amin Nordin Abd Aziz. “We have a pop­u­la­tion of about 1.7 mil­lion peo­ple al­ready in Kuala Lumpur. And ev­ery day, maybe 2.5 to three mil­lion cars stream into KL from neigh­bour­ing Se­lan­gor and up to as far as Negeri Sem­bi­lan for work. About 80 per cent of these cars have only a sin­gle driver in them. So, from 7am to 9am and from 5pm to 7pm, there are sim­ply too many cars in the city.”

Through­out the years, there have been ef­forts to try and al­le­vi­ate the traf­fic, in­clud­ing pro­posed flex­i­ble work­ing hours, along with the widen­ing and re-struc­tur­ing of the roads within the city. But come 2017, we are still faced with the same sit­u­a­tion. A good in­di­ca­tor of why that is comes from a re­port from the Malaysian Au­to­mo­tive As­so­ci­a­tion: where in 1980, a total of 80,420 new pas­sen­ger cars were reg­is­tered in the country, in 2016, that number was 514,545. What’s worse is that, now, as Datuk Seri Amin Nordin says: “We can­not ex­pand the roads any­more. It has reached its max­i­mum ca­pac­ity.”

Com­pound­ing this fact is the low number of public trans­porta­tion users. Of all com­muters within Klang Val­ley, only 22 per cent have adopted this mode of trans­port. Sure, this number is dou­ble what it once was a few years ago but, compared to Sin­ga­pore’s 62 per cent and Hong Kong’s 89 per cent (ac­cord­ing to the World Bank re­port in 2015), we still have a long way to go. At the time this ar­ti­cle was writ­ten, there are nine rail lines ser­vic­ing the greater Kuala Lumpur area but by far the big­gest prob­lem public trans­porta­tion faces is the first and last mile con­nec­tiv­ity.

The en­tirety of this prob­lem can be summed up within the fact that, back in the day, ur­ban plan­ning wasn’t some­thing that was given much at­ten­tion. Where the coun­tries with the most live­able cities take ur­ban plan­ning se­ri­ously, in Malaysia there is a mis­con­cep­tion that ur­ban plan­ners are there to just sub-di­vide the land. Dr Nik­matul Adha Nordin, a co­or­di­na­tor at the De­part­ment of Ur­ban and Re­gional Plan­ning in Univer­sity of Malaya’s Fac­ulty of Built En­vi­ron­ment, ex­plains: “Tra­di­tion­ally, city plan­ning was done by zones. Res­i­den­tial, in­dus­trial, com­mer­cial – ev­ery­thing is sep­a­rated. However, this is not a sus­tain­able way of plan­ning be­cause a city ex­pands and this fur­ther en­cour­ages com­mut­ing from one zone to the next.”

With the lack of proper plan­ning in the be­gin­ning, the cur­rent so­lu­tions to traf­fic con­ges­tion had to be fit­ted in as and when it was nec­es­sary. Like the time the au­thor­i­ties sud­denly changed most of the roads in Kuala Lumpur into one-way streets to try and al­le­vi­ate the con­ges­tion. And look­ing back to that time when the MRT lines were be­ing built above ground, I re­mem­ber it caused mas­sive traf­fic jams around the Klang Val­ley. Wouldn’t it be so much more con­ve­nient to just build it un­der­ground? But “be­cause KL is an old city, there are a lot of utility lines un­der­ground and to build a tun­nel is about triple the cost of going above ground,” says Datuk Seri Amin Nordin. However, he adds con­fi­dently: “We are one of the cities that have the money and ca­pac­ity to im­prove the liv­ing con­di­tions in Kuala Lumpur.”

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