THE BEST LAID PLANS
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.”