Asian cities have a long way to go in making their street and transport systems barrier-free to invite all people to participate in urban life.
To go from Kuala Lumpur’s Central Market to the National Mosque, after exiting the market I cross a large parking lot and two crowded pedestrian crossings under an inner-city highway with bus stations before I pass a bridge over the Klang River. Then I take the escalator up to the overpass pedestrian connection from the bridge to the rail station, stroll from its northern entrance down to one platform, and amble to the south end of the platform until I reach the main building of the rail station. Passing through the dim-lighted building to exit onto a six-lane road, I head to a nearby roundabout with no indicated pedestrian crossing, jump over two islands and four roundabout entrances/exits, and walk up the stairs to finally reach the mosque.
What should be a 400-meter breeze becomes tiring 1-kilometer urban infrastructure jungle trekking. Taking the suggested Google Maps routes would have even tripled the distance. On top of the excruciatingly hot and humid weather of Kuala Lumpur in March, such routes render the pedestrian experience of a city’s tourist highlights an endeavor fit only for the most dedicated urban explorers.
The walk was not pleasant. It was not friendly to infants, the elderly, or persons with disabilities. There were numerous height differences on all kinds of basement, ground floors, and above street level connections. Signage to the mosque was spotty and only partially informative. Lighting was scattered. Fences, barriers, and other pedestrian-hostile street furniture were all abundant.
It comes with a certain irony that the difficult walk from the market to the mosque passed through all standard means of public transport options: bus, light rail and commuter rail. But there is an important message here – shifting from private transport to other modes includes not only motorized public transport, but also bicycling and walking.
Kuala Lumpur has struggled for decades with rising private transport, which is used four times more than public transport. Although there have been plans to actively address this problem, what stills receives too little attention in urban planning is the relatively short distance that citizens and visitors walk from point A to point B – let it be from Central Market to National Mosque, from the front door of a home to a supermarket, or from a commuter station to an office.
Plans to integrate functionally interlinked urban and peri-urban areas in metropolitan regions—such as the Klang Valley (Kuala Lumpur), Jingjinji (Beijing, Tianjin, Hebei), or Taipei–Keelung—work best when the small starts, in-betweens, and ends of people’s trips receive appropriate planning and design attention. The uninviting nature of these crucial junctions for integrating different transport modes can inhibit the overall functionality of a transport system. Besides, they add to a lack of visual attraction, which has resulted in blighted urban areas in many rapidly developing cities in Asia.
What we need is human-scale design of urban infrastructure to create cities for people. Yes, road traffic flows are important to keep a time-based service economy running, but a local government should also plan and design with its citizens in mind. If a sense of place can be created, residents turn to their neighborhoods and develop a sense of belonging, caring, and engaging. Visitors feel welcome to stay and interact, eat local food and buy products from traders and manufacturers. An eye for urban design details can contribute to flourishing local economies.
At the same time, a pedestrian-friendly urban design also provides inclusive infrastructure. Asian cities still have a long way to go in making their street and transport systems barrier-free to invite all people to participate in urban life. There is no need for additional fences and CCTV. Residents and visitors in abundant numbers make sure that places are lively during the day and safe at night, as long as street surfaces are pedestrian-friendly, lights provide good visibility instead of insecurity, and furniture, signage, and greening express to people that these are places to explore, rest, and enjoy.