Being a pedestrian in central Kuala Lumpur

I spent a few days in Kuala Lumpur last week. While travelling I was reading a terrific book, Kuala Lumpur and Putrajaya : negotiating urban space in Malaysia,1 by Ross King, a professorial fellow at Melbourne University. I had been in KL (as everyone calls it) several times since the 1990s (I was there on September 11, 2001) and had always found the geography of the place a little mystifying. Professor King makes things clearer. I’m simplifying his argument unfairly, but his vision of a city whose form has been determined by several quite distinct cultural and political forces explains a great deal. These forces include a century of British colonialism of course; but also immigrant Chinese economic energy—and a preference for high-density shophouses; Malay resentment—and a preference for low-density housing; and the aesthetic choices of several successive Malaysian prime ministers in the years since independence, who were almost entirely responsible for the creation of Putrajaya, Malaysia’s new (and still rather empty) capital something like 30 km south of KL.

Professor King deals only in passing with aspects of life in KL that are an issue in cities everywhere, for example, the relationship between cars and everything else that moves. This is an area in which I have an interest, and it’s also an area that figures prominently in on-line tourist reports on KL, which seem to be dominated by descriptions of the difficulty that car traffic creates for walking there. These reports include “Walking in Kuala Lumpur—are you mad?”, “Kuala Lumpur–is this the most pedestrian-unfriendly city in the world?”, and “Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, a pedestrian-impossible city”. There is also quite a substantial—and somewhat less irateacademic literature on this subject—click here2 and here3  for examples.

Walking under the Monorel in the Bukit Bintang area. A somewhat typical, messy but perfectly usable sidewalk. Photo taken 2005.

The difficulty of being a pedestrian is central KL has become an area of concern to the powers-that-be. The Federal Government’s Economic Transformation Programme, which aims to make Malaysia a fully developed country by 2020, notes KL’s pedestrian-unfriendliness. It recommends the establishment of a network of well-maintained walkways.4 Thus far, this has chiefly resulted in repairs to certain sidewalks; a few signs;

Directional signs for pedestrians.

pedestrianization of a few streets;

Covered pedestrianized street in Chinatown.

and the building of a small number of overhead pedestrian facilities, notably between Bukit Bintang and KLCC, two major shopping areas that make up the newer central business district. The latter path is even air-conditioned.

The Bukit Bintang-KLCC walkway.

Work has also begun on the “River of Life” project, which is supposed to create walking paths along the Klang River and two of its tributaries, which divide the old central business district into formerly British and formerly Chinese and Indian sections. This seems like a terrific project to me if only as the area, now difficult to access, contains quite a number of impressive colonial-era buildings. Not much appeared to have been accomplished, however, as of last week.

Along the Klang River in Kuala Lumpur’s old CBD. This area is supposed to get proper walkways. Note the LRT in the distance.

An objective evaluation of conditions for pedestrians in KL might suggest that in this respect (as in many others) KL is in some ways a more modern city than tourist reports imply. Pedestrians in central KL have it pretty good compared with their counterparts in, say, Delhi, Jakarta, and many other Third World cities. The sidewalks in commercial areas are generally crowded. You don’t feel you’re violating local mores in walking on them. (This is not so true, however, around the National Museum and in the parklands west of the Klang, where tourists are more likely to go than locals.) There are plenty of traffic lights, and car drivers generally obey them (motorcyclists not so much). And there are sidewalks along most streets in the central city, which do not seem to be encroached on too often, although they could still use better upkeep.

In other respects, however, pedestrians soon learn that they’re not in, say, Switzerland. For example, as elsewhere in Asia, those on foot sometimes have to wait several minutes for traffic lights to change. This is a deeply irritating—and easily reduceable—annoyance. Even more serious, the chief contributor to pedestrian precariousness in Kuala Lumpur is that drivers of turning vehicles basically never yield to pedestrians. This is perhaps above all a cultural problem, and I don’t know whether even draconian enforcement and steep fines would solve it. For what it’s worth, this is not a concern at all in nearby Singapore, where drivers making turns generally yield to pedestrians much more reliably than they do in, say, American cities. The problem of casual driver aggressiveness is (curiously) not even mentioned in the government reports and newspaper stories on walkability that I’ve seen, which tend to focus on improving the infrastructure rather than changing the culture. Of course, the former might be easier to implement!

It cannot be stressed too much that central KL occupies only a tiny part of the KL urban area (sometimes called the Klang Valley), which now has a population approaching eight million. You really can’t talk about conditions in the central city without considering what it is part of. The statistics are messy and difficult to analyze, but it’s pretty clear that automobile ownership in Malaysia is higher than one would expect on the basis of income alone;5 perhaps half the urban area’s households have access to a vehicle. The KL area is crisscrossed by an unusually substantial network of expressways, on which traffic generally flows fairly well, except when it doesn’t. Traffic jams are thought to be a major problem. I certainly haven’t visited all of KL’s many suburbs but am pretty sure that it’s accurate to say that housing outside the center consists mostly of apartment buildings and what most Americans would call row houses. It is dense by American standards, but it is definitely mostly set up for automobile use nonetheless. The Kuala Lumpur urban area is no model of compact urban development. In an urban area consisting mostly of automobile-oriented suburbs, it’s easy to see why pedestrian comfort in the central city hasn’t been a high priority. There are of course government agencies responsible for planning, but I have the impression that planners in KL (like many of their counterparts elsewhere) spend more time decrying “sprawl” than actually doing anything about it—they just don’t have the power.6

Planning’s one great success has been the establishment of quite an elaborate rail network.

The Monorel passes office buildings, high-rise parking facilities, apartment buildings, and some older structures.

KL’s government decided in the early 1990s to deal with the congestion problem by building rail lines, and (like many other governments at the time) it enlisted the help of private enterprise. Three different rail lines were built: a monorail (called the “Monorel” in Malay); an elevated railway; and an elevated railway with a longish subway section through the central business district. The latter two lines are called “LRT”’s even though they are completely grade-separated. The government also had KTM, the national railway, upgrade suburban railway lines, and it oversaw the construction of a new, genuinely high-speed line to the new Kuala Lumpur International Airport (the “KLIA Ekspres”) and the new capital in Putrajaya (served on the airport line by local trains branded the “Express Rail Link”). All of the suburban rail lines and two of the rapid transit lines come together at KL Sentral, a railroad station and shopping node that’s so bustling that in passing through you might think for a moment that you were in Western Europe or Japan—until you try to walk there (it’s practically impossible).

Inside KL Sentral.

The rail lines aren’t perfect. Because of the way they were built, the lines don’t fit together in an altogether rational way. Transfers among the lines can be awkward and only became free after the government took the system over in 2004 (and there is still no fare integration between the rapid transit lines and the “komuter” railroads). Still, the government has maintained its commitment to improving the rail system. KL Rapid, the government agency responsible for urban railroads, is in the process of building a fourth line that runs from the far northwestern suburbs to the far southeastern suburbs (an isolated segment in the northwest has opened), and two more lines are planned.

KL Rapid LRT, Monorel, Komuter, KLIA Eksores, ERL

Passenger rail lines in the Kuala Lumpur area. Data mostly from OpenStreetMap and the OpenStreetMap files at Metro Extracts, modified considerably. Closely spaced parallel linear features are difficult to show on maps generated with GIS since the lines used to represent them can overlap, and one must choose which comes on top. On this map red lines are shown over orange ones.

Generally, the trains seem to be fairly crowded, but most trains are short, and patronage overall (at something like 400,000 passengers a day) has actually been somewhat disappointing. One factor may be that the trains (except for the line to KLIA) are rather slow. The two “LRT” lines to Putra Heights, a suburb maybe 22 km from the central city, each takes more than hour from central KL.

In other words, while the train system is in some ways quite impressive, the best it could be expected to accomplish in the short run is to make a small dent in Kuala Lumpur’s orientation to the automobile.7 Kuala Lumpur is not going to become a pedestrian paradise any time soon. That doesn’t mean that its central city couldn’t be made a little more pedestrian-friendly, if only to improve conditions for all the train passengers expected to arrive there, not to mention tourists likely to share their thoughts on the Internet.

  1. Ross King, Kuala Lumpur and Putrajaya : negotiating urban space in Malaysia. Honolulu : Asian Studies Association of Australia in association with University of Hawai’i Press2008. (There is also a National University of Singapore edition.)
  2. Zakaria Juriah and Ujang Norsidah, “Comfort of walking in the city center of Kuala Lumpur,” Procedia, social and behavioral sciences, 170 ( 2015), pages 642-652.
  3. N.I. Bahari, A.K. Arshad, and Z. Yahya, “Pedestrians’ perception of the sidewalk facilities in Kuala Lumpur’s commercial areas,” International sustainability and civil engineering journal, volume 1, number 2 (December 2012), pages 28-36.
  4. See also the newspaper story “Pedestrian facilities need upgrading for KL to be world-class city,” The Star online, 12 June 2015.
  5. See, for example, Noresah Modh Shariff, “Private vehicle ownership and transport planning in Malaysia,” International Proceedings of Computer Science and Information Technology, volume 26 (2012); and Jamilah Mohamad and Amin T.Kiggundu, “The rise of the private car in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia : assessing the policy options,” IATSS Research, volume 31, issue 1 (2007), pages 69–77. Malaysia has a per capita GDP is something like $9,800 (as estimated by the United Nations), but at PPP it’s approximately $27,200 (as estimated by the Central Intelligence Agency)—the exchange rate makes many things cheap.
  6. See, for example, Malik Asghar Naeema, “Policies and issues concerning urban sprawl and compact development paradigm adoption in greater Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia”, MIT-UTM Malaysia Sustainable Cities Program, Working papers series (2016).
  7. One source describes an ambitious but surely unrealizable goal of having 50% of the population move by transit in a few years. See Onn Chiu Chuen, Mohamed Rehan Karim, and Sumiani Yusoff, “Mode choice between private and public transport in Klang Valley, Malaysia,” Hindawi, the scientific world journal, volume 2014 (2014), article ID 394587, 14 pages. Other sources report somewhat more modest but still perhaps optimistic goals, for example a 40% modal share by 2030. See, for example, “40% public transport modal share achievable, says SPAD,” The Star online, 12 May 2015.
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One Response to Being a pedestrian in central Kuala Lumpur

  1. Perhaps significant chunks of the centre of Kuala Lumpur will soon be traversable by mall and enclosed walkway – but hopefully not at the expense of providing space for pedestrians on the streets.

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