Better urban living begins with us

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Yusof picYusof picThe public enjoying the Green Boulevard, which used to be part of the main inner ring road of the city of Hasselt, Belgium.

In the early 1990s, there was a plan from the local government in Hasselt, Belgium to come up with a third ring road to deal with traffic congestion in the city. Just like for many other cities around the world, constructing roads seemed to be the “only” solution – until Steve Stevaert, who was the city’s mayor at the time, came up with an alternative plan.

Stevaert argued that building more roads would not solve the problem; instead, it would actually drive more people and businesses away from the city – thus, the congestion would not be solved. Stevaert also argued that pollution had to be reduced – both in terms of air quality and noise – and that greenery needed to be reintroduced for the benefit of the town, which had a population of 70,000.

After a study was conducted to investigate the issue, the city of Hasselt in 1996 signed a “Mobility Plan” contract with the Flemish government to execute the plans recommended by the study in order to make the city livable again. Improvements were made in various areas, particularly with regards to public transportation (including the provision of reliable, efficient and free bus service), as well as cycling and pedestrian facilities being made safer and more user-friendly for everyone.

The “Mobility Plan” not only shelved the idea of having a third ring road, but actually required the width of the city’s inner ring road to be narrowed down from double-lane dual carriageways into a single carriageway. This space – called the “Green Boulevard” – allowed for safer cycling and pedestrian paths, streetlights, recreational facilities (such as swings, seesaws, and benches), and even space for public arts installations/performances to be held. In line with the overall objectives, people were discouraged from driving, by lowering their dependence on cars (resulting from the provision of better public transportation facilities), as well instituting higher parking charges.

Consequently, the residents of Hassel soon found the city to be more livable – businesses returned in droves; the air was cleaner; the streets became safer – and as a result, the people became much happier.

Compare and contrast that with the situation here in Malaysia. The concept of sustainable mobility is almost unheard of amongst the majority. Our young graduates, for instance, have one thing in mind: to buy a car, very often with the first paycheque. And more often than not, you cannot blame them; local public transportation generally only services certain densely-populated routes – and many less common routes were actually discontinued over the past few decades. For people who need to be on the go, Malaysian public transportation could barely take them from point A to point B – and even getting to point A was an issue.

Year after year, local city dwellers continually find that roads are getting more congested – and their ever rising complaints are hardly entertained. With 22 million registered motorised vehicles on the roads – made up of almost an equal number of motorcycles and private cars – the demand for more interchanges, new roads and highways always increases. Ironically, despite these constant “developments”, traffic flow continues to get from bad to worse; traveling these days means extra minutes and – often times – hours (such as during the annual festive seasons). This is not only an inefficient use of fuel, it also affects people’s pockets directly.

Our collective lifestyles are in actual danger, if Malaysia actively chooses to ignore sustainable mobility and continue the way things are thought about and done. Each year alone, deaths amongst private vehicle users come up to approximately 7,000 people. There are also implications on people’s health; driving culture – unlike walking or cycling – leads to much stress-related diseases, as well as contributes towards obesity. Alas, although direct gas damage – from carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, and chlorofluorocarbons – has affected the environment, most people just don’t give a hoot. Additionally, noise pollution is rarely seen as a problem in Malaysia.

Solutions do not have to be all on a grand scale; if we cannot start big, we can always start small. Imagine the nation’s savings if, for example, one million children who live within a 1km radius walk to school, instead being transported by cars, buses or motorcycles. Often, this short journey takes more than five minutes, due to congestion.

Imagine how much healthier our children would be if they walked an extra 500kms a year, to and from school. Imagine how much less air and noise pollution our neighbourhoods would suffer from if parents stopped sending and picking up their children during the school hours. Imagine how much knowledge and personal enrichment they could acquire as a result of interacting daily with the surrounding environment.

Such a vision, however, can only be realised if there is the policy makers, authorities, and citizens show willingness. Sustainable mobility doesn’t have to begin with billion-ringgit infrastructure projects; smaller efforts – such as providing safe pedestrian walkways or cycling facilities in neighbourhoods that connect to homes, schools, and other public amenities – are, in fact, the better way to start.

When it comes to the good things in life, it is never too late to make a start – and it is only together that we can make a difference.

Yusof Ghani is a researcher with the Malaysian Institute of Road Safety Research.

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