Cities 101: Less cars, more life (Part V)

GoCar’s driving vision is to create sustainable cities by transforming urban mobility. Cities 101, a series by Yan Teh, contextualises this vision within wider urban perspectives. Part V explains why we need to leave behind private vehicle ownership and reclaim the city for people.

In submitting to the reign of privately owned cars, we forfeit precious space and walkability; we sentence our streets to death and boringness; and we bulldoze an ever-widening chasm of inequality through society. But what would we gain by turning our car-centric cities into people-centric ones?

One of the most important resources we would acquire is public space. That’s because expanding car-sharing and public transport would reduce the amount of parking needed within the city. Car maintenance services and parking for shared fleets could be moved outside the city, and the precious city-centre land vacated could be used to better serve communities. Imagine replacing every petrol station with a library! “Malaysians don’t read,” you scoff? If they had more libraries, they might.

As pointed out in Part III, since not everyone needs to drive at the same time, one shared car can be used by many people. The residents of each street or apartment block could share just a few cars instead of owning one or more cars each. We could convert the redundant parking spaces into playgrounds, community gardens, basketball courts and barbecue pits. Instead of the lots sitting vacant or storing idle cars, people could use them for picnics, ping-pong, or parkour.

A study by two British engineering firms found that if cars were not only shared but also autonomous, a city like London could gain 15 to 20 percent of developable area – freeing up over 5,000 hectares for housing and public space. (If a self-driving future seems distant, brace yourself: it’s coming. Soon. Singapore knows.) Part IV exposed the enormous amounts of space we lose to private cars in our cities. So how would reclaiming that space and turning it into public space benefit us?

Basketball HK
Above: Residents enjoy the basketball court at the Southern Playground in Wan Chai, Hong Kong. Basketball is popular in space-starved Hong Kong. (Image: Jon Connell)


Public space is valuable

When thinking about famous public spaces, foreign examples* quickly come to mind: Marina Bay and the Bund; Piazza Navona and the Trevi Fountain; the Champs-Élysées; Trafalgar Square, Hyde Park and the South Bank; New York Public Library, Times Square, and Central Park; Sydney Harbour, Red Square, Tiananmen Square – and many more. The concept has existed since the agoras of Ancient Greece.

What public spaces does Malaysia have? There’s Dataran Merdeka, but your last visit there was probably a primary school trip. We have a smattering of parks (the embattled Taman Rimba Kiara in TTDI, for instance), but hardly enough to serve most Kuala Lumpur neighbourhoods. Neither the pasar malams nor the surplus of shopping malls are hospitable to non-consumers: would it kill developers to build some benches? The same developers might retort that public space doesn’t make money. Except that it does. When cities are more hospitable to pedestrians and cyclists – when people aren’t in constant fear of getting mowed down by a truck – they slow down. They stop more often, and they patronise businesses more. People-centric cities increase economic activity.

Well-designed public spaces also make a city more attractive, which is critical for a city’s survival in the global competition for mobile talent. Living, breathing public spaces cultivate life and vitality and a richness of diversity, helping people to feel that they belong to something bigger.

South Bank
Above: A busker entertains children with giant bubbles on London’s South Bank. (Image: Donald Judge)


Trade in your car for better health

Aside from economic benefits, prioritising people and public space over private cars is vital for our health and wellbeing. Kristie Daniel of HealthBridge Canada raised the alarm at the World Urban Forum, saying, “The way we are planning our cities is killing people.” This isn’t hyperbole: car-centric Asian cities have high traffic fatality rates (20 to 35 deaths per 100,000 residents), compared to less than two deaths per 100,000 residents in transit-oriented London, Tokyo, and Stockholm. Road accidents killed 7,152 people in Malaysia in 2016, up from 6,706 deaths the year before. We are more than twice as likely to die in a traffic accident compared to road users in developed countries.

Air pollution, compounded by excessive car use, causes seven million premature deaths each year. Sedentary jobs and car reliance are causing physical inactivity, resulting in an expensive surge in non-communicable diseases like diabetes and heart disease. The World Health Organisation calls it a “slow-motion disaster” in progress.

Conversely, higher walkability levels correlate with lower blood pressure and reduced hypertension risk. Just like building more libraries increases the chances of people forming a reading habit, improving alternatives to private car ownership increases the likelihood of people making better mobility choices. People are wired to take the path of least resistance. Therefore, we need to design our built environment and policies to make the healthiest choices the easiest ones. In Milan, shared cars are available for hire by the minute, and can be parked free of charge in any public parking space. Car-sharing, congestion charges, and culling parking spaces all encourage people to find new, healthier ways of getting around without owning a car.

Better walkability and high quality public spaces also provide abundant mental health benefits. Cars are inherently isolating, putting an alienating layer of glass and steel between drivers and the outside world. Long, stressful, lonely car commutes make you fat, tired and miserable; they leave you alone with your thoughts for too long. Contrast this with a standard Friday night in walkable Newcastle, where merry Geordies dole out high fives to smiling strangers in the streets and in packed trains.

In restricting public space access to car owners, we deprive the young, the elderly, and other non-drivers of the physical and mental health benefits of public space. That’s why the Trust for Public Land is campaigning for a park within 10 minutes’ walk of every household in the US.

Above: Parklets are mini-parks constructed on one or two parking lots. In February 2018, Think City installed this temporary parklet in downtown Kuala Lumpur to encourage social connection. (Image: Maya Tan/Think City)


Ditch private cars, transform your social life

Well-designed public spaces counter the loneliness epidemic (highlighted in Part III) by providing neutral ground for social mixing. They allow individual differences to fade into the background by fostering conversations based on shared spaces – conversations you’re not having with the motorist stuck next to you in traffic. By encouraging informal, repeated interactions, public spaces reduce isolation and wariness of strangers, and increase community connections that save lives.

During Chicago’s deadly 1995 heat wave, three of the poorest, most vulnerable neighbourhoods had the lowest death rates because their infrastructure encouraged social connection – meaning that neighbours checked up on each other. Eric Klinenberg, sociology professor and director of the Institute for Public Knowledge at New York University, wrote a book about it. He found that places with sidewalks, community centres, parks, and commercial establishments which encouraged social life between neighbours fared much better than places where broken down infrastructure actively discouraged older people from venturing outdoors. Klinenberg writes, “When disaster hits, a community’s capacity to pull together and provide support for its weakest members can make the difference between life and death.”

Broken pavement
Above: Broken pavements are a common sight in Malaysia. This fine specimen can be found in Petaling Jaya. Who wants to stay and chat here? (Image: Yan Teh)

Donald Appleyard’s Livable Streets quantified the damning social effects of allowing private vehicles to dominate our cities. Published in 1981, Appleyard’s study compared three San Francisco streets – identical apart from traffic levels. On the street with the most traffic, people had the least friends, and viewed only their individual apartments as their home territory. They also had little awareness of their streetscape, and had few on-street meeting places. In contrast, people who lived on the street with the least traffic had many more neighbourhood friends, viewed the whole street as their home territory, and had more on-street meeting places. They remembered the features of their street in vivid detail.

How many of us actually know our neighbours well – or speak to them at all? Before you protest, “That’s just not our culture,” remember that for most of Malaysia’s history – it was. It’s called the kampung. And it’s not a bygone era we can never return to, because urban design interventions can change culture.

Malaysia’s first planned town, Petaling Jaya, does relatively well with walkability and public spaces in some areas. Its Damansara Jaya neighbourhood dedicates 10.9 percent of land to green areas, incorporating loops and cul-de-sacs that minimise traffic. A central open space with walking tracks and numerous playgrounds interspersed amongst housing clusters create intimate public spaces, encouraging interaction between neighbours and generating informal surveillance that makes people feel safer. Renowned urbanist Jane Jacobs called this desirable phenomenon “eyes on the street.” The parks also play host to outdoor tai chi classes where the senior citizens of Petaling Jaya socialise. Imagine if national policies expanded these community-building initiatives and design principles across the whole country – the potential this has to strengthen national unity!

Damansara Jaya
Above: The layout of Damansara Jaya, a neighbourhood in Petaling Jaya, encourages social connection between neighbours. (Image: Seo Ryeung Ju, Saniah Ahmad Zaki, and Yun Kyung Choi in their journal article “Contextual Modernization; New Town Planning in Petaling Jaya, of Malaysia”)


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Cities 101: Conclusion

Part I of this series established that cities are incredibly important. Todd Litman of the Victoria Transport Policy Institute flags the particular importance of Asian cities: Asia’s urban population will increase by 1.4 billion within the next three decades. The 1.4 billion new urbanites will require hundreds of new cities to live in. Litman puts this drastic growth into perspective by juxtaposing it with Ancient Rome, which grew from 50,000 residents to a million over five centuries. Many Asian cities will do the same in just 30 years – so we must pay close attention to cities.

When cities put people and public space first, quality of life improves. Less is more when it comes to cars in cities, and it’s high time we traded highway grey for a brighter, people-first future. We are outgrowing outdated ideals of cars as status symbols. As Part IV argued, we can’t continue allowing our cities to be overrun by private cars. Mass adoption of car-sharing would be a powerful step in the right direction; in the long run, it will be an essential complement to a robust public transit network.

Moving Malaysia forward into a happier, healthier, and more sustainable future will require strong political will and prudent planning. It will require courageous, well-informed urban planners, urban designers, architects and engineers. It will require businesses – like GoCar – that are determined to change our cities for the better. But most of all, it will require you.

You, the citizen, get to decide how you get to work or school each day. You decide whether to demand better from the elected officials and civil servants who serve you – what you choose to direct their attention to is what they will act on. You decide whether you’ll make the effort to get to know your neighbours, or even to smile and greet the next stranger you meet. We learned this year that anything is possible in Malaysia. But you have to decide.

KL skyline
Above: Kuala Lumpur’s skyline in March 2018. (Image: Cha Già José)


This is the final article in the Cities 101 series by Yan Teh. The five-part series took readers through the importance of cities, the people who shape them, and why rethinking mobility will unlock public space and transform our cities.

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To continue learning about cities:

*More examples of public spaces: the Avenue of Stars, the Champ-de-Mars, Santa Monica Pier, Boston Common, Faneuil Hall, Federation Square, and Fes el Bali.

Featured image: Kuala Lumpur panorama (Rob Alter

Copyright © 2018 Yan Teh. All rights reserved.

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