Rethinking Mobility: Putting People First

Rush hour traffic in Kuala Lumpur. Image: Yan Teh


One of the biggest challenges cities face today is that of urban mobility. In other words: how people move around a city. YAN TEH envisions the vibrancy of a city that puts people first.

‘People-centric cities’ are on everyone’s lips in the city-making world. But what does ‘people-centric’ mean? One way to define people-centric cities is to contrast them with car-centric cities, where infrastructure, policies, and allocation of space and resources prioritise cars over everything else. Malaysia’s cities lean towards the latter category, meaning that pedestrians, cyclists, wheelchair users, babies in strollers, and public space take a back seat. To understand how it feels to live in a city ruled by cars, one need only attempt to cross a busy road in Kuala Lumpur. Nothing like a daily near-death experience to keep you on your toes!

Why car-centric cities are bad

Cars take space away from people

Space allocation in a city is a zero-sum game. Car-centric cities dedicate ever more space to cars and their storage, making life progressively worse for the people who live there. In addition to the space taken up by petrol stations, car washes, and auto repair shops, space given to roads and parking is space taken away from housing and public spaces, which comprise anything from parks and plazas to libraries and community centres.

Unfortunately, both affordable urban housing and quality public spaces (that aren’t geared towards taking your money) remain scarce in Malaysia. Land we could have used for affordable homes or playgrounds is instead used to store empty cars.

More roads make more traffic

Besides reducing the amount of land available for housing and public space, allocating more space and infrastructure to cars means that more people will use cars instead of walking, cycling or taking public transport. Research has uncovered a phenomenon called induced demand, where increasing road capacity actually increases the amount of driving in a city. This is because building more roads encourages more people to buy cars, and to choose driving over other modes of transport.

In other words, building more roads makes traffic worse. As United Nations University researcher Dr. David Tan said at a Think City talk in 2017, “No city in the world has managed to build its way out of congestion. It doesn’t work.


Bad for the planet, bad for your health

Having more cars on the road (13 million and counting in Malaysia) will result in more time wasted in traffic jams, worsened air and noise pollution, and higher rates of traffic fatalities. Single-occupancy vehicles also produce at least four times more carbon emissions than public transport on a per-passenger kilometre basis.

On top of the economic and environmental costs, car reliance increases the likelihood of health problems caused by a sedentary lifestyle. Malaysia is already the fattest country in Asia, with almost half of our adult population overweight or obese. In Kuala Lumpur, we spend a daily average of 53 minutes stuck in traffic and 25 minutes looking for parking. That adds up to nearly 20 full days of idle sitting each year.

Poor walkability

Given the state of our walking infrastructure, it’s no wonder we remain shackled to our cars. Although there are laudable ongoing efforts to improve our pavements, many remain broken, due in part to the inconsiderate drivers and motorcyclists who park there: pavements don’t break from being walked on.

Our pavements also boast a charming tendency to end without warning. Besides, allocating so much space to cars pushes buildings further apart. The resulting distance between buildings, combined with Malaysia’s endemic heat, makes our cities less walkable.

A study conducted by Think City and Studio 25 in 2016 found that downtown Kuala Lumpur dedicated three times more space to vehicle lanes than to pedestrian pathways. Of those pathways, 77 percent were not conducive to walking, lacking in shade, greenery, benches, rubbish bins, and safe crossings. (“Improvement of the Streets of Downtown Kuala Lumpur” studied a 200-hectare area within the 1-kilometre radius around Masjid Jamek. The full report is available online.)


Office workers in KL Sentral braving the road to Brickfields. Image: Yan Teh


Income inequality

Because building more infrastructure for cars means less space and resources for public transport, it makes getting around without a car more difficult. This makes it harder for people who can’t afford a car to access jobs in neighbourhoods they can’t afford to live in. In 2016, Euromonitor International ranked Kuala Lumpur’s income inequality the highest in Asia and the sixth highest in the world. Car-centric city planning worsens the gap by weakening economic mobility for those who can’t afford to buy a car.

Why are people-centric cities better?

Access to the city for all

In contrast to car-centric cities, people-centric cities are easy to navigate without a car. Their infrastructure makes walking, cycling, and public transit the most obvious choice for getting from point A to point B. Pedestrians are the top priority in the hierarchy of road users, and public transport is comfortable, affordable, efficient, and well-connected. Streets and buildings are designed so that people who are blind, deaf, or in wheelchairs can move around the city safely and independently. In Singapore, for example, senior citizens and people with disabilities can register for a card which, when scanned at pedestrian crossings, triggers a longer crossing time.

During the recent World Urban Forum in Kuala Lumpur, Think City hosted Dialogue in the Dark, where blind guides led sighted visitors through a specially constructed dark room. Through sound and texture, visitors experienced the intensity of navigating everyday environments in Kuala Lumpur without sight. In a more people-centric city, the pavements would be spacious, well-maintained, and free from obstructions. Trees would provide shade and relief from the heat, benches would offer places to gather and rest (especially for senior citizens), and street lamps would help people feel safer at night.

Safer, more enjoyable streets

Improving the streets creates a virtuous cycle. As walking becomes a more pleasant experience, more people will choose to walk. And when more people choose to walk, others begin to feel more comfortable walking, too. That’s because when there are more people on the streets, they – along with street-fronting café staff or hotel doormen – generate informal surveillance that is comforting to people. Jane Jacobs called this “eyes on the street.”

Picture the scene. Instead of being the sole pedestrian braving a narrow, pothole-ridden, rubbish-strewn walkway – inches away from a roaring torrent of giant speeding machines – we could walk amongst other people. Streets for cars are grey and boring. Rather than sitting isolated in a box of glass and steel, we would be out in the world, experiencing life in full colour. We could exchange a cheery greeting with the nasi lemak seller we pass every morning. We would run into old friends and make new ones. We could literally stop and smell the roses as a busker’s tunes waft through the air. We would feel safe letting eight-year-olds walk to school on their own. The safety improvements would be both perceived and real: it’s harder to get away with mugging someone when there are lots of people watching. This is the life we give up by putting cars first.


LOPELAB’s Urban Ventures street party, part of the Singapore Urban Design Festival, closed Keong Saik Road to cars for two days to demonstrate the potential of a car-free street. Image: Yan Teh.


Public space and public transport

Besides making walking easy and enjoyable, people-centric cities put the vast swathes of land consumed by cars to better use – for instance, by creating public spaces that everyone can enjoy.

In the words of architect Jan Gehl, “Good public transport and good public realm are brother and sister.” Lively, well-designed public spaces strengthen a city in many critical ways: they increase economic activity, strengthen social cohesion, improve mental health, and make a city more attractive. As the global talent pool shifts from choosing jobs to choosing cities, a city’s ability to attract and retain people is increasingly vital.

Prioritising public space and public transport over private vehicles is not just economically prudent. Enrique Peñalosa would argue that it is also morally and philosophically the right thing to do. Peñalosa, the mayor of Bogotá, is an outspoken proponent of public transport. He views prioritising private vehicles over pedestrians, cyclists, and public transport users as undemocratic, arguing that one person driving a car shouldn’t be entitled to so much more space than a pedestrian, a cyclist, or (proportionally) a bus with 150 people in it.

On this premise, Peñalosa constructed the world’s first modern Bus Rapid Transit system, in which dedicated bus lanes allow Bogotá’s buses to sail past traffic. Although buses take up road space and generate carbon emissions too, they can be distinguished from private vehicles by their passenger efficiency: one bus can carry many more people than one car.

What does a people-centric city look like?

People-centric cities do not exist only in urbanists’ imagined utopias. Moving from the theoretical to the concrete, cities around the world are making the switch from car-centric to people-centric city planning.

Road closures

Road closures are the starter experiment for cities toying with car reduction. Lorong Mambong in Singapore’s Holland Village was originally closed to traffic due to terrorism fears after the 2002 Bali bombings. Authorities removed 32 on-street parking spaces. More than a decade later, the road remains closed to cars after sunset: Lorong Mambong has become a wildly popular hotspot for dining and nightlife. Eliminating noise and air pollution from cars created a bustling, al fresco people-watching experience, encouraging patrons to linger. During pedestrianised hours, shop owners rake in 30 to 40 percent more revenue than when the road is open to cars.

Even temporary experiments can get people thinking. Cultural enterprise esterni took over a Milan parking lot in 2006, replacing the cars with hammocks, a bar, and live music for the public to enjoy. Initial resistance from car-owning residents soon gave way to reluctance for the project to end.


Lorong Mambong in Singapore’s Holland Village. Image: Yan Teh


Pedestrian plazas

Former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg also faced fierce opposition from merchants when he pushed through a temporary car-free zone in 2009. Bloomberg closed Broadway to vehicles in response to a spike in traffic accidents. At the time, although 90 percent of the people passing through Times Square were on foot, 89 percent of the space was allocated to cars. The car-free zone was so successful that the Department of Transportation made the change permanent. Following pedestrianisation, travel times for passing vehicles improved, and crime and pedestrian injuries dropped sharply.

The city celebrated the completed transformation of Times Square at the end of 2017: nearly two acres of pedestrian-friendly plazas replace the previous traffic and smog. When a similar pedestrian plaza was implemented in Brooklyn, retail sales in stores adjacent to the new plaza increased by 172 percent over three years. Empty cars parked in front of local businesses – or people driving to other places – simply don’t spend money the way strolling pedestrians do.

Highway to heaven

Sceptics might argue that Times Square was already popular with – albeit inhospitable to – pedestrians, prior to redevelopment but Seoul’s ambitious Cheonggyecheon project proved that even highways are redeemable. Completed in 2005, the project uprooted nearly 6 kilometres of elevated highway (much like those ubiquitous in Malaysia) to make way for a lush oasis of greenery and water. Paradoxically, removing the congested highway reduced traffic and travel times in the area.

In place of the highway is a park with a stream now frequented by “families and playing children, young couples on dates, office staff having after-work drinks, elderly picnickers, street musicians and their audiences.” Cheonggyecheon also provides flood protection, increases biodiversity, and reduces heat and pollution. Imagine if we turned the LDP into a park! Forty sweet kilometres of verdant paradise.


[Seoul ripped out a congested elevated highway and built Cheonggyecheon park in its place. Image: Carlos Felipe Pardo

Superblocks: small cost, big impact

Creating more public space and improving a city’s walkability doesn’t always mean building new things. Barcelona identified 120 potential intersections to undergo a relatively low-cost transformation, in which superblocks – each comprising nine square city blocks – restrict entry to local business deliveries and residents’ vehicles only. The vehicles permitted inside the superblocks must follow greatly reduced speed limits, and no other traffic is allowed into the inner roads.

The first phase of the policy is fairly easy to implement, mainly requiring changes to traffic signals. The second phase will abolish curbside parking within the superblocks and ban speeds over 10 kilometres per hour. People will be free to use the roads for games, sports, and outdoor cinemas, harkening back to the Malaysia our grandparents knew – where kids cycled to school and played badminton in the streets.

Next-level mobility

Further north, Ljubljana and Helsinki have even more grandiose plans. Slovenia’s capital, Ljubljana, was named European Green Capital two years ago. But only ten years before, the city was overcrowded with cars and suffering from air and noise pollution. Mayor Zoran Janković fought through vehement opposition to close the historical city centre to cars, opening up seven times more public space – and resulting in a city that feels much bigger, despite remaining the same size.

Today, Llubljana is a haven for walking and cycling, with a segregated bike path into the city centre. A free, on-demand electric shuttle (which can be summoned wherever it is needed) helps citizens in need get around the pedestrian zone. To register for the bike-sharing service costs only three euros (RM14) per year; after that, rides are free. Getting around without a car is easy. Buses are clean and comfortable, and an electric car-sharing system covers journeys not possible on public transport.

Monocle’s The Urbanist suggests that the lesson to learn from Llubljana is to “move fast and break things.” Breaking with old habits requires strong political will and taking action despite initial public resistance. Indeed, Llubljana’s own website cites “the awareness of citizens and visitors” as the city’s biggest achievement. A billboard in the city captures the sentiment: “You are not stuck in traffic. You are traffic.

A crowd watches street performers in Llubljana, Slovenia. Image: Ben Snooks


Mobility as a service

The Finnish capital, Helsinki, is taking things even further. The city has set a goal of making private car ownership unnecessary by 2025, and aims to be carbon-neutral by 2035. The Helsinki RobobusLine launched in May 2018, and each self-driving electric minibus now ferries up to 12 passengers at a time through regular traffic.

Key to reaching Helsinki’s formidable goals is a comprehensive digital platform that integrates the entire transportation network into one seamless system. “Mobility as a service” (MaaS) reimagines transportation as a service to be consumed – a pivotal shift from the mindset of privately owned transportation. Enabled by smartphones and the sharing economy, MaaS creates digital platforms that combine trip planning, ticketing, and payment for all transport modes into one application.

Since 2016, Helsinki’s residents have been using a MaaS app called Whim to plan and pay for journeys across public transit, taxis, bikes, and shared cars. Users can either purchase a single mobility ticket which encompasses every step of their journey, or subscribe to monthly travel plans that cost less than purchasing and maintaining a private car.

Imagine if one tap was all it took to have an app plan out a journey from beginning to end – ride a shared bike to the nearest LRT station, take the train, and drive a shared car for the last mile of the trip – but we’d only have to pay for one ticket that covered everything. No more fumbling with coins and tickets at autopay machines.

Without the need for private cars, we could turn our parking spaces (12.5 square metres per car) into space for playing football, planting flowers, or gathering with family and friends. Space for trees and grass instead of scorching asphalt. Space for children to sketch chalk masterpieces, and sandboxes for them to build new worlds in – without fear of being steamrolled by a speeding truck. Space to enjoy quiet moments, breathing in fresh, fume-free air as sparrows chirp around our feet. When we picture everything our cities could be, who wouldn’t want a more people-centric city?


Yan Teh is part of the Partnerships & Communications team at Think City. She crafts stories to share Think City’s mission and work. Besides collaborating with other organisations to improve cities, Yan has developed a workshop named Citymaker Labs to teach problem-solving skills and empower ordinary citizens to participate in citymaking.