Walking as a woman in Kuala Lumpur at night

(Illustration by Ames Sia)

There are cities, and there are cities, but the cities that make a difference are walkable. A walkable city encourages people to go out on foot by having streets that are:

  1. safe
  2. comfortable
  3. visually interesting (attractive shopfronts or street markets)
  4. useful, or well-connected to public transport and local attractions

These four elements constitute city planner Jeff Speck’s ‘General Theory of Walkability’, elements that facilitate urban walking and make it attractive for people to head out on foot rather than hop into their cars.

Pedestrian crossings in Kuala Lumpur can be tricky to navigate

Why should cities be walkable?

Pedestrians give life to cities; not cars, trucks or motorbikes. When city planners create an environment conducive to walking, people can shop, browse and run errands without having to look for parking or sit in traffic. Retail outlets on streets with good walkability or blocks which have been pedestrianised are more economically vibrant and do far better than those situated on unwalkable streets.

When I encounter a city that allows women to walk safely and comfortably, I have a higher regard for its people. A walkable city  is more equitable — cities that are safe for women to walk in are also safer for many others. If you see an older woman with her grandchild, or elderly couples enjoying a walk, you know you’re in a safe city.

Unfortunately, much of the Klang Valley is traditionally unwalkable. Our cities are not suitably designed for pedestrians, zebra and pedestrian crossings are routinely ignored, and drivers view anyone on foot as an inconvenience.

Kuala Lumpur at night

Exploring foreign cities and walking the streets of Kuala Lumpur, day or night, is something I enjoy. I don’t see why a woman shouldn’t be able to enjoy a post-dinner walk.

As a woman, the difference between walking in KL in the daytime and at night is, well — as different as night and day. There is safety in numbers, and at night the absence of others creates an environment unfavourable to women. A busy street is safer, no matter how late the hour.

The streets of Masjid India at night

Masjid Jamek ➝ Jalan Tun Perak ➝ Jalan Tuanku Abdul Rahman ➝ Masjid India

My friends and I walked along CIMB Bank on Jalan Tun Perak and turned right into Jalan Tuanku Abdul Rahman. At 8:30pm, the streetlights were lit, but all the shops on both sides of the road were closed and silent.

It was only 700m further up Jalan TAR that we saw the bright lights and bejewelled mannequins of Gulati’s Silk House. Here, the shops were open and welcoming, the pavements wide. People were milling around, eating at the kebab shop, shopping and chatting with each other. Economically vibrant? You bet.

From there, we turned left into Jalan Esfahan. By this time it was 9pm. Further up, Bandaraya station was bright, well-lit and safe, as it should be. Some of the pavement slabs leading to the station, however, were broken and uneven, likely to make for uncomfortable walking night or day.

At 9.15pm, we found ourselves along Jalan Masjid India where, thanks to the River of Life project, the pavement is widened and bright lights installed. There was a crowd: couples with shopping bags waited for their buses, and families with children walking back after dinner. There was also a section with trees and seating, a small area but large enough for a weekend market. This was a street with character, and a place I would be comfortable to wander in at night.

Pedestrians in the Central Market area at night

Medan Pasar ➝ Central Market ➝ Petaling Street ➝ Leboh Ampang ➝ Jalan Raja ➝ Medan Pasar

Famed for its tourist attractions, this area should be walkable for women and families, provided there are street lights and decent amounts of people. I walked variations of this route over three nights. People were still out at 10pm. At no time did I feel unsafe, even without a crowd.

One factor which can inhibit walkability is the presence of homeless individuals. In a study by San Francisco State University called ‘Gendered Walkability: Building a daytime walkability index for women’, the reluctance of female participants to walk past homeless encampments was based on prior experience of walking past groups of men. They wanted to avoid catcalling, ‘erratic, unpredictable behaviour by homeless people’, and were reluctant to ‘intrude into the homeless individuals’ personal space and privacy’.

In KL, not far from Central Market, some spaces have become home to people who live on the streets. Similarly, more congregate at the walkway running along the Klang River beside the HSBC Bank in Leboh Ampang. Based on observation, the second group makes their presence felt in the area as early as 5pm. During the day, commuters from Masjid Jamek LRT use this route, but using the US study as an example, women in Malaysia may have similar reservations walking this same way after dark.

The participants of the US study could have unfairly generalised the behaviour of ‘groups of men’ — the homeless are saddled with greater concerns than catcalling after women. Homelessness is also a much larger issue. As much as I advocate walkability, the peace of mind of pedestrians is secondary. Safe and comfortable housing should be provided for the well-being of the homeless.

Well-lit train stations help improve walkability of cities at night

Walkable cities, night or day

Part of my fascination with cities is that they reflect how we think and what we value. A city built with female pedestrians in mind is convenient, but above all, safe and comfortable to move in.

The right steps have been taken to improve Kuala Lumpur’s walkability, but more can be done. Good street lighting, well-lit train stations, closed-circuit television cameras and educating drivers can help make the city safe and walkable at night. When a city is walkable for women, it becomes safe and walkable for everyone else.


Anis Ibrahim is a freelance writer and editor who explores natural and urban environments on foot. Her most prized possession is her growing collection of walking shoes. She writes at www.fivefeetflat.net.