WHAT do Stroget (Copenhagen, Denmark), Rue Mouffetard (Paris, France), Carnaby Street (London, England), Qianmen Street (Beijing, China), Cat Street (Tokyo, Japan) and Lincoln Road (Miami, Florida) have in common? These are pedestrian cities where the streets are car-free with a mix of shops, all manner of eateries, open-air markets and work centres. Urbanites declare that pedestrian cities are the “finest places in the world” because there is “variety and vitality”.
Pedestrianised areas are not new. Some have existed for decades. Stroget, reputed to have the longest pedestrian shopping streets in the world, has been off limits to vehicles since 1962, and Carnaby Street in London’s West End has been open only to walkers from 1973. Of course, Venice, Italy is considered the “greatest pedestrian city in the world” because it contains the largest pedestrian street network completely free of cars.
Indeed, the trend towards car-free city centres is becoming more apparent. Malaysia, for instance, has plans to pedestrianise 10 roads in Kuala Lumpur by 2025. The aim: to stem the growing number of cars entering the capital city. Trial closures are expected for at least five roads by year end. One of them is Jalan Tuanku Abdul Rahman (TAR), the one-way thoroughfare that runs all the way from the northern end of Dataran Merdeka up to Chow Kit market.
But why pedestrianisation? Town planners say designing places for the comfort and enjoyment of the pedestrian is one of the most important aspects of “new urbanism”, an urban design movement that promotes “environmentally friendly habits with walkable neighbourhoods, a wide range of housing, and job types”.
The need to reduce vehicle dependence and improve air quality are among the drivers. Danish architect Jan Gehl, who helped transform Copenhagen into one of the world’s most liveable cities, says “cities should be shaped towards facilitating human interaction”. In layman’s understanding, pedestrianisation makes urban centres more pleasant and liveable.
This Leader is all for pedestrianising some parts of Kuala Lumpur, but cautions authorities to do a careful study. Get feedback from city traders, especially those whose premises would be affected. Last February, when Kuala Lumpur City Hall closed off part of Jalan TAR, there was much consternation. In May, the closure was lifted. Traders had complained of losses. They also claimed it made little difference to traffic congestion.
There have been drawbacks reported in some major pedestrian cities. A study by property consultants in 2015 showed pedestrianisation created the “haves” and “have-nots” because of the increase in property prices in the surrounding areas. It said in London and Paris, there was already a “doughnut effect of wealth concentrated in the centre”.
But reportedly, in almost all pedestrian cities, a better quality of life has been hailed, with significant reduction in local air and noise pollution, and a drop in vehicle accidents.
KL City Hall must tread carefully. The challenge would be to ensure pedestrianisation is a win-win for all, and minimise the economic divide that it may create in the long run. But let’s be optimistic — a future with car-free urban centres is most welcome as it would undoubtedly improve Kuala Lumpur’s position among the 100 most liveable cities in the region.