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Turning isolating distance into social space (PEM Editorial March 2011)

LIKE people in most developing countries, Malaysians suffer automobiles not only as a necessary tool for modern living, but as a purported key driver of the economy.

Having a car-making industry supposedly generates an army of suppliers of parts from simple nuts and bolts to sophisticated electronics. The consumption Ringgit needed to keep a car running also fuels the capitalist economy, and in the process creates status symbols for the wealthy, the newly rich and the faux affluent.

Thinking this way, however, left us with epidemic urban sprawl and a sorry lack of good public transport. This is a trap that will take us a long time to get out of, if at all.

Governments overseeing developing economies tend to consider themselves cornered into building more and more miles of motorways to feed the voracious car.

Dependence on the automobile – worshipping the car – has filled society with monuments dimensioned for speed. Or more correctly, urban space today outside of buildings is largely occupied either by tarred roads to handle hurrying cars, or by tarred rectangular surfaces for these cars to rest between journeys.

Car parks, car lots, parking houses, slip roads, motorways, expressways, highways, roads, roads and more roads, define modern human space.

Where does the human dimension fit into all this? The human body is the size it is, and it moves at the speed it does. What the automobile has done to humanity is to turn its space into distance. We move from Point A to Point B. In between lies merely expanse which has to be traversed for the occasion.

To make that traversing more efficient, the pedestrian has to be ignored, and often turned into jaywalkers.

That is the legacy of the automobile. The spot we stand on; the air we breathe; the sounds we hear; the smells we suffer; even the deaths we die; bow to the booming and zooming iron carriages that jam the tarmac that covers the ground on which we live our lives.

Solutions?

Well, long-term ones are hard to picture. For one thing, governments, developers and planners would have to stop kowtowing to the automobile. Instead of supplying the automobile with tarred roads, which is an endless project, the car would need to be tamed and knocked off the developmental pedestal.

Medium-term solutions, however, are easier to imagine. Improving public transport and lessening urban sprawl would go a long way towards making cities more liveable.

In the short term, what is attainable is for us to shift the symbiosis between pedestrian and car to favour the former more clearly. For example, areas left over by highways and parking houses can be easily landscaped into space more conducive to human presence.

Small parks can appear in areas where old building material now collects. No park is too small.

The greening of such abandoned areas requires only commitment from elected representatives, innovative developers and imaginative civil servants. These people only need some committed pushing from the rest of us.

“They paved Paradise and put up a parking lot” — Joni Mitchell

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About Ooi Kee Beng

Dr OOI KEE BENG is the Executive Director of Penang Institute (George Town, Penang, Malaysia). He was born and raised in Penang, and was the Deputy Director of ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute (formerly the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, ISEAS). He is the founder-editor of the Penang Monthly (published by Penang Institute), ISEAS Perspective (published by ISEAS) and ISSUES (published by Penang Institute). He is also editor of Trends in Southeast Asia, and a columnist for The Edge, Malaysia.

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