Gridlock Comes to Kuala Lumpur

The ostrich is as tall as the cars around it, and running at a fair pace in the fast lane of the Federal Highway, which links Kuala Lumpur’s city center to Petaling Jaya, its largest satellite town. As the video of the surreal incident — the result of a tame ostrich’s escaping from captivity — circulated on social media in June, what struck many observers was that the giant bird was able to run so freely along the busiest of the capital’s many traffic-clogged highways. An hour or two later and the adventurous ostrich would have been hemmed in by gridlocked traffic, just like the rest of us.

Traffic dominates the daily lives of those who live and work in Kuala Lumpur and the network of smaller but still populous cities that surround it, collectively known as the Klang Valley. Conversations between friends often begin with comparisons of recent experiences of traffic jams. (My current gripe: an hour to drive six and a half miles from Damansara Heights to Taman Megah, which Google tells me should take 15 minutes.) People become accustomed to their dinner guests’ arriving an hour late; parents wake their children earlier than ever to ensure they get to school on time.

As Malaysia navigates its way from developing country to middle-class-nation status, the battle of its capital city against worsening traffic will play a crucial role in shaping the country’s 21st-century identity. Next to its regional neighbors, will it be a choking urban sprawl (think Jakarta) or a hyper-efficient, sustainable metropolis (think Singapore)?

A large part of Kuala Lumpur’s traffic nightmare is caused by its love affair with the automobile — as elsewhere, a key symbol of wealth. According to the consumer data company Nielsen, car ownership in Malaysia is among the highest in the world — a staggering 93 percent of households own at least one car. And Malaysian motorists are hungry for more: In the Nielsen survey, seven out of 10 respondents said they hoped to purchase a new vehicle in the next two years.

Car ownership expresses social aspiration, too: Nearly two-thirds of respondents in the survey saw their cars as status symbols. And 88 percent of Malaysians intended to upgrade their car as soon as finances allow. In Kuala Lumpur alone, about 1,000 new cars are registered every day.

Getting these newly middle-class drivers out of their status symbols and onto public transportation is a monumental task, further complicated by the sprawling nature of the suburbs and the network of smaller conurbations that make up greater Kuala Lumpur. In any case, a severe lack of options in mass transit — with especially poor rail connections outside the metropolitan area — makes traveling by private car the only choice for many journeys. Only 20 percent of trips in the capital are made by public transportation.

The Klang Valley’s principal bus operator, Rapid KL, complains of a chronic shortage of bus drivers to cover its 160 routes, resulting in erratic schedules and low ridership — the daily passenger total numbers only about 280,000 out of the Klang Valley’s total population of seven million. The city’s two main train lines — the Light Rail Transit and Monorail — are efficient and affordable but operate just two routes each.

At present, only one 3.5-mile stretch of bicycle lane exists, and Malaysia’s year-round stifling heat makes even the shortest cycle commute uncomfortable. For many residents, the cheap and plentiful taxis are the main alternative; the recent arrival of Uber has provided a further option. But these cars add to, rather than relieve, congestion on the roads.

With Kuala Lumpur’s traffic crisis getting worse every year, City Hall has come up with a series of projects to mitigate the problem. The most ambitious, announced to great fanfare in 2010, is the construction of the Mass Rapid Transit, a rail line that circles the capital, with further lines connecting the loop to the city center. The first stage, linking several densely populated suburban areas, should be completed by the end of the year. Plans to charge motorists entering the city center, like similar operations in Singapore and London, should come into effect next year, once the first stage of the new transit system is running.

At stake is not just the daily grumbling of Kuala Lumpur’s motorists, but the city’s future as a competitive, livable city. A 2015 World Bank report found that Kuala Lumpur’s population wastes up to 500 million hours of work a year idling in traffic, burning up to 1.2 billion liters (about 315 million gallons) of fuel; these losses are estimated to exceed 2 percent of the country’s gross domestic product. Simply put, the amount of time commuters here spend every year doing nothing in their cars costs the equivalent of more than a month’s average wages.

The success of the new rail system is crucial to the ambitions of a city hoping to strengthen its image as one of the world’s friendliest places to do business. It’s also essential to the continued stability of one of Asia’s most racially diverse cities. With sizable ethnic Chinese and Indian communities living alongside the Malay-Muslim majority, the linking of areas traditionally populated by one group or another is key to enabling the city to function as a rich cultural melting pot.

As for the ostrich, a young female named Chickaboo, all ended happily. After a brief chase, she was recaptured and safely returned to the farm where she was born. Her escapade was a hit in Kuala Lumpur, personifying what many of us feel: better to take your chances on foot than get caught in rush hour.

Tash Aw is the author of three novels, including, most recently, Five Star Billionaire, and a contributing opinion writer.

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