24 May 2009

Chasing Cars

RM 900 is quite cheap for a driver's license package course compared to what you have to pay in Europe (1000-1500€). However, the difference might only come up later, namely, in your hospital bill once you attempt to navigate through the lawlessness that is KL's urban road jungle.

Public transport in KL is an issue that many locals will agree is, in a nutshell, a mess. Just yesterday, I devoured an interesting interview I stumbled upon in the NST with some professor and another person who it wasn't quite clear to me what his job was (he didn't say much, just came along for the photo-op, I suppose). It did confirm that there are a lot of development issues.

Having gone places at different times of the day, I've tried out taxi, car lifts with colleagues, LRT and walking. No matter which mode of transport I used, there was always adventure involved. Only for your reading pleasure, I will pass on what I've learned so far:

LRT: My favourite mode of transport actually, probably because I'm still in TFL recovery mode, is the LRT. The trains are new and clean, the stations are relatively new and the whole thing doesn't make a racket like the inside of a tumble dryer when in transit (like the Tube). On the other hand, and here I can't say it better than in the article, “the LRT doesn't go where people want to go”. There are two main lines, a monorail and I believe three Komuter lines. There is only one single station where they all come together: KL Sentral. Apart from that, the lines pretty much resemble French absolutist urban planning – in other words, they are built like the rays of the sun and hardly ever intersect. So, if you want to change, there usually is a short taxi-ride involved – no joking, this is what many locals are left to do if they don't use their own car. The frequency is maybe every 5-7 minutes (you've got quite a nice view of the city bathed in sunlight while waiting on most platforms though) and even then, the trains are surprisingly short. The article offers both a reason for and a result of this kind of planning: a) The tracks follow old colonial railway lines b) since the system doesn't meet the demands of their passengers, the passenger volume is below what they expected. Imagine you are in London, you want to go from Covent Garden to Camden Town but the only station to change lines was in say, Victoria. Would you bother?!
A funny thing (or slightly uncomfy, depending who sits next to you) is that the seats are quite small, I was shocked to see a girl today that only filled out two thirds of a seat – any slimmer and she would have disappeared into the rim between the seats! More often than not, you sit cheek-to-cheek with average-sized (local average!) people. Hm, times have changed in the course of industrial development...

Walking: Sth you will learn when in KL even for a short time is is that: There never is a perfect time to cross a road – just cross and traffic will adapt (drivers in town need fast reflexes, so they usually slow down or move to the side)! Other Asian cities are probably worse (ie Bangkok where suicidal people won't have to bother to walk five blocks to the next railtrack). A typical KL sensation actually is the hot car exhaust fumes on your ankles on hot sunny days when you cross between cars queuing at a red light.

Sometimes you can't actually see where the way goes because of all the entwined overhead causeways and their supporting pillars. I didn't actually know for example you can actually walk to the National Museum from Chinatown (one 7min cab ride). All you need to do is, cross a big street under a bridged highway (before it becomes a highway itself later after disappearing behind pillars in a sharp curve), walk up the stairs of the old railway station (built by the Dutch, now hosting KTM Komuter trains), cross on the over-head bridge to the other platform, walk along the platform and then walk along-side a five-lane causeway (that resembles B17 in Austria). No signs guide you of course! So unless you have an agenda of taming the city to your walking needs or know the way because you are local (and I doubt that a busy highway is a pleasant view for a Sunday family outing), there really was no point in building that pavement.

Manifestation of people's perception of walking is that if you ask so. For a distance, they will always tell you, “Oh! Is very far, VERY far! Maybe 30min walk?” when it turns out after a thirty second cab ride that it's actually just seven minutes walk. I am sure part of the abhorrence of walking is made up of the fear of the skin turning dark in the sun. It's as if, you only walk if you can't afford a car and your skin will be proof of your status. Also, they are likely to ruin any high-heels women might wear.

Cyclists: Hm, I have been wondering what KL locals think about the concept of cycling. Riding a bike is the stuff of fairy tales, usually set in nostalgic accounts of country life. I'm not sure cyclists actually exist in KL. Or to put it more delicately: Why work out in the sun when you can afford an A/C-ed car?

Cars: KL is a city made for car owners. When it comes to cars, Malaysians have a unique attitude to them. Everyone who can afford a car, will buy a car. Not any car but the most fancy they can get. Cars are about prestige. While in London you can recognise people's social background by their English, in KL people will show off their status and enthusiasm for cars quite publicly. This goes for women and men alike. Actually, the Malay version of Cosmopolitan dedicates a whole page to cars where readers discuss opinions like the price of petrol and how to drive economically! I've seen women and men drive to work in shiny limousines, huge-ass polished SUV's (and these people are not always senior management level) and even landrovers. One can only hope that the rest of the Asian family or large group of friends ride regularly as a group in their spare time or at least that it's the only car in the family to make such a large car necessary. Fat chance! Malaysia or at least KL is a place of many multiple car owners. At this rate, I am actually surprised that there isn't yet an ozone hole over town. Already a view from the Towers will usually give you a smoggy view over the city. I would love to see an Asian version of “Pimp my ride”!

Whatever their ride, drivers usually look really tense behind the steering wheel which they grip so tightly, their knuckles turn white. They will make only sparse conversation with you while they focus on the minefield ahead. Out of nowhere, at any second, a motorcycle can shoot out. I once saw a near-miss when two decided to manoever through the same thin space coming from behind two different cars and not having seen each other. I've seen motorcyclists and cars the wrong way in one-way streets, huge buses swerve around the corner at 50km/h and impatient pedestrians crossing in front of them. I saw a maybe two year old crawling across the chest of a driver! I saw a taxi without a front bumper - my fellow intern spotted it stuffed onto the back seat! We also discovered that motorcycles speed-o-meters go up to 120 km/h (!). The real fun starts when traffic lights are out of order! It took me 15 minutes to get to the other side of a busy but normal-sized crossing under the Monorail tracks. A police officer had been ordered to control the mass of cars. From the way he was managing this task you could guess he'd been standing there in the sun for a while, directing drivers who do what they want to do anyway. He was lazily waving what I figured must be “Go!” (at times a spiral arm movement, at times straight waving with the arm) but in no particular direction. Sometimes he signified the next lane to Go and left it to the current one to Stop by themselves. In Austria facing traffic usually means Stop and standing sideways Go. In KL, the fastest driver of any lane gets all the jammed up impatient ones behind him moving, in other words, they actually over-rule the policeman by force who doesn't seem to have thought about fairly timing all the sides. We few pedestrians were not of his concern. Maybe it's because he's too busy not getting knocked over himself by the stream of cars blindly following the front cars at 40km/h.

I'm not even sure law enforcement even bother about the shocking reality of every day traffic violations, simply as to the sheer pervasiveness. Even if you get caught, you pay your fine at the station but get to keep your license, so I've been told by a local who suggested Malaysia should introduce a point-based drivers license.

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