Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Tokyo - A Livable Metropolis?

Tokyo skyscrapers

As blogged earlier, I've just gotten back from Tokyo early this morning. As most of the time, I was stuck in the hotel attending the conference, I didn't manage to do too much sight-seeing, but I did manage to squeeze some time out to do some (will post pictures later - pics posted here from public sources).

One thing however struck me really hard during my brief visit was how remarkably "livable" the metropolis was (for those who experienced otherwise, do share your views here). Lets get some facts out of the way:
Over eight million people live within Tokyo's 23 wards. During the daytime, the population swells by over 2.5 million as workers and students commute from adjacent areas. This effect is even more pronounced in the three central wards of Chiyoda, Chūō, and Minato, whose collective population is less than 300,000 at night, but over two million during the day. The entire prefecture has 12,790,000 residents in October 2007 (8,657,000 in 23 wards), with an increase of over 3 million in the day. (source: Wikipedia)
The population density for Tokyo is 5,796 persons per km². This doesn't take into account an additional 2-3 million workers who commute from outside Tokyo into the city. In addition, this number does not take into account the fact that officially, several outlying islands are official part of Tokyo "land area" as well, which means that the density is likely significantly higher. This compares also against 6,489 persons per km² in Singapore.

Now, given such immense density and skyscrapers within the inner city, one would certainly have expected a certain level of traffic congestion, and probably a significant number of highways criss-crossing the city.

More Tokyo skyscrapers

But no! Right in the city centre, during peak hours, I hardly see many cars on the road. All cars which stopped at traffic lights will get to clear them in one go, and the lights actually switches pretty fast to cater to pedestrians. Where did all the traffic go? And trust me, their skyscrapers are just humongous!

And in the Tokyo suburbs (e.g., Seputeh or Petaling Jaya), most amazingly, the roads are tiny, often barely enough for 1 vehicle to pass through in their residential roads. Yet at the same time, the city generously allocates and cordon off a sizeable portion of the road for pedestrians and cyclists' use. Throughout my stay there, I've never seen these residential roads streaming with motor vehicles.

Yet in Petaling Jaya, many neighbourhood residential roads are becoming main access roads, while access roads have become thoroughfares, and highways such as LDP become massive car parks, especially during peak perids. And we don't have the population, its density and the skyscrapers to match cities like Tokyo or Singapore.

Very simply, the solution is really in creating and building an efficient public transportation system. And this unfortunately, is rather non-existent in Petaling Jaya. If you need to get from Taman Mayang to SS2, there is no option except taking a taxi or your own private vehicle.

In Tokyo, I've never had to wait longer than 5 minutes for any train, even during off-peak hours (didn't get a chance to try their bus system, especially since I'd seriously lack the language skills!)

Hence, if businessmen, developers, some politicians and civil servants are to argue that we need to develop Petaling Jaya further to boost our economy, raise income and wealth levels, I do not totally disagree. In fact, I would agree also with the fact that Petaling Jaya still have plenty of room to "develop" further, especially when contrasted against cities of the developed world.

However, as highlighted in my earlier post yesterday, all new (yet to be approved) major developments must cease so that the city and the state can catch its breath and take stock of the cost of unplanned development, without the necessary mobility infrastructure in place. And as long as the various federal ministries in charge of public transportation do not get their act together and drastically reform and improve the current system, then development will unfortunately have to be limited to the low-rise horizontal sort, instead of the more profitable vertical sort.

The Paradigm - Where did the hills come from?

Looking for example, at the "visual illustration" of The Paradigm mega-development project next to Lebuhraya Damansara-Puchong (LDP), you would notice how it gives a false sense of space and tranquility with all four corners of its surroundings lined with open spaces and pretty trees. There are even trees-covered hills at a not too far distance away (no idea which part of PJ is that! ;-)).

The buildings are in no doubt top class buildings from a reputable developer listed on Bursa Malaysia. I'm not questioning their quality. I'm just asking, whether we, the city, is ready to cope with such projects cropping up all over the town. Or should it continue to be build first, cope later, like the policies of the previous government.

The trip to Tokyo, sponsored by the Asia Society, certainly opened my eyes a fair bit on how "good" things can still be, despite humongous developments. It's much better than even the state of affairs in enviable cities such as Hong Kong and Singapore.

Footnote: I've received a fair bit of response from volunteers who are willing to help me with the petition in PJ. I'm still looking for more, so email me if you are keen to help turn PJ into a more livable city.
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