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Walk the thought

Posted in by Faezah Ismail on January 25, 2010

Learning Curve, New Sunday Times, January 24, 2010



Walk the thought

Posted in A. MURAD MERICAN by Faezah Ismail on January 23, 2010

Learning Curve contributor Professor Ahmad Murad Merican pays tribute to the pleasures of walking in the following article (Learning Curve, New Sunday Times, January 24, 2010).

Walking has created trade routes and generated local and cross-continental senses of place.

The closest we can get to sustainable (today’s buzzword) living is by walking.

Literally walking with our two feet. When we walk the walk, we wander into topics such as philosophy and spirituality, the urban landscape, health and heart. Most of the time, we think that walking is merely  for moving from one place to another.

Let us briefly delve into an intellectual history of walking. In doing so, we engage ourselves in the linkage between architecture and language.

When Aristotle was setting up a school in Athens, he was assigned a plot of land. On the land stood shrines to Apollo and the Muses. Connected to a  shrine was a covered colonnade or walk (peripatos), which gave Aristotle’s school its name, and its lecturers theirs — the peripatetic philosophers.

It was along the colonnade that Aristotle lectured while walking up and down. So began the Peripatetic School where “Aristotle and teachers walked  habitually and extensively while teaching.” — uniting walking with thinking.

Walk the thought if you like.

Accounts about the meaning of walking have been personal, descriptive and, I must stress, they embody some form of alienation.

Rebecca Solnit in Wanderlust: A History of Walking notes that its meaning cannot be found in philosophy; but in poetry, novels, letters, diaries, travellers’ accounts and first-person essays.

William Wordsworth made walking central to his life and an art to a degree  almost unparalleled before or since. He seemed to have gone walking nearly every day of his long life and through the activity he encountered the world, which influenced his poetry.

A road is a sight on perspective — something that I enjoy while walking — lined with trees or buildings. Roads have long conditioned my sense of perspectival space.

But Wordsworth described it better:

I love a public road; few sights there are
That please me more — such object had had power
O’er my imagination since the dawn
Of childhood, when its disappearing line
Seen daily afar off, on one bare steep
Beyond the limits which my feet had trod
Was like a guide into eternity,
At least to things unknown and without bound.

In my schooldays, I used to walk for miles (before the kilometre disrupted our sense of distance).

The field fronting Penang Free School at leafy Green Lane was space for walking — along and across. We walked, thought and talked. I remember Azman Zain and M. Vijayandran.

The school compound was huge by today’s standards, lined on one side by mature angsana trees and at the other end of the field, a pavilion.

The walks were an education in themselves.  Walking was  the school’s hidden curriculum, even to the teachers.

I must not forget to mention the road along Green Lane and Scotland Road which provided a pleasant walking climate then.

Walking has long sustained man’s sanity. It is an institution. Walking, ideally, is a state in which the mind, the body and the world are aligned, as though they were a trio of characters finally in conversation together, three notes suddenly making a chord, wrote Solnit, an author and essayist with more than five books and articles on visual art, public space, landscape and environmental issues.

She argued for the necessity of preserving time and space in which to walk in a world built for the motor car and other machines. Indeed, much can be learnt from walking.

But we hardly walk (or learn) anymore. We build communities and cities for motorised vehicles. There is little or no space to walk. We design our built environment without the pedestrian in mind. There is little or no connectivity.

Our cityscapes are machine-dominated. Even small towns, such as Bandar Seri Iskandar, Perak where I am staying, are not spared.

You need some form of a motorised transportation to move around. We reside in our private comfort zone of the vehicle, perhaps deliberately hiding ourselves from others behind the tinted glass of the vehicle and not necessarily the glare of the sun. We alienate walking.

We cannot even walk safely– there are not enough five-foot ways for walking. We share the same space with cars and buses, making our environment not pedestrian-friendly.

And being people-friendly is also Earth-friendly. This was expressed by Japanese architect and urban planner Shunya Susuki, an advocate of life at walking speed (See Learning Curve, March 8,  2009).

Fukuoka-based Susuki, former coordinating officer for UN Habitat Regional Office for Asia and the Pacific, believes in matching the pace of life with walking speed, which will reduce traffic accidents and crime, and engages people at a pedestrian level.

This does mean that we do not need other modes of transportation. There  are the bicycles and “green vehicles”.

Walking is at the same time History and Geography. It evokes the complexity of time, space and place. Modern man lives in compressed time — globalisation and the death of distance.

We have evolved, so we think. But life at walking speed advocates the decompression of time, space, habits, thoughts and language. Modern society measures itself against its ability to evolve in tandem with technology. Walking is devolution — back to the source of sustainability.

I did not have to wrestle with vehicles at Minneapolis, Minnesota where I studied for three years. Daily, I walked for 20 to 25 minutes, crossing the Mississippi River to the Twin Cities campus from my apartment on the East Bank at University Avenue. I enjoyed my walks all year round — winter, spring, summer, spring and fall. Along the way, I engaged myself with the trees, falling leaves, sun, snow and the sights and sounds of squirrels and birds.

And I delightfully absorbed the different colours of the changing seasons.

In the history of mankind, walking engages us to look for something. Walking is as sacred as the pilgrimage. It is premised on the idea that the sacred is not entirely immaterial. There is a geography of spiritual power. The travel and arrival is fundamental.

I encountered Wanderlust some years ago. It prompted a response to my frustration of not being able to enjoy long walks anymore — one, due to work (except during lectures — I do not teach sitting down) and the other, the apathy and hostility towards walking by our planners and policy makers. I may have succumbed to that.

Even our universities do not generally promote walking on campus. They are turning into city centres, choked with traffic and pollution. We do not teach students to walk. We cannot blame them because many campuses were not conceived, designed and constructed with sustainability in mind.

But we must not allow walking to be taken for granted. Our environment has both shaped and been shaped by the imagination through spaces passed by our two feet.

Solnit waxed eloquent that walking has created paths, roads and trade routes; generated local and cross-continental senses of place, shaped cities and parks; created maps, guidebooks, gear; and, further afield, a vast library of walking stories and poems, pilgrimages, mountaineering expeditions, meanders and summer picnics.

“The landscapes, urban and rural, gestate the stories, and the stories bring us back to the sites of this history.”

Walking affects everybody. The history of walking is an amateur one. It is everyone’s experience. “I like walking because it is slow, and I suspect that the mind, like the feet, works at about three miles an hour. If this is so, then modern life is moving faster than the speed of thought, or thoughtfulness,” Solnit related. That sounds much like life at walking speed.

To recall Wordsworth, walking is being, not becoming. It is about space and place. If one you observes our cities — and I mean places that we have built that we call “towns”, urban centres, suburban neighbourhoods and the like, there is an absence of public space where one can consume the walk.
I used to stay in USJ Subang Jaya, Petaling Jaya and commute to my workplace in Shah Alam where public space in both townships has not been well conceived.

We build modern houses, compartmentalise our area, and the only “public space” is the road fronting our houses. The roads in our neighbourhoods do not have pavements. Most sections are now gated. The pedestrian is looked upon with suspicion.

We live in an architecture of fear — of machines and motorised vehicles,  snatch thefts, muggers, and burglars. We are the nemesis of sustainability.

University campuses are ideal places to advocate walking and should be promoted as such — perhaps a day in a week to celebrate bipedalism. We miss exploring the walk, the thought and the terrain.

I fear that the erosion of ethics (both in the sociological and technological sense) in our society will kill the simple pleasures of the pedestrian and bury (the sustainability of) the thought.

The writer is a professor at the Department of Management and Humanities, Universiti Teknologi PETRONAS, Bandar Seri Iskandar, Perak. He can be contacted at amurad_noormerican@petronas.com.my

Within walking distance

Posted in IDEAS by Faezah Ismail on January 25, 2010

'Everywhere is walking distance if you have the time' -- Steven Wright

Professor A. Murad Merican’s reflections on walking (Walk the thought, Learning Curve, January 24, 2010) underline our disconnection from the natural world.

He belongs to a circle of enthusiasts who want to bring walking back into our lives as we try to make sense of and keep up with the rapid pace of change.

He laments the lack of opportunities for the activity now and wants to teach students to walk.

“University campuses are ideal places to promote walking,” he says.

Japanese creator, inventor, innovator, architect, urban planner and creativity teacher Shunya Susuki made a similar plea early last year.

“Life at walking speed” (Learning Curve, March 8, 2009) aptly describes the philosophy that he subscribes  to.

He believes in living in an environment where the pace of life matches with the speed of walking.

He learned about this way of life when he spent some time (1999 and 2000) in Zermatt village, a car-free Swiss mountain resort with a breathtaking view of the Matterhorn.

Zermatt residents are able to “conquer their environmental problems because they have lived their lives at walking speed”.

It is an ideal to aspire to, he says.

New Straits Times columnist Wan A. Hulaimi (New Sunday Times, January 17, 2010), another walking devotee, wonders why buildings today do not come with sheltered corridors like those built during colonial times.

Susuki’s message of matching the pace of life with walking speed can guide us to make better choices.

In the mad rush to chase our dreams, we may have lost the desire to walk and, by extension, the wisdom to check our priorities.

Walking allows us to see things in perspective as we soak up the mood of our surroundings: trees that stand tall, flowers that glow in full bloom and water features that evoke tranquillity.

We don’t know why but we feel a strong connection with living things.

Biologist Edward. O. Wilson (The Creation, 2006, Page 63) explains that “the gravitational pull of Nature on the human psyche can be expressed in a single, more contemporary expression, biophilia, which I defined in 1984 as the innate tendency to affiliate with life and lifelike processes.

“From infancy to old age, people everywhere are attracted to other species. Novelty and diversity of life are esteemed.

“Nowadays the word ‘extraterrestrial’ summons in ultimate manner the countless images of still unexplored life, replacing the old and once potent ‘exotic’, which drew earlier travellers to unnamed islands and remote jungles.

“To explore and affiliate with life, to turn living creatures into emotion-laden metaphors, and to install them in mythology and religion — these are the easily recognised fundamental processes of biophilic cultural evolution.

“The affiliation has a moral consequence: the more we come to understand other life forms, the more our learning expands to include their vast diversity, and the greater value we will place on them and, inevitably, on ourselves”.

Have we really lost the use of our feet because we now live in a “civilised” world where motorised transportation dominates?

That is sad because as Murad puts it, “walking sustains man’s sanity”.

Haven’t you gone for a walk to clear your head?

Thomas Mann was spot on when he discovered that “thoughts come clearly while one walks”.

Life will be better if everything we need is within walking distance.

NOTE: Photo courtesy of New Straits Times.

Features (Environment)

Posted in by Faezah Ismail on January 25, 2010

Missing link in public transport

Posted in MALAYSIA and JAPAN by Faezah Ismail on January 23, 2010

My public transport experience in Fukuoka City, Japan and discussion about green transportation at the Fourth Asian City Journalist Conference which was held in Fukuoka City on December 14, 2009 had inspired the following articles .

Malaysia’s “messy and disappointing” public transport should take a  leaf from Japan’s book, writes FAEZAH ISMAIL

A call to monitor the performance of public transport

UNIVERSITI Kebangsaan Malaysia’s Professor Abd Rahim Md Nor, like many Malaysians who use public transport here, has plenty to say about its shortcomings.

He even wrote an article examining Malaysia’s public transport which was published in Berita Minggu on Nov 15, last year.

“Our main problem has to do with the poor quality of service. That has not been sorted out yet,” says Abd Rahim (see report below).

The missing element in the equation is an agency to monitor the performance of Malaysia’s public transport, adds Abd Rahim, who specialises in public transport.

There are 13 agencies which look after different aspects of public transport here but none that checks the quality of service, he says.

The researcher finds the omission strange because Malaysia’s “messy and disappointing” public transport, as environmentalist Gurmit Singh puts it, is a contentious issue that never fails to grab the headlines.

Sustainable transport is difficult to promote for the simple reason that Malaysia’s public transport is unreliable, says Abd Rahim, who is head of the Postgraduate Environmental Management Programme, Faculty of Social Science and Humanities, Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia.

Abd Rahim Md Nor

The issue of sustainable transport and the initiatives taken by countries in the Asia Pacific region were explored at the recent Fourth Asian City Journalist Conference (commonly referred to as the 4th ACJC) which was held in Fukuoka City, Japan.

Journalists from Japan (The Nishinippon Newspaper), South Korea (Busanilbo Daily News), Vietnam (Saigon Giai Phong Investment Finance Newspaper), the Philippines (Philippine Daily Inquirer), Thailand (Prachachat Business Newspaper), Indonesia (KOMPAS Jakarta), Singapore (Lianhe Zaobao) and Malaysia (New Straits Times) discussed green transport issues in their countries at the meeting, which was organised by UN Habitat Regional Office for Asia and the Pacific (Fukuoka), The Nishinippon Newspaper and Japan’s Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism.

Malaysia’s public transport seems dismal compared with those in other countries. Take Fukuoka City.

A trip to Fukuoka International Airport from Nishitetsu Inn Fukuoka, which is in the Tenjin area of Fukuoka City, is a trouble-free experience even for a foreigner who does not speak Japanese and is unfamiliar with the city.

(Tenjin is the information, shopping, business and cultural centre of Fukuoka City where people from other regions in Kyushu as well as Korea and China gather).

Hop on a train — the subway station is a short walk away — which goes to a destination where a free shuttle bus will whisk you off to the airport.

The whole process — walking out of the hotel, striding to the subway station, getting on the train and boarding the shuttle bus — takes under 45 minutes, allowing for minor distractions including stopping and asking people for directions to the correct subway station and platform for the airport-bound train.

Let’s consider the picture in Kuala Lumpur.

The journey time to Kuala Lumpur International Airport (KLIA) from KL Sentral via KLIA Ekspres is under 30 minutes.

But going to KL Sentral from the city area by train can be time consuming.

Unlike the case in Fukuoka City, it is generally not an easy walk to a light rail transit (LRT) station to catch the KL Sentral-bound train.

And if you take a taxi, the driver will have to battle against traffic jams to get you there.

The Japanese Creator

Shunya Susuki

The positive public transport encounter in Fukuoka City makes it easy to understand why 60 per cent of citizens there opt for public transport to commute to work, according to a 2005 report.

Fukuoka City Hall official Shunya Susuki is among the 60 per cent of Japanese in Fukuoka City who use public transport to get to the office.

Susuki, who is director of the Earthquake-Resistance and Safety Section at Fukuoka City Hall, likes to travel on public transport because he “hates traffic jams and automobile exhaust emissions”.

He usually takes the bus to work because the bus stop is close to his home in Toyohama town.

He can also catch the train to work if he wants but the nearest subway station is some distance away.

The travel time by bus to his office, which is in Tenjin, is “around 30 minutes”.

Quoting March 2009 figures, Susuki says an average Japanese family has 1.086 cars while an average Fukuoka prefecture family has 1.091 cars.

“Fukuoka City’s public transport will be better when the connection between the subway and bus systems is improved,” he says.

Ryuji Tanaka

The Nishinippon Newspaper vice editor-in-chief Ryuji Tanaka reveals that Fukuoka City has been promoting car-free days since 1993 and it designated every Friday as such a day in 2007.

“People in the city are encouraged to use public transport on that day and are eligible for one-day discount tickets for bus and subway services as well as free parking in the Tenjin parking area,” says Tanaka, who was a panellist at the 4th ACJC.

For further information on Fukuoka City especially its position as a strategic place for economic activity and transportation, visit this website .

Abd Rahim is full of praise for the public transport in Sweden and Denmark in terms of connectivity and high-quality service.

“Sweden’s reputation for reliable and efficient public transport networks is well deserved,” writes Bob Carter of Nature Travels, the United Kingdom specialists for outdoor experiences in Sweden.

“Its web of well-organised public transport links offers regular connections to even the furthest reaches of the country.
“Where it is necessary to take a combination of train and bus to reach your destination, bus timetables are often thoughtfully coordinated with train arrival and departure times.”

Danish cities Odense and Copenhagen are famous for bicycle transportation, which along with walking are sustainable modes of transport.

Wikipedia statistics show that nearly one-fifth of all trips in Copenhagen are by bicycle. For home-to-work commutes, 36 per cent of all trips are by bicycle.

Denmark will present Odense’s experience with bicycle transportation at EXPO Shanghai 2010 (May 1-Oct 31, 2010).
Odense and 59 other cities will participate in the Urban Best Practice Area in Shanghai and the Danish city’s Best Practice case is called The Revival of the Bicycle.

The transport sector has a major environmental impact and a large carbon footprint, say researchers.

“Transportation accounts for 14 per cent of global greenhouse gases (GHG); that means our dependency on green modes of transportation such as the LRT system will become more pivotal,” writes Ashraff Sanusi from Cardiff University in a letter to the New Straits Times which was published on Dec 23, last year.

The transport system will be among the first issues that must be addressed if Malaysia is to keep its promise to cut carbon emissions by 40 per cent within the next 10 years, he adds.

Gurmit Singh

Abd Rahim and Gurmit Singh do not think that Malaysia has started its green transportation drive although the LRT system has long been introduced.

Those promoting low-pollution and pollution-free sustainable transport — buses, LRT systems, bicycles and walking – insist that an integrated package of policies to build alternatives to private vehicles must be put in place before Malaysians can be inspired to use public transport.

Persuading more Malaysians to use public transport is a green initiative, says Gurmit Singh.

Currently, only 16 per cent of Malaysians travel by public transport for economic and social connections.

Whether the target of 40 per cent public transport users is attainable by 2012 is a matter for debate.

Gurmit Singh says the goal should be 60 per cent — and Japan’s Fukuoka City has shown that it is an achievable aim — rather than 40 per cent and “we can only call ourselves green” when that is gained.

He argues that the most important issue is accessibility and not mobility.

The poor and those without private vehicles in Malaysia still do not have adequate access to public transport to fulfil their economic, educational and social obligations.

Walking and perhaps cycling are the only options in areas ill served by public transport.

As far as research in the field is concerned, Abd Rahim says this is a new area even for him.

An experiment with a natural gas vehicle — a bus — was carried out in Putrajaya 12 years ago but it is unclear whether there is any progress.

“The petrol price here is still low in comparison with our cost of living and fuel charges in countries of a similar economic status,” says Abd Rahim.

That hardly motivates people to make the switch from private vehicles to public transport and operators to change from petrol or diesel to alternative fuel, he adds.

Countries with efficient public transport have implemented them within the context of creating more vibrant and livable sustainable cities — both Gurmit Singh and Abd Rahim emphasise this point. They offer ample lessons to Malaysia.

Some taxi drivers do not use their meters

Monitor and enforce standards

MALAYSIANS make no secret of their distrust of the public transport here.

Currently, only 16 per cent of Malaysians use public transport to get to work, shop, and meet family and friends.

The current list of grouses sounds familiar: buses do not come on time; taxi drivers do not use their meters and charge unpredictable, arbitrary fares; the light rail transit system does not cover a wide area; and a lack of cycling paths and pedestrian walkways in towns and cities.

The issue dates back to the early 1970s when the demand for public transport rose exponentially to serve the new urban population, says Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia academic Professor Abd Rahim Md Nor.

Malaysia also fares badly in road safety. There are still too many deaths from car crashes.

“Car and motorbike crazy” — that is how observers describe urban Malaysia.

The average Malaysian family owns 2.5 cars and teens on motorcycles continue to irritate and worry their parents.

Ongoing brainstorming sessions between the authorities and public transport experts underline the government’s commitment to finding solutions to problems, says Abd Rahim, who specialises in public transport.

The proposed formation of the Public Land Transport Commission or its Malay acronym SPAD is seen as another positive development.

SPAD, which was supposed to have been set up last year, would act as a single authority to watch and enforce service standards as well as offer a long-term plan for urban public transport.

NOTE: Learning Curve, New Sunday Times published  these articles on January 24, 2010. Pictures of Shunya Susuki and Ryuji Tanaka courtesy of The Nishinippon Newspaper. The other pictures reprinted by kind permission of New Straits Times.

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