THE other day, my 75-year-old aunt was walking near her home in SS2, Petaling Jaya, when she almost twisted her ankle as she tripped over an unexpected gap in the middle of the sidewalk.
She ended up with cuts and bruises on the leg and had to get a tetanus jab from the doctor.
You are probably thinking this is typical and hardly surprising.
The whole idea of having sidewalks is so that one can walk about safely, out of the way of oncoming cars. They are an integral part of city planning. Or they should be.
However, quite often sidewalks seem to suddenly appear (or disappear) as an afterthought. I seriously wonder if the town planners really bother to consider the well-being of residents in the neighbourhoods.
Cars are parked on the sidewalk, obstructing the walkway for pedestrians
Case in point: About six or seven years ago, Petaling Jaya City Council (MBPJ) workers came around and did up all the pavements in red along the SS2 main roads, leading all the way to SS3 and SS4.
This was good, except that they were ridiculously high – at least 25cm to 30cm – which meant old folk or small children had problems stepping up and down, not to mention how inconvenient it was for those in wheelchairs.
Somebody may have noted this because a couple of weeks later, chunks were carved out from each side of the sidewalk to allow for easier access from ground level – still a silly idea as some of the smaller sidewalks and kerbs, especially those in between houses, were barely two metres long.
These impractical mounts, more like ugly undulating cement hills in a Lilliputian landscape, were useless as one would have to get off after walking two steps anyway.
It totally defeated the purpose of accessibility for the disabled and most residents just chose to walk on the road.
I thought the height would not be an issue for long and sure enough, workers came and dug holes in the road and re-tarred the surface within six months.
After several times, the road level was raised and the height of the sidewalk was back to “normal” – about 10cm to 20cm.
Incidentally, that is the standard height for sidewalks in the US as it is easy to step up and down, with enough “clear zone” to stop a vehicle.
Fast forward to today, the same sidewalks are chipped at the edges, littered with indiscriminate potholes or rubbish, and some tiles are even cracked.
What’s worse, sometimes cars are parked on the sidewalks, despite the fact that there are two huge open-air carparks built near the Taman Bahagia LRT station.
There are also supposed to be proper drainage holes located intermittently in the sidewalk to let rainwater flow out.
Instead, these are clogged with rubbish or sealed off by the new, higher road level, so flash floods often occur.
My children who walk to school regularly complain that there are no proper sidewalks around the school, or to the Taman Bahagia LRT station, which is only 500m down the road.
The existing pavement is like an obstacle course, as one has to avoid piles of rubbish, heaps of stones and debris, uneven surfaces, tree roots and branches. And, it ends abruptly about 300m from the school gate.
Earlier this year, I attended a workshop in Kuala Lumpur, facilitated by a visiting English professor who had lectured in Universiti Malaya for a few years in the early millennium.
She said it struck her how scary it was to walk across a busy stretch near the university in town, and that she even witnessed two fatalities.
StarMetro was the first to highlight this dangerous situation, and soon after, Kuala Lumpur City Hall (DBKL) finally constructed proper sidewalks and a pedestrian bridge.
But why do we have to wait until something happens before the council does the right thing?
In a discussion with my sons, they observed that only when a neighbourhood starts getting “gentrified” does better infrastructure and nicely paved sidewalks get upgraded, as it attracts a richer segment of society, changing the mix in the neighbourhood.
While that is not a bad thing, my point of contention is this – why does it only have to be the more expensive neighbourhoods that get to have basic infrastructure when it should be a given in any urban residential area in PJ?
This is not some side lane in a small kampung, this is the heart of Petaling Jaya, one of the most populated cities in the country.
Yet we cannot even expect decent sidewalks, unless you are paying for it in a gated community.
I believe it’s not a question of lack of funds either, but more of maintenance and smarter planning.
The sidewalks are already in place, but they need to be of better quality and properly managed.
Tree roots constantly grow and break up the sidewalks; the answer is not to chop off the tree and plant shrubs, but to better manage nature alongside city development so as to retain our already depleting green environment.
If Malaysia is to be more people-friendly in terms of infrastructure, especially with the ongoing 29th SEA Games, then the city council has to be serious about meeting the people’s needs.
What is the point of giving the false impression that we are a well-managed city when we cannot even get the basics right in the neighbourhoods where we live?