Asia’s Good Walks Spoiled

Tired of pouring money down the gaping maw of your gas tank? Want to get fit and do a small favor for the environment? Then dust off the sneakers and walk to work or bicycle your way to the next meeting or lunch appointment.

Unfortunately, that’s easier said than done in most Asian megacities, few of which offer incentives to walkers and bikers compared with many cities in Europe and Australia and some even in motor-obsessed USA, including New York, San Francisco and Boston – the three most walkable cities in the United States, according to the website Walkscore.com, which released a list of the most pedestrian-friendly cities in the US this week.

While we are not aware of any footpath rating system for Asian cities, we have our preferences. Tokyo is tops by a long, long way in our view with its sidewalks, bike paths and traffic lights that give plenty of time and space for non-motorized traffic. Tokyo is just too easy – and if rains too much one can slip into a subway and keep walking most of the way. Other Japanese cities are similarly designed and walking Kyoto is a delight surpassed only by Paris.

Seoul is also a good walkers’ city. A friend recently completed a tour of duty there and was delighted to spend a year walking to work downtown along broad avenues with relatively clean sidewalks punctuated by the occasional park or temple. Strolling from the Insa-dong tourist district through a nearby warren of traditional hanok houses (they still exist, though in declining numbers in Seoul) and on to the Blue House became a weekend treat for our friend. The only downside was walking home at night and having to dodge the occasional salaryman vomiting on his shoes from too much after-office soju. But at least there was usually room on the sidewalk to swerve away from revelers.

Taipei, too, has come a long way now that subway trains have greatly cut street-level gridlock and pollution. Indeed, even in Beijing and Shanghai it is more the pollution that deters the serious stroller than the lack of accesses and underpasses for walkers – though bicycles, once the symbol of urban China, now get short-shrift in such a car and status conscious country.

But when it comes to the negative impact of car consciousness on walkers and bikers, Southeast Asia’s booming metropolises — with the exception of clean and green Singapore — take the prize. Consider Kuala Lumpur, still only a small city. Walking in what used to be a green and low rise capital can now be positively dangerous. The pedestrian must makes huge detours around new buildings, negotiate a mix of concrete barriers and missing drain covers to make what on the map seems the simplest of journeys in the Golden Triangle – the downtown, up-market office, shopping and hotel district.

Manila and Jakarta are equally bad though they at least have the excuse of more people and less money. A friend can see his closest shopping mall, Pacific Place, from the window of his Jakarta apartment but has yet to discover any plausible way to get there by foot. Another acquaintance and his wife in Indonesia take the car and driver to a shopping mall on the weekends and then walk up and down the air-conditioned aisles for exercise. Manila’s deteriorated infrastructure and car-clogged streets have become so treacherous that none but the foolish or the poor dare walk anywhere.

Bangkok fortunately is a little less hazardous for pedestrians than it used to be now that the Skytrain and underground rail have made it more convenient to walk, even for the suited class. And the sois still provide some relief for the walker if you don’t mind dodging tuk-tuks on the narrow streets. But few recommend it.

Ho Chi Minh City is still just about walkable if you can stand the motorbike fumes and Hanoi is definitely Ok for walkers and even – just – for bikers. Its broad avenues and older districts are welcoming but it may not be long before limos and diesel-belching buses drive away the pedal and shoe leather set.

The problem in all these cities is that the middle and upper class just does not walk. We know people in Jakarta and Manila who take the chauffeur to cross the street. The non-motored rabble, they tell us, is unsafe, and the municipal authorities seem to have steadily eliminated what few sidewalks once existed. And bike paths? You must be kidding.

Given that the wealthy run things, they do not even consider the possibility of making their cities walkable. The usual excuse for this is “the heat,” as if this would also constitute a sufficient excuse for tropical farmers refusing to plant rice during the daytime. Lightly dressed and with an umbrella against rain or sun there is no reason why a 30 minute walk should be a problem. Yet how often do businessmen sit in cars for 30 minutes to get to an appointment a mere 10 minutes walk away?

The heat is often just an excuse for hiding the status issue in a region where having money means not having to raise a sweat except perhaps in the company of one’s personal trainer at the gym to which your driver delivers you. People with any kind of status simply do not walk or take the bus in most parts of Asia. They go by car, from one side of Ayala Avenue to the other or to traverse the 100 meters from the Mandarin Hotel in Jakarta to the Grand Hyatt on the other side of Sudirman. People in KL will spend hours struggling from, say, Bangsar, to the central business district by car rather than walk 10 minutes to get on a train that takes another 10 minutes. Needless to say, those who neither use their feet or public transport see little need for walkways or convenient train terminals, In Jakarta, for example, a great howl was raised when the city government put in a busway to accommodate the commuting masses a few years ago, thus reducing the number of lanes available to private motorists.

Hong Kong is a rather different case. Its public transport is excellent and even tycoons and senior bureaucrats sometimes use it. But just try walking from, say, Causeway Bay to Central, a stroll that used to be quite convenient not too many years ago. The harbor-front is impossible for the uninitiated now that it has been almost obliterated and requires numerous bits of backtracking to figure out which overpass goes where. The route along the main thoroughfares, Hennessy and Lockhart roads, is simpler but fraught with hazardous crossings. Meanwhile in Central, Causeway Bay and Tsimshatsui the density of development has meant that sidewalks are often so crowded that walking becomes an obstacle course. Those who insist on using their legs must figure out how to traverse the central area above ground and indeed it is possible to go from the Star Ferry to Wanchai without even touching the ground by learning how to use the pedestrian bridges that link office towers and shopping malls to one another.

And it remains to be seen how much of Macau — a truly great walking place — will remain intact given the development fever underway in that once-sleepy enclave.

All of this is a shame because the street-level view of any great city is always illuminating — but the region seems determined to pave over every vestige of the past as rapidly as possible in order to accommodate the next shopping mall to be filled with people desperate to avoid the man-made clutter of the street in favor of staring at windows filled with identical goods in city after city.

But cities are made to be walked in. Imagine San Francisco without a stroll through North Beach, New York without a walk down Broadway or Rome without its history viewed at a leisurely pace. Many of Asia’s cities were also laid out with an eye toward plazas and walkways — downtown Manila, for example, has its Plaza Lawton and magnificent old post office but few visitors would risk tangling with the traffic to get there. Bangkok, Jakarta and KL have similar pleasures that are steadily being ignored by car culture.

Oh well. Perhaps the people at walkscore.com can take on this region next. We like to take a walk also and maybe they can tell us where to go.