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Transit-oriented growth fraught with challenges

Transit-oriented development (TOD) is the latest buzzword in the property development world. There are many variations of its definition. Wikipedia classifies transit-oriented development (TOD) as a mixed-use residential and commercial area designed to maximise access to public transport, and often incorporates features to encourage transit ridership.

A TOD neighbourhood typically has a centre with a transit station or stop (train station, metro station, tram stop, or bus stop), surrounded by relatively high-density development with progressively lower-density development spreading outward from the centre. TODs generally are located within a radius of one-quarter to one-half mile (400 to 800m) from a transit stop, as this is considered to be an appropriate scale for pedestrians, thus solving the last mile problem.

Personally, I feel there is no better way forward for all future developments in the Klang Valley. I have never been a fan of the urban sprawl that has plagued the Klang Valley to date. The urban sprawl that we have means that the additional housing developed in the Klang Valley is further and further spread out, and all in relatively low density.

Areas such as Bandar Saujana Putra, Setia Alam, Bandar Puncak Alam, and many more may not have come about if we had different policies in the last two decades, promoting transit-oriented development.

The lack of TOD has brought upon the necessity for car ownership, as our public transport system is not wide covering and as of today, it cannot move people for any one point in the Klang Valley to any other point in the Klang Valley.

Thus, it would seem like a no brainer for both Dewan Bandaraya Kuala Lumpur (DBKL) and the Selangor state government to alter its land use and town planning policies to encourage more development within the 400m and 800m radius of public transport nodes, especially every rail station and even certain bus hubs.

Such a move will encourage people to stay and even work near the various rail stations and transport hubs in the Klang Valley. There are 48 LRT Stations, 54 KTM Komuter Stations and 11 Monorail stations in operation today, with another 25 LRT stations and 31 MRT stations under construction that should be functioning in a couple of years.

As nice as it might be, it would be a very tall order to connect every nook and corner of the Klang Valley to our growing railway network. Not only is it time-consuming, the lower density of our suburb townships make it very expensive to cover a wide spread area, along making the operational cost prohibitive.

Thus, as the Klang Valley continues to grow and attract migration from within and outside the country, we need to seriously rethink how we will house the thousands of new homes and commercial spaces that have to be built in the coming years.

The Klang Valley, which was home to 7.2 million residents in 2012, is expected to house 10 million residents in 2020, which will require an increase of at least 700,000 homes (assuming an average of four people to a house) between the year 2012 and 2020.

This is then expected to further rise to 20 million residents by 2030, a whopping increase at least 2.5 million homes would be needed to accommodate this increase.

And to accomplish this huge demand in housing the coming years, we can continue to sprawl out, as we have been doing the last few decades, or we can start to concentrate this rising demand for housing around our many transport hubs, most of which are underutilised today, I might add.

If we continue to sprawl out, at normal landed property density of approximately 20 houses per acre, we would need a wide area of at least 100,000 acres, taking into considerations the additional road network, green space and other necessary components to make townships work.

The urban footprint of the Klang Valley will be spread out far further, driving the need for private vehicle ownership upwards, and increase travel time from one point to another, and especially increase the travel time from these newer townships to the major city centres like Kuala Lumpur, Petaling Jaya and so on.

And the good news is that we are starting to see our governments starting to talk about TOD. One in particular in MBPJ, which is proposing to increase the plot ratio (a measure of density) from the current plot ratio of four to a plot ratio of six in TOD areas, namely 400m radius from all existing and future LRT and MRT stations in Petaling Jaya.

Here comes the 'but'. Before MBPJ can consider embarking on this TOD initiative, it must first deal with certain underlying issues, in order to ensure that the city moves forward for the better and not otherwise.

While MBPJ's move to shift the development closer to transport hubs in laudable, it is not coupled with any move or initiative to reduce zoning density for areas further away from any transport hub. At today's present rules, nearly all commercial land is allowed for a plot ratio of four, regardless of proximity from highways or rail stations.

If such reduction is not made in Petaling Jaya, it will not reduce the problems of high density developments away from transport hubs, which will continue to encourage more car usage in an already congested city. And this is the first issue with TOD – efforts to increase zoning in the 400m or even 800m radius to transport hubs must also be accompanied by similar adjustments or reduction to zoning in areas further away from such transport hubs.

The second issue that we have to look at is the effect of TOD on the population boom of a city. We need to consider the effects of mix development, which is a strong component of TOD on town planning.

Mixed development means that on a particular piece of land, there will be a mix of commercial and residential unit. We already see this coming up in Kuala Lumpur, Petaling Jaya and Subang Jaya, where commercial lands are being developed for mixed usage, which retail commonly on the podium with some if not all towers for service apartments, or its variations such as SOHO.

The conventional town planning calculations assumed that residential land would be used for housing residents, and commercial land for commercial purposes such as retail, office, entertainment and so on. Thus, this would affect calculations for social amenities, such as the requirements for schools, parks and green space, community halls, places of worship, sporting and recreational spaces, funeral homes and cemeteries, and so on.

Most of these social amenities are planned for and built by the government as they are not profit making ventures. And as such, all planning for such amenities is crucial, and the fact is, planning for such amenities must be based on the total population of a city.

With TOD being proposed for Petaling Jaya, the TOD proposal must also address the potential increase in population, and subsequently, the planning for social amenities to accompany that must be done before any increase of development density be considered.

The third aspect that must be looked at by the town planners is the carrying capacity of our utilities to cope with the increase development and increased population within a smaller confined area. Coming off the recent water rationing exercise affecting the Klang Valley badly, we need to ensure that all our utilities, including water supply, sewage, power supply, telecommunications can cope, and its expansions are planned and provided for in any revision of a town's masterplan.

The foutth and final aspect that our town planners must consider and prepare for is ironically, the traffic and transport masterplan. For TOD to work, we need people to use public transport extensively. It helps that with TOD, more residents will be in walking distance to a LRT or MRT station. This will reduce the need for private vehicles.

But it is also very likely that all those who stay in these TOD areas will have to travel to areas outside the rail coverage. As the Klang Valley has already sprawled out, we need to ensure that we have a sufficient bus network radiating from every transport hub. This bus network will not expand on its own or by accident, we need proper planning to ensure that it happens.

In this article, we have seen four aspects that must be dealt with and must go hand in hand with any proposal to increase density, even though the increase of density is well meaning for the purposes of transit oriented development. I cautiously welcome MBPJ and Selangor's plan to centre development around our rail stations, but all such plans must be holistic to consider all factors.

RAJIV RISHYAKARAN is Bukit Gasing assemblyperson.

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