Interview: Urbanist Jeffrey Lim on crowdsourcing the Cycling KL map and ways to improve the city’s commute

The cycling advocate discusses his preference to work with the authorities and build bridges instead of burning them.

Jeffrey describes the bicycle as a ‘perfect machine’ for its efficiency in amplifying a person’s energy.

Cycling advocate and urbanist Jeffrey Lim is most well known for his two-and-a-half-year-long project of creating the crowdsourced Cycling Kuala Lumpur Bicycle Map, which had its first print run in 2014.

Following the success of the project, Jeffrey was included to share his input to Kuala Lumpur City Hall (DBKL) on the integrating of the recent 11km bike lane in the heart of the city.

Most recently, he was commissioned by ThinkCity to produce a report titled Improving Streets of Downtown Kuala Lumpur, which involved a nine-month-long survey and includes recommendations that range from addressing the walkability of an area, to the pollution control and even on the urban biodiversity of different areas.

We chat with Jeffrey to learn more about the importance of local knowledge, what is needed to encourage the use of public transportation in the city and the need to be proactive when dealing with shortcomings in community development:

Q: What made you decide to start the Cycling Kuala Lumpur project?

Well, it’s a basic idea of mapping cycling routes in the city. The main thing about it is that it’s a map that contains all the local knowledge of places. If you live in a particular area, you would know all the shortcuts. Cycling from A to B, you wouldn’t be taking the same route if you were driving a car. You would take a shortcut, or you would take a route that is less busy. So this map is a cumulation of all that knowledge.

And also most of the case, shortcuts are not exactly standardised routes. So you might be going through someone’s backyard, private property and stuff like that. But it’s what people use every day.

Q: Can you describe your relationship with bicycles?

I’ve always had a love for bikes. When I was about six years old, I took apart my bike just to find out how it works.

I didn’t know how to put it back of course, but I ended up becoming a bike geek.

Before I did the bicycle map, I was doing rebuilding programmes. I did a movement called Village Bicycle, and it had researched into our cycling heritage and our cycling culture. We found out about a lot of old shops, and that was what I was trying to do — to find out the history of bicycles of Malaysia.

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The Cycling Kuala Lumpur Bicycle Map is distributed for free around the Klang Valley at these locations.

Q: The Cycling Kuala Lumpur Bicycle Map is distributed for free around the Klang Valley at these locations.

It’s very deep. Before we built cars, we built bicycles. We built every single part of the bicycle in Malaysia.

KL is not really an old city. It’s only like 200 years old. The city was founded at a time when industrialisation was happening in the world. Bicycles were one of the creations that resulted from that. So everyone had a bike. And the city was more or less built for bikes, sidecars and block carts so it’s relatively flat in the older parts of the city.

Q: What observations do you have of the city’s evolution through the ‘80s and ‘90s?

It’s changed because the users have changed. For one, not that many people live in KL anymore, so the urban sprawl has changed. A lot of people live outside of the city. So transportation has changed according to that.

Additionally, the Malaysian National Automotive Policy paved the way for everyone to have a car. So the city was then made to prioritise cars.

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The visually stunning documentary ‘The Boy, His Bike & The Map’ by artist Gan Siong King offers an in-depth exploration of Jeffrey’s process behind the bicycle map.

Q: How would you describe the Klang Valley commute?

It’s getting better, of course. Especially now with the MRT (Mass Rapid Transit) system. There’s going to be MRT2, then there’s going to be MRT3. I think by 2025, all three will be built (Editor’s note: The MRT3 project was scrapped by the federal government in May 2018). And that would link up a lot of areas. I think where it lacks now is probably in the buses and taxi services.

The biggest hurdle is always in trying to get enough bus riders and enough buses on the road. So, yeah, the commute is still a challenge, depending which areas you come from. We have a 40% modal share target by 2020. We are barely above 20%. It’s still very low even though we have the infrastructure put in. So people still haven’t made that shift.

Q: What do you think is standing in the way?

What’s standing in the way is that we still can drive our cars. Many countries implement congestion charges or limit private users in the city.

In Singapore, you have the ERP (Electronic Road Pricing system). You pay as soon as you get into the city. You could increase parking charges, decrease the number of parking spaces in the city, decrease the number of roads going into the city, decrease the amount of space for private users. So that would discourage people from using their own cars. And at the same time, you need to have very conducive public transportation. Feeder buses and trains have to be in place.

At the end of the day, it’s about what’s economical. If public transportation is the more obvious cheaper option, then more people would use it.

Q: Why the choice to crowdsource the data collection for the map?

Most importantly, it’s about getting the local data, and the local knowledge on how to get around certain areas.

So to get that kind of data, you need to first get people who live there to tell you where to cycle. The second step was to observe. Go there and see how the community moves around. And then curate that data, and put it on the map.

But volunteers came in all forms. Some were not cyclists. Some did administrative work. Everyone did what they could.

The digital copy of the map is available over at the Cycling Kuala Lumpur website.

Q: Many people feel apathetic about interacting with the authorities. How do you see yourself as a participant in the system?

There are many different types of roles activists and advocates can play. And I knew I had to promote this project differently. I had to think proactively, which is most important.

That’s why this project has an open policy. All data is always shared with all agencies, private or public. And we always collaborate because that is the aim of the project.

If you’re always fighting against what the city council is doing, then you will never get anywhere. So it’s building these stepping stones that we can get somewhere. So the bicycle map is seen as a stepping stone to achieve something. To head somewhere.

Q: You had an advisory role when it came to adding the blue bike lanes in KL. How do you feel about moving on from mapping, to actually participating in the city’s infrastructure?

Ever since I made the map, I’ve been invited to talk at many conferences. I’ve met a lot of other advocates, and learned about how other cities have come up with their own solutions. I would say that I have a lot of exposure on this subject.

So it’s all part of the evolution. Being an advisor or being part of the project is just a natural process. And, I’m glad to participate. I’m glad to provide my feedback and be part of the process. Because at the end of the day, it’s all a never-ending process.

Jeffrey describes the bicycle as a ‘perfect machine’ for its efficiency in amplifying a person’s energy.

Q: There were criticisms against that bike lane. What do you think of the public reaction?

It’s good. I mean at least there is a reaction rather than no reaction.

There has to be this bridge. Because there’s a big gap between the local government and the public. So, what we have to start building is this bridge. Because at the end of the day, they are part of us as well. How do we bridge this gap, how do we build this bridge, and how do we start working together to make things better?

Q: What are your plans moving forward?

When I meet older advocates and activists, they’re very bitter and very cynical. I never want to end up like that.

So you’ve got to create short-term goals and stepping stones. Not necessarily for yourself, but maybe for the next generation. Because I only have so much energy. And probably my energy is only in doing the map. So then it’s creating stepping stones for the future generations to build upon.

Maybe I’ll bring the map to a digital platform when it’s ready.

For more information on the cycling map, check out the Cycling Kuala Lumpur website. If you would like to browse through Jeffrey’s report on KL, head over to Improving Streets of Downtown Kuala Lumpur.

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