By Mariam Mokhtar

People who drive into Ipoh, around 7am on the last Sunday of each month may be in for a rude shock. If they want to drive into Jalan Raja DiHilir (Tambun Road), at the fountain roundabout, they may find their way barred, and the road blocked right up till the Jalan Hospital (Ashby Road) roundabout.

This includes those who are visiting friends with homes along this particular stretch of road, patrons of the library, those who need to get to the Ipoh Specialist Centre and those who use this arterial road to reach Canning Garden, Ipoh Garden or Tambun. If you are unfamiliar with the area, then you will waste an incredible amount of time, navigating side lanes to avoid this stretch of road, or taking an alternative, longer route, to arrive at your destination.

One person from Kampar, whose mother was taken ill, and wanted to take her to the “Accident and emergency entrance” at the Ipoh Specialist Centre found himself in this situation.

Although he eventually arrived at the hospital, he wondered what would have happened if his mother’s case had been a matter of life and death, and time was of the utmost urgency. He said, “Is this the best choice of road for Car-Free Days? The road has a major hospital, library and houses along it.”

In January 2016, when it was first announced that Ipoh’s Car-Free Days would be a permanent fixture in the calendar, Ipoh City Council urged motorists to leave their vehicles at home and adopt a healthier lifestyle by walking and cycling at the weekend. It also hoped that the reduction in vehicles on the road would reduce environmental pollution caused by noxious gases and soot, from exhaust fumes.

The Council allocated specific themes to particular days and many people dress-up for the occasion. After the Merdeka Day celebrations, people were bedecked in the Malaysian flag. After Hari Raya, people came in baju kurung and baju Melayu. Around Chinese New Year, lion dances were top attractions. Other themed days were recycling of rubbish and International Book Day.

Apart from cyclists, joggers, walkers and skateboarders, stalls are set up by various individuals and companies to sell food, services, phone services and to disseminate information.

In the Ipoh Echo article, “Ninth Car-Free Day”, published on 16 August 2016, Ipoh Mayor, Zamri Man, his wife and other Ipoh City Council staff were seen bicycling along Jalan Raja DiHilir, enjoying the car-free morning.

Zamri told reporters that one of the things he liked best about Car-Free Days, was seeing Malaysians of all ages and races mixing and mingling, with one another and “having a sense of connection”.

Pleased with the turnout, he hoped that more people would take advantage of the Car-Free Day at future sessions and said, “It’s more than just a family outing, it’s about bringing the community together.”

The mainstream papers have covered some of these Car-Free Days and published photos and comments from various people, who have taken part, and enjoyed these events. Rarely has a bad word been said about these Car-Free Sundays, but does that mean everyone likes them?

Apparently not! Like the man from Kampar who had to go to hospital, and probably had a moment of panic to find that the access was blocked.

One housewife who declined to be named said, “I am not impressed. I don’t like to encourage children to play or cycle on the roads, especially with cars plying the ‘Car-Free’ road. I suppose the cars belong to people who live in the houses around here or perhaps, they need to go to the hospital.”

Her friend, Aminah said, “This major road connects one part of the city with another. When you close this road, you create traffic jams on other roads, because people must find alternative routes to their destination.

“If we are encouraging people to have a healthier lifestyle, with cycling and walking, that is not happening. I saw people driving here, then parking indiscriminately on the grass verges. They then unload their children and bicycles from their cars or pick-up trucks.

“The carbon footprint is not really reduced. Why can’t people cycle from where they live, instead of using the car?

“Why can’t we have the Car-Free Day near the Stadium, or around Taman DR Seenivasagam, or the Old Polo Ground? There places have car parks, some food stalls and ample space for more stalls to be set up.”

A teacher, Kamarul, said, “From what I read, Car-Free Days are normally enforced in city centres. Not residential roads. Why can’t the roads surrounding the already pedestrianised Concubine Lane be shut, so that part of town can be explored on foot or bicycle. Restaurants and food stalls in the area, would receive a boost. People can then wander off to the road where the flea market is located, a short distance away.”

A civil servant who declined to give her name said, “I cannot understand why the Car-Free day should be stopped during Ramadan. They make a mockery of the religion by stopping activities, just because it is the fasting month. We are not here till the hot midday sun.”

A retired lawyer said, “I’d like to know the cost of holding this event. Rela is involved and are the Rela staff getting triple wages on Sunday? Isn’t that a waste of public funds?”

Student Vincent said, “If Car-Free Days are supposed to reduce our carbon-footprint and reduce smoke emissions from vehicles, shouldn’t the mayor plan for bicycle lanes throughout the city? He should encourage safe cycling in Ipoh, not just for a few hours each month.

“Having the Car-Free Day outside the Mentri Besar’s house, gives the impression that this road, with its many fun-filled activities, is like the MB’s personal theme park.”

“Zamri should improve the public transportation system into Ipoh. It is good that for three hours every month, the levels of nitrogen, carbon and sulphur dioxides and soot are reduced, as no cars are plying that stretch of road, but that is hardly noticeable, is it?

“The bottom line is that we need to improve the overall quality of air, by ensuring a decent and effective public transport system, so we can leave our cars at home and take the bus to work, or to the shops. Reduced dependency on private cars will result in fewer accidents and make a major contribution to a reduction in air pollution.”