How bad urban design set Cyberjaya up for failure
Cyberjaya is a city in Selangor state, about halfway between Kuala Lumpur and Kuala Lumpur International Airport. This is a great place to build a new city. A real estate agent would put “strategic location” in their sales blurb, and on paper it is.
Unfortunately Malaysia is bad at building new cities, and Cyberjaya is a fumbled opportunity to make a great city. There have been plenty of articles written about how Cyberjaya is Malaysia’s ‘failed Silicon Valley’. What they don’t talk about is how the bad urban design of Cyberjaya set it up for failure.
I visited Cyberjaya in July 2023, and this my trip report.
As the name would suggest, Cyberjaya is a new city that was built with the intention of being a technology and multimedia hub. The vision was to become the Silicon Valley of Malaysia.
Cyberjaya was officially opened on 17 May 1997 by Prime Minister, Mahathir bin Mohamad, and it was built alongside Malaysia’s new government seat of Putrajaya.
The “cyber” name hints at its 1990s origin, when anything that was technologically futuristic had cyber in its name. From the early internet cafes that were called cybercafes, to the cybernetic organism in Terminator 2.
As a fan of the cyberpunk genre, I was also intrigued by the name of Cyberjaya. I have spent enough time in Malaysia though to know to not expect a Blade Runner-esque city.
The Putrajaya Line
I had never visited Cyberjaya because it was difficult to get to by public transport from KL. That changed in 2023 with the opening of the extension of the Putrajaya Line to Putrajaya Sentral.
The Putrajaya Line includes two stops in Cyberjaya. I figured that I would get off at the first stop, walk around, and then get on at the second stop.
I looked on Google Maps to plan my trip, and it was immediately apparent that one does not simply walk into Cyberjaya.
Looking at Google Maps made me realise that Cyberjaya is an urban planning disaster that is not built for walking.
[The satellite view reveals what a pedestrian hellscape Cyberjaya is.]
MRT station Cyberjaya Utara (Cyberjaya North) is next to highways and undeveloped land. There was no way I could walk anywhere from this station, but at least they have been honest with the name as it’s literally in the north of Cyberjaya.
Honesty in naming can’t be said for the second station. MRT Cyberjaya City Centre is in the Northeast of Cyberjaya, and nowhere near the city centre (map).
[Does this look like an MRT station in the city centre?]
This Google Map shows Cyberjaya outlined in red. MRT stations Cyberjaya Utara and Cyberjaya City Centre are the blue markers in the top right of Cyberjaya. To the east of Cyberjaya is Putrajaya.
Walking from Cyberjaya City Centre MRT to the city centre of Cyberjaya
My plan was to walk from the “city centre” metro station to the city centre, but after studying the map I knew it was going to be difficult. There is a bus stop at the station, and I could always use a Grab taxi, but I wanted to see what it was like to walk.
I was on the MRT when it started raining, and it didn’t look like letting up when I got to Cyberjaya City Centre. After an hour of loitering at the station waiting for the rain to pass I gave up for the day. I had to visit some other stations for another report I was working on, so I got back on the train.
I came back the next day and it was cloudy but it didn’t look like it was going to rain. It turned out to be perfect walking weather for what would otherwise be a foolishly sweaty walk.
I left the Cyberjaya City Centre MRT station via the road. There is no grand pedestrian plaza in front of the station here, and it is clearly built for cars to drop passengers off.
[The exit from Cyberjaya City Centre MRT.]
There is no footpath once you leave the station. At this point I was having doubts about the walk, especially with the dark skies, but I kept walking for you, dear reader.
The only option for pedestrians is to walk on the side of the highway. There is not much to see between the station and the city centre. I went by this apartment block called The Place @ Cyberjaya, and I wondered if people walk anywhere outside this building.
[The Place @ Cyberjaya]
The walk from the MRT to the city centre is 2.4 km / 33 minutes (according to Google Maps). If it started raining my only place of refuge would be this highway overpass. Luckily it didn’t rain.
[Walking along Persiaran APEC.]
I was wondering if I was mad for walking into the actual city centre when there was a bus service at the MRT. Every time I passed a bus stop I felt vindicated in my decision, because I had not seen a bus pass me yet. I thought about waiting for a bus every time I passed a bus stop, but would you wait at a bus stop that looked like this?
[No footpath, no shelter, just a big middle finger to the suckers that don’t own a car.]
I arrived at what passes as the city centre where there are clusters of apartment towers. The city is clearly divided into postal zones using the “Cyber X” format. Here is Cyber 6.
Here I am in Cyber 4, not really sure about what to do with myself in Cyberjaya.
[🚨 Warning! Unauthorised pedestrian in Sector Cyber 4! 🚨]
Malls as public space
There is no town square or obvious landmark to walk to, so without knowing where else to go, I kept walking to some malls I had marked on my map. I came across the first good section of footpath lined with mature trees.
My first port of call was the DPULZE Shopping Centre. I didn’t see any shops along the way. All the shops are in the mall.
This is a typical Malaysian mall where cars are given priority over pedestrians. and entering the mall is uninviting for a pedestrian.
I was here on a Sunday, and the mall was busy with shoppers. I saw more people in here than anywhere else on the streets.
Behind DPULZE is is another mall that I had read about and bookmarked to visit. The Malakat Mall gained notoriety after being dubbed as the TikTok ‘ghost mall’.
The mall has been described as an “abandoned ghost mall.” since this TikTok went viral. As with the Forest City project, it is technically not a ghost town as there are people living and shopping there, but the closed stores and very few shoppers gives it a sad vibe.
The most lively section of the mall was this little outdoor market area.
[Outdoor market at Malakat Mall.]
Moving on from the Malakat Mall, I continued my expedition by foot across Cyberjaya. I walked along the road that borders the Multimedia University – MMU Cyberjaya. This 1 km section has a long footpath, and the tree-lined street was starting to soften my feelings about Cyberjaya (cities with trees and footpaths have a way to my heart).
I would have been in trouble if it rained, and I couldn’t help but think that if this was in Singapore there would be a covered walkway along here.
[A covered walkway in Singapore.]
My next stop was the Tamarind Square mall and residential complex.
After walking half the length of Cyberjaya, it was refreshing to find some street-level shops that were at the base of the mall. I discovered that most of the shops on the ground level where pedestrians should be were closed.
I walked along the ground-level shops looking for the entrance to the mall but I couldn’t find any entrance. At the back of the mall is the carpark entrance for the residential area. There is no obvious pedestrian area here, and even if you lived here it is an uninviting place to walk through. This building is built for cars.
I walk back to the front of the complex, and there is a ramp for cars to drive to the parking level. Again, there is no obvious entrance point for pedestrians. I saw a doorway to some stairs so I took that.
I went though some dingy hallways and found a lift, still unsure of what I was looking for at this point.
I arrived on the rooftop, which looked like a street-level shopping centre with parking in front of the shops.
The shopping area itself is a pleasant space. There is a garden area in the middle, and it felt like a great place to hang out. I even found an Australian-style cafe. It occurred to me then that the only cafes I had seen were in malls.
Apparently this is an award-winning shopping mall. The judges must have been driven here because there is no way a pedestrian would think it is award-winning.
[Cars arriving at Tamarind Square on the roof level.]
Leaving proved to be just as difficult (either that or the pedestrian exit isn’t placed anywhere obvious). The most obvious exit from the rooftop shopping area is this portal to the car park.
This brought me down to the car park, and from there I looked for an exit.
This was the exit on the street level. Does this look like an inviting entrance for pedestrians to a shopping mall?
By now I was done with walking great distances, and I had no fuel in the tank to walk back to the metro station. I booked a Grab Taxi back to the Cyberjaya City Centre MRT.
How not to design a new city
After visiting Cyberjaya I was so annoyed with what a missed opportunity this was. The maddening thing about Cyberjaya is that it’s a new city that was built among palm oil plantations. It was a blank slate upon which urban planners could have built a city with aspects borrowed from the best cities in the world.
Instead, we got boring office parks, malls as public spaces, big roads, and no rail transit.
Here is another snapshot of a satellite view of Cyberjaya. Have a look at the this pedestrian-hostile street layout.
[Did a car draw this street layout?]
Office parks can be found in outer suburban areas around the world (especially in the USA), and I have worked in such places in Australia, the UK, and Ireland. They are boring and miserable places to spend a day at a boring and miserable job. You have to drive there, and there is nowhere in the vicinity that is interesting to hang out at lunch time.
My original plan was to spend half a day in Cyberjaya and then walk to Putrajaya. It is technically possible to walk between the two cities, but it is even more dangerous for pedestrians than the walk I did at the start of the day. The two cities are split in half by a motorway with a cloverleaf interchange .I will save my review of Putrajaya for another article.
Before the MRT was built there was a plan to build a monorail that would connect Putrajaya and Cyberjaya. There has also been a tram or light rail proposal to connect Putrajaya. I have made a list of all of the transit proposals for Cyberjaya and Putrajaya.
[Abandoned Putrajaya-Cyberjaya Monorail construction at Putrajaya Sentral.]
The problem for Cyberjaya is that the city is so spread out that it’s going to be hard to make public transport work without dense urban clusters.
A monument to Mahatir’s motor-obsessed madness
The bad urban design of Cyberjaya can be traced back to is inception in the 1990s during Mahathir’s first reign as PM.
Building a walkable city with good public transport wasn’t a consideration in most places in the 1990s, let alone Malaysia.
To be fair, I can see what the urban developers at the time were trying to go for. Cyberjaya and Putrajaya were built to be modern, green, and spacious cities outside of the cramped and decaying inner city of old Kuala Lumpur. The gentrification of Southeast Asia’s old towns (like in KL and Ipoh) hadn’t happened at this point, so these historic areas with walkable streets were still run-down and not considered as a symbol of a modern city.
Instead of a solarpunk future we got a boring dystopia
While the name Cyberjaya conjures up images of a futuristic Southeast Asia cyberpunk city, you don’t want live in a cyberpunk city. In Cyberpunk fiction, a cyberpunk city features “futuristic technological and scientific achievements, such as artificial intelligence and cyberware, juxtaposed with societal collapse, dystopia or decay.”
What I would like to see in new urban developments is something that looks more like a solarpunk city. In the literary world, Solarpunk is a “movement that envisions and works toward actualizing a sustainable future interconnected with nature and community.”
I was most impressed with how green Cyberjaya is, though you don’t need to be a greenthumb in the tropics for your garden to florish. Cyberjaya is not a sustainable city (despite its claims that it is) because it’s a city built for cars.
Some media outlets have latched onto the “ghost city” title, but that is unfair and a bit sensationist. It is a functioning city with people living there
[Apartments for sale in Cyberjaya.]
Instead of an exciting futuristic pedestrian-friendly cyber solarpunk city, Cyberjaya is a boring dystopia.
Cyberjaya is a functioning monument to bad urban design in Malaysia.
How to fix Cyberjaya
One of the problems of Cyberjaya is that it’s a boring city. If you want to attract the best tech talent in the world, then you need a great city to go with it. This should have been part of the project as well. Build an amazing city that people will beat the door down to move to.
Malaysia already has a built-in disadvantage with their morality police, sin taxes, and internet censorship. Malaysia just can’t expect to build office parks with cheap rent and tax breaks and expect people to be excited to live there.
Urban planners of Cyberjaya would do well to read this tech markets series by Rest of World.
These tech hubs happen where there are people living and interacting in vibrant cities. For example, read about Taipei’s Guanghua Digital Plaza. Here is Guanghua Digital Plaza on the map.
[Map of area around Guanghua Digital Plaza (view map).]
If you were building a new city you could do worse than just copying a slice of Taipei. The city is gridded so it is easy to explore, and it’s mixed-use, so shops and apartments are side-by-side. And have a look at all the metro lines. This is how you build a city.
I have written about building better new cities, and how the simplest thing to do is to just stick to the grid and let businesses take their own course. Building office park enclaves that you can’t walk from is a terrible way to build a city.
I am wary of government officials going on too many international junkets, but perhaps urban planners should have a condition of being well-travelled in addition to any degree. What cities have they been to? Did they travel by public transport or were they chauffeured around?
It’s one thing to build buildings suitable for tech companies, but what about the rest of the city. You need to remember that cities are competing with each other, and workrs want an enjoyable life.
If you had a choice between Taipei or Hong Kong, or Cyberjaya, I know where most people will choose.
When I tell people that I visited Cyberjaya, most people outside of Malaysia say they haven’t heard of it. What I have written isn’t new news in Malaysia, where there has been coverage about the failure of Cyberjaya. Here are some other articles:
How Cyberjaya became Malaysia’s ‘failed Silicon Valley’: Tech in Asia (2023)
Cyberjaya a failure, think tank study finds: Free Malaysia Today (2018)
Learn from Cyberjaya’s failure, think tank tells Putrajaya: Malay Mail (2018)
Inside Cyberjaya, Malaysia’s failed Silicon Valley: Wired (2016)
Bad Urban Design series
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