Cycling must be a key part of Singapore’s future

An excellent article by tk published on 14 September 2011 in Yawningbread. There is a lot of interesting discussion going on at the original post.


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There has been much discussion in the Singaporean media regarding cycling recently. Unfortunately, most of it negative. While the exact sentiments vary between aggrieved motorists and aggrieved pedestrians, what they all show is a need for more effective cycling advocacy.

For the benefit of non-cyclists or people unfamiliar with Singapore, let’s review the real state of cycling in Singapore. Who actually bothers to cycle in Singapore? And what is it really like?

The biggest misconception is that it’s far too hot to cycle, full stop. Wrong. Mornings are surprisingly cool, around 26 degrees, and as office workdays start at 8.30, it’s really very pleasant cycling in to work. Of course the arctic air-con also cools you off in no time. It rarely rains in the morning, and Singapore’s seasonal afternoon storms usually only last a couple of hours, from 4-6pm. Singapore’s altitude varies for the most part within just 15 metres above sea level – its extremely flat. It’s also compact, being a highly urbanised city. Of course, Singapore is far from being a cycling utopia, but let’s just establish that while yes, it’s hot during the day, it’s far from a reason to not jump on your bike. In fact, visitors often remark how much cooler it is to roll along on a bike with the breeze in your face, rather than slog along sweltering footpaths, and it’s certainly more enjoyable to cycle in the year-round sunny 32 degrees, than wind, ice and snow. And if it is raining? Take a taxi – you’ve earned it, literally.

So who dares cycle here? As with any collection of humans, numerous subcultures comprise the whole. First, there are the road cyclists – out before dawn, bedecked in lycra and riding top of the line bikes, these are the no-nonsense cyclists of Singapore, who might lap the island before breakfast. Then we have the less serious cyclists, who ride for fun and fitness with their kakis, often on folding or hybrid bikes, often on the park connectors (PCNs), and their brethren who rent bikes on the East Coast or Pulau Ubin. Commuters and shoppers out doing errands are a small but importantly growing segment and then there are the “scene” cyclists, the fix’sters and cycle chic’sters who ride fixed gear or single speed bikes, step-through dutch bikes with child seats, or retro steel bikes from the 70s, as part of their everyday lives. And of course not forgetting the ubiquitous foreign workers on ‘cheap’ mountain bikes and old uncles on flying pigeons. And me? I’m just a guy who rides.

You got a problem with me?

Each of these subcultures is the cause of a number of perceived problems by drivers and pedestrians. Road cyclists and commuters are seen to ‘hog’ road lanes. In addressing this complaint it can’t be stated clearly or more often enough – it is illegal to cycle on the footpath, except in the “cycling town” of Tampines. So cyclists, by law, have to be on the road. Bikes are classed as vehicles, and must be given way to in any situation that you would give way to a car. Additionally, the highway code says that cars must leave a 1.5 metre gap when passing cyclists, but as evidenced by the attitude of senior civil servants (“Driving home a vital safety message”, Straits Times, 30 Nov 2010), the 1.5m gap is treated as ‘optional’ by motorists and the authorities. As a result, competent cyclists ride about one-third of the way into the lane, or ride two abreast, to ensure drivers merge completely into the next lane over to pass, instead of trying to squeeze past in the same lane – a major cause of collisions, especially when cars make left turns across cyclists. In normal traffic, passing a cyclist might cause a five- second delay to the motorist. In heavy traffic, the driver is soon going to be stationary in any case. And always remember, as a driver, you’re not stuck in traffic, you are traffic, so don’t get mad at cyclists. This kiasu attitude (Singapore patois for being afraid to lose out on something) is common to drivers all over the world, and is a problem for them to come to terms with, not cyclists.

For cyclists on footpaths, common complaints include riding too fast, and, horror of horrors, ringing their bells. Occasionally a cyclist might even collide with a pedestrian (I believe YB has had this happen). Of course, the onus is on cyclists to travel at a speed at which they can stop safely or avoid a collision. No-one is saying otherwise. But the same anger toward cyclists is not evidently being directed toward the large numbers of motorists colliding with each other or with more vulnerable road users, causing far greater damage, not to mention holding up traffic while they snap pictures and swap insurance details. But it is worth asking who is causing the greater harm. And as for the foreign workers fighting it out in Changi, Sembawang and Tuas with the container trucks and dirt trucks (driven by other foreign workers), honestly, I’d be on the footpath there too.

Any society looking to minimise its healthcare costs should be concentrating less on preventing the collisions that occur at 10-20 km/hr between 2 bodies of roughly equal mass, and more on those that occur at 50-80 km/hr between a 70 kg body and a 2 ton car or 5 ton truck. The immediate and ongoing damage is far more devastating.

Space to be healthy, wealthy and wise

The above complaints about cyclists all stem from the same cause – no unique space has been set aside for them, so they’ve carved out their own. This fight for space is going on in every major city around the world, so Singapore is hardly unique in this regard. Having discredited the specious complaints against cyclists in Singapore, let’s explore how cyclist numbers can actually be increased. But before that, the assertion that increasing cycling would be good for Singapore needs backing up.

Firstly, and most importantly, economics. As with most things these days, ‘it’s about the economy, stupid’. Cycling is cheap and convenient when compared to driving or using public transport anywhere in the world, but especially here in Singapore when you factor in COEs, insurance, inflated car prices, ERP, and maintenance and petrol costs. Conversely however, cycling adds value to the economy – £2.9bn in the UK according to a report from the London School of Economics. Building new heavy transport infrastructure such as MRT lines and expressways costs hundreds of millions to tens of billions, whereas cycling infrastructure is many many orders of magnitude cheaper. Cycling in urban environments has also been shown in a study in the British Medical Journal to have more benefits than risks when compared to car use.

Secondly, cycling improves your quality of life. It’s often said that Singapore is a soulless place. And it is, if you spend all your time zombie shuffling around shopping malls, gawping slack jawed in a cinema and pecking at buttons in casinos like a battery farm chicken. But out in the parks, gardens and farms, along the river, canals and coastline that are the environs of the PCN network, you can be free from industrial noise (some of the time, anyway) and have space to yourself, to think, or even sing. In the global competition to attract talented professionals (and and retain young Singaporeans), more and bigger hotels, shopping malls and casinos are not going to cut it. Singapore needs to start offering more “quality of life” assets, including cycling infrastructure. Singapore’s beloved rankings in the “global liveability” stakes would improve hugely were cycling to be more fully integrated into peoples’ lives. If you look at Monocle’s current list, 9 of the 10 cities have fully integrated cycling. Chip Goodyear, former CEO of BHP Billiton and short-term head of Temasek Holdings, rides to work every day at 4.30am. It “clears his head and allows him space to organise his thoughts”. I also enjoy riding to work for the same reasons, but more importantly it beats sitting on a crowded bus or MRT carriage crammed full of strap hangers, or going nowhere fast on the expressways with increasing stress levels. On weekends, there’s nothing better than catching up on a ride with mates, stopping for a laneway coffee or riverside beer (yes, in Singapore). If you want to meet new friends or ride more seriously, groups like ANZA or lovecycling.net or the Joyriders cater for you. Finally, people have recently been discussing “nature deficit disorder” in Singapore. Cycling is a great preventative for this.

On that point, the environmental factor to cycling is important, but I don’t believe it’s what motivates most people to start cycling. Nevertheless, more people cycling means less cars, less emissions, less congestion, which means fewer roads “need” to be constructed. It’s a well described phenomenon that building more roads merely leads to more cars on those roads, and similar or higher levels of congestion than before. It’s like trying to cure obesity by loosening your belt (not my analogy, by the way). Less roads being constructed also means more land available for green space (the excellent “City in a Garden” concept), and a reduction in the urban heat island effect, which in turn encourages more cycling by making it even more comfortable.

Finally, health and safety. Cycling to work contributes to your daily exercise requirements without having to set aside extra time, or pay gym fees. Cyclists have lower absentee rates at work and spend less on health care, according the UK study referenced above. On the safety side, cyclists benefit enormously from the ‘safety in numbers’ effect. The more cyclists out there, the less statistically likely it is you that will be hit. In Singapore 16 cyclists were killed last year, 17 less than the number of car, bus and truck drivers and passengers, 73 less than motorcyclists and an amazing 39 less than the number of pedestrians. More cyclists out there also increases drivers’ awareness of their presence on the roads. Making cycling safer in Singapore would act as a positive feedforward loop, as has been demonstrated in cities like London, Melbourne and New York. New York is a great comparison, because the government likes to cite it as another example of a ‘space-constrained’ major city. And yet, NYC has added more than 250 miles of bike lanes since 2006, and has plans for at least 100 more. As of July this year, more people in New York support the addition of more lanes than “approve of God”. Supporters of the Green (Rail) Corridor cite New York’s Highline Park as a remarkable example of urban transformation, which it undoubtedly is. But, to my mind, New York’s addition of 400 miles of bike lanes while leaving traffic flows unaffected is a much greater achievement. The URA is calling for ideas on the future use of the Rail Corridor. Using it as part of an island wide cycling network is currently the most popular suggestion, by a very large margin, and it is heartening to see the LTA and Nparks actively collaborating on expanding the network.

Let’s get physical

So it should be clear that getting more cyclists out and about in Singapore is going to be good for the city and its people. How can this be achieved?

Make it safe. Safety is consistently reported as being the most important factor in taking up cycling, above all else. The easiest way to achieve this is to carve out more “cyclespace” – a term coined by architectural academic Steven Fleming, which refers to the mental maps cyclists use to navigate the easiest and safest route from A to B. The expansion of the PCN network is meeting this need, and paths can be shared graciously, as in cities like Osaka. Building more PCNs is great, but importantly, they have to seamlessly link to each other. PCN transitions have not been planned at all well by the LTA, who should learn from New York – once they started linking their lanes, they saw a 35% increase in the numbers of cyclists using them. Current poorly designed transitions require cyclists to dismount, carry bikes up and down stairs or cross major roads (>2 lanes) without signals, and improving these should be of equal priority with constructing new PCNs.

Additionally, buffered bike lanes should be built on arterial roads where no PCN exists. The tired old excuse of “there’s no room in land-scarce Singapore” is a complete falsehood, and needs to be rebutted every time it is raised. Lanes are ridiculously wide (3 metres!) in Singapore, and were obviously planned to accommodate poor driving by creating an overly large buffer zone around each car. Thus, on roads that are 2 – 4 lanes wide, at least 50cm could be carved off each one and set aside, creating a 1-1.5m wide bike lane with raised buffer zone with no impact on the road’s car carrying capacity. Repainting road lanes is cheap and fast, compared to long lead times and huge costs for a new MRT line or expressway. Narrower lanes would have the ancillary effect of slowing drivers, as speeding and tailgating are huge problems in Singapore due to the all but complete absence of the traffic police — a fact lamented by cyclists and responsible drivers alike.

This absence is a strange aspect of an otherwise tightly controlled state. Similarly, punitive sentences for road traffic accidents resulting in serious injuries or fatalities are extremely lenient here, especially when compared to crimes against property. (The most recent example being a one month custodial sentence for killing a pedestrian and injuring another on a signalised crossing – Straits Times, 13 Sep 2011, compared with 3 months for shoplifting goods, which were subsequently recovered – Straits Times, 15 Mar 2011 and 22 Aug 2011.) Stronger deterrents for dangerous driving would go some way toward making motorists pay more attention to other road users around them.

It is also important to remove the culture of blame that indicts cyclists when they do become involved in accidents. Bodies like the Singapore Safe Cycling Task Force have a role to play in educating inexperienced cyclists on how to ride a bike. But their ‘safe cycling’ workshops contribute to the perception that accidents are a result of “errant” cyclists, when in fact the reality is, cyclists have been shown to cause less than 10% of bike-car accidents. The Task Force has failed to engage with motorists / truck drivers in any meaningful way to change their behaviour, yet this is the largest group of people who have the power to make Singapore’s roads safer. Defensive cycling is all well and good, but it has to be fostered along with a culture of defensive driving. The standard of driver education in Singapore is, frankly, pathetic, and needs to be drastically improved. The attitude that “I am in a car, therefore I have right of way” is scarily common, as is speeding, mobile phone use, sudden lane changes, tailgating, unrestrained children, and a host of other dangerous behaviours. The LTA can fight fires by spending millions re-engineering “accident blackspots”, but surely teaching people to drive, and enforcing the law, is an easier solution. Much like teaching children not to play with matches in the first place. Denmark and the Netherlands have a “no blame” system for cyclists and pedestrians in the event of a collision with a car. Such a system, or variant thereof, should be implemented in Singapore.

Make it convenient.

Besides building and linking PCNs, facilities need to provided for cyclists at their main destination: commercial buildings. The green building code should be amended such that buildings have to provide secure, sheltered bike parking less than 20m from the entrance, or preferably a secure cage in the basement carpark. It should also stipulate one shower at least every 2nd floor. These can easily be retrofitted in existing buildings, as was done in my workplace. Parking charges have been shown to be more effective than congestion charges in curtailing car numbers in city centres, and the converse is obvious – increase convenient cycle parking and amenities and a large increase in the numbers of cyclists will follow. Anecdotally, real estate agents in Portland report that it is increasingly hard to lease commercial space unless it has cycling facilities for a tenant’s employees.

SMRT should lift its restrictions on folding bikes on the MRT during peak hours, limiting them instead to the first or last carriage. These bikes fold up smaller than a suitcase, and are especially popular as they take up minimal apartment space. If you live and work within 2km of an MRT line, it should take no longer than 20 minutes total cycling time (at a relaxed pace) from home to your workplace. Bike parking at MRT stations and HDB blocks should also be improved, replacing the poorly designed ‘wheelbender’ bike racks, installing overhead shelter, and improving security (this does not mean more CCTV cameras).

Finally, a widespread public bike hire scheme should be introduced here, following Paris’ Velib model or Hangzhou’s bike hire scheme – currently the biggest in the world. Bikes need only be cheap, stable single speeds that can be hired with an EZlink card or credit card (for tourists), can carry advertising, and are to remain within Singapores’s borders with stiff penalties for smuggling them out. “Stations” would be placed outside all MRT stops and at every PCN, throughout the city and popular tourist areas, and along the new Rail Corridor.

Make it cool. There is one final hurdle to increasing ridership: The 5 Cs: Car, Condo, Cash, Country Club, Credit Card. Credit cards are the easiest to obtain, and thanks to cheap finance, the car is not far behind. Riding a bike is perhaps still seen in aspirational Asia as something only poor people do, but this perception will change when more young Singaporeans return from living abroad in cities where cycling is part of the everyday urban landscape. They will contrast that experience with trips to cities that are still being ‘eaten by cars’, such as Jakarta, Bangkok and Beijing, and decide for themselves which way they want their city to go. “Lifestyle” shops as Lifecycle, My Bike Shop and Vanguard Designs just to name just a few are catering to customers’ desires to integrate cycling into their lives. Albert Khoo has already embraced the bike, leaving the Porsche and Ferrari to rust in the garage.

So go on, what are you waiting for Singapore? The future is out there, and she’s riding a bike.

The author has been a regular cyclist for 22 years (out of 34), and owned one car in all that time. He’s commuted for over 15 years, but would not consider himself a “hardcore cyclist”, just a guy who mostly uses bikes to get around.