Danson Cheong

Cycling nation? We have some way to go

Motorists can treat cyclists better, but some riders give everyone a bad name

There are few things that can beat the bike ride home from the office.

Riding down near empty roads at night with the cool breeze tickling the nape of your neck, it feels a bit like that first taste of freedom as a kid - when, teetering and tottering on a too-big bike, you turn the corner of the void deck to find a world out of the reach and sight of your parents.

It doesn't matter what kind of rider you are - whether a lycra-clad spandex superhero (that's me), grocery-shopping auntie or just an office worker trying to squeeze in a workout on the way to the office - bikes are a real joy.

Which is why it was great news when National Development Minister Khaw Boon Wan said on his blog last month that the Government wanted to make cycling a viable transport option for short trips.

Finally, I thought, has Singapore's bike revolution begun?

It looks that way. The Land Transport Authority's National Cycling Plan will have a cycling network of 700km ready by 2030, which will include both park connectors and cycling paths in Housing Board towns.

In future, Singaporeans will be able to ride on dedicated bike paths away from traffic to get around the neighbourhood and nearby towns. Brilliant.

There are already about 250km of park connectors under the National Parks Board, with more to be built.

I started riding seven years ago and, since then, cycling has come a long way.

The roads have surely become safer, with police statistics showing the number of cyclist fatalities decreasing even as more people have taken to riding. Last year, 14 cyclists died, more than a third lower than the 22 killed in 2007.

The number injured in accidents also fell by about 8.7 per cent from 391 in 2012 to 357 last year.

But bicycles account for only 1 per cent of trips here, according to the Active Mobility for Creating Healthy Places study released last month.

There are many reasons for this - the hot weather and lack of safe bicycle parking to name two - but safety remains the biggest bugbear.

Personally, it is the driver who speeds up and swerves in to overtake, often passing by with only inches to spare, who really grinds my gears.

That said, there are jerks on both sides and plenty of cyclists run afoul of the rules too.

Just two weeks ago, I saw a cyclist run a traffic light along Loyang Avenue, where there have been cyclist deaths. I told him calmly that he should not have done that, only to have him retort: "I don't care what you think."

These bad eggs give all cyclists a bad name. I asked former national cyclist Kenneth Tan how he deals with riders like those and the 48-year-old, who runs bike shop Cycleworx along Upper Thomson Road, said: "If he wants to kill himself, just let him do that."

That may seem a little extreme, but the point is, being on a bicycle does not mean you get to use the road or footpath with impunity.

Such cyclists deserve to be booked and many have been. In September, The Straits Times reported that the number of summonses issued to cyclists by the Traffic Police has been increasing.

Last year, 1,455 summonses were issued for offences such as riding on footpaths and rash riding. That beats the 1,290 summonses issued in 2012 and 1,238 in 2011.

Two town councils - Tampines and East Coast - have also been issuing fines to reckless riders.

One of the greatest challenges is changing mindsets towards cycling, from those of policymakers to regular Singaporeans, said Dr Hee Limin, director of the Centre for Liveable Cities and co-leader of the Active Mobility report.

"We need to change the paradigm of our city from one that has served us well - with efficient roads using motor vehicles," she said.

To do this, fines and education are only part of the solution. Good cycling infrastructure has to be built to encourage more people to take to two wheels - after all, there is safety in numbers.

Dr Paul Barter, an adjunct associate professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy and a rider himself, said: "Mindsets will follow infrastructure. (Positive) attitudes towards cycling will come later."

Perhaps there is more we can do here.

In 2012, I spent half a year in Rotterdam and, in true Dutch fashion, did everything from training, commuting and running daily errands on two wheels. Bikes were a mainstay on the roads and motorists knew that. It was as near perfect a cycling paradise as could be.

It was the little things that made the difference, like the smooth corners on the fietspad - Dutch for bike path - and dedicated traffic signals for bikes. A cycling city is the sum of all these working parts.

Singapore could easily incorporate ideas like this into its cycling network.

It's not a question any more - more cycling is definitely on the horizon.

The benefits are undeniable. It's cheaper, good for our health and the environment and, perhaps most importantly, more space-efficient than driving.

At the moment, Singapore uses 12 per cent of its land for roads - almost as much as for housing - and we cannot go on building more. The Singapore motorist drives some 1,800km per year, thrice more than New York City drivers, Dr Hee points out.

It's a mind-boggling figure, considering how tiny a nation this is.

So what will the Singapore of the future look like?

Possibly a lot like Tampines - Singapore's first cycling town, the only estate in Singapore where cycling on the footpaths is not illegal, and my home for more than 20 years.

Maybe then, Singapore will join the league of bike capitals in the world, to be rattled off in the same breath as cities like Amsterdam, Copenhagen and Portland.

dansonc@sph.com.sg