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Making cars take a back seat in urban commutes

More cities are sidelining cars. Why not Singapore?

On Tuesday, the Land Transport Authority (LTA) released the findings of a nation-wide survey on active mobility.

And the results were startling.

Just slightly more than half of the 5,000 surveyed were willing to share road space with cyclists. This is despite bicycles being legally entitled to be on the roads.

This is just how much Singapore is still stuck in its "roads for cars, and cars only" mentality.

The wheels of change are slowly turning. The bus lane scheme gives buses prime road real estate during peak hours. There has been a recent move towards weekend pedestrianisation in certain areas such as Circular Road and Haji Lane. Driverless shuttles will go on an exciting trial next month at the Gardens by the Bay.


ST ILLUSTRATION: MANNY FRANCISCO

The Sunday Times also reported over the weekend that US-based education and research organisation Urban Land Institute and government think-tank Centre for Liveable Cities were looking at studying whether an urban district here could be free of private vehicles. The Marina Bay area was proposed as one location.

In other leading cities, the revolution towards a car-lite society, in which private cars take a back seat to public transit, bicycles and pedestrians, is happening at a much faster pace.

Lyon's bike-sharing scheme, which has become a model for other European cities, with much of the cost paid by advertising, was launched a decade ago. It now has nearly 350 stations offering more than 4,000 bikes - with studies showing that users even travel faster than cars during rush hour.

Two months ago, Paris enjoyed a car-free Sunday - and with pollution levels dropping by as much as 40 per cent in certain parts of the French capital, there are plans to make this a more regular event. Last month, Norway's capital, Oslo, announced plans to ban private cars from the city centre by 2019.

In Hackney, a borough in London which prides itself on social activism, nearly 16 per cent of residents cycle compared with 13 per cent who drive.

And while many of these efforts would not be possible without significant investment in infrastructure, they are underpinned by one significant mindset - that cars are no longer on top of the commuting ladder.

LETTING BIKES RUN RED LIGHTS

Earlier this month, a video posted by a car driver highlighting errant cycling behaviour in Woodlands Crescent made the rounds on social media. At one part, it showed a stream of cyclists turning left at a T-junction while the light was red. This is illegal here but given the green light in other places.

In July and August, signs were put up at some 1,800 traffic junctions in Paris telling cyclists that if the stop sign is lighted but the way is clear, they can still move on.

These signs only affect junctions where cyclists can hug the kerb if it continues straight at a T-junction or curves right (the French drive on the right side of the road).

What might seem at first glance to be counter-intuitive was found to actually be safer for cyclists.

Studies done in 2012 found that allowing cyclists to move more freely cut down collisions with cars, including blind-spot accident.

French advocacy groups say this is because cyclists avoid getting caught beside buses and trucks, which might not be able to see them.

There are also less radical ways in which Singapore could do this, said cycling advocate Francis Chu, who suggested taking reference from Copenhagen in Denmark.

"They have a green wave for bikes. If you are riding along a road, all the lights are tuned to a cyclist's speed, so you never have to stop," said Mr Chu, co-founder of cycling group LoveCyclingSG.

It might be a small change but it sends a signal that the Government is ceding priority that once belonged to motorists to other road users.

E-BIKES - BOON OR BANE?

Last week, the LTA announced it would be tightening regulations for motorised bicycles.

The growing popularity of such bikes has led to scores of complaints about the dangers they pose, especially on pavements.

The new rules, with more stringent weight limits and higher standards, are meant to make it harder to modify the bikes - such as including a bigger motor or a throttle, which effectively turns them into mini motorcycles.

But some believe the LTA has not gone far enough.

Readers have written in to The Straits Times Forum pages asking for heavily modified electric bicycles to be classified as motorcycles - which would require riders to have motor insurance and a riding licence.

Yet, e-bikes with throttles have helped older people stay mobile - and are a greener alternative to cars for short trips.

Instead of banning them outright, should more be done to encourage their use in safer ways?

Many complaints against these bikes focus on how people use them on pedestrian walkways despite rules against this. But part of the reason these e-bike users prefer not to travel on roads, as they are supposed to, is that they think it is less safe.

So why not make roads safer for them and those who use normal bicycles?

LOWER SPEED LIMITS

Lowering speed limits on secondary roads and making them narrower to slow down traffic would lower the danger.

Cars can now travel from 50 to 60kmh on most roads, including those in residential estates.

But cut speeds to 35 to 40kmh, and roads immediately become much more appealing to cyclists.

Experts call the difference in relative speeds of different road users a "speed differential". As a general rule of thumb, the lower this number, the safer the roads will become for all. For one thing, with slower speeds, cars can stop more quickly in an emergency.

All of Hackney's residential streets are 20mph zones , which means vehicles are allowed to go at a maximum of only 32kmh.

The borough does not stop there to encourage cycling. More streets have dropped kerbs, making it easier for cyclists to go from pavement to road, and roadside parking for cars has made way for cycle racks.

NO DROP-OFFS NEAR SCHOOLS

To foster a culture where the car comes second, you also would have to start young, or so argues cycling advocate Han Jok Kwang.

That is why he is hoping that exclusion zones of about 500m could be set up around schools in the morning and evening, preventing cars from dropping off children. The idea is that the exercise would be a lesson for kids in personal mobility, and parents could take the chance to teach them about safety.

"I think this is something worth considering, especially if you look at our schools - many parents here, if they could, they would drive all the way into the classroom," said Mr Han, who is chief information officer at Venture Corporation.

As it is, the Government encourages parents to enrol their kids in schools within a 2km radius of their homes - a distance easily covered by bike, if not on foot.

PRIVATE CARS ARE NOT THE FUTURE

Talk to urban development and mobility experts, and they agree that private cars and their role as status symbols are steadily becoming an anachronism in developed and increasingly crowded cities.

They sit idle for 95 per cent of the time, taking up precious space while continuing to lose financial value, said Professor Carlo Ratti, director of the SENSEable City Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

He pointed out that a recent MIT study showed that Singapore's mobility needs could be met with a third of its existing vehicles.

Outside of expressways, cars should no longer be seen as kings of the road. And it is a change in thinking that Singaporean car drivers, often the most vocal critics of cyclists, need to start embracing.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 26, 2015, with the headline 'Making cars take a back seat in urban commutes'. Print Edition | Subscribe