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Seamless cycling commute gets a leg-up

The 10km Bishan-to-city bike route could be a game-changer in the way Singaporeans commute, as Taipei's sharing scheme shows

To many cyclists, it looks like the Government is finally heading in the right direction to make cycling a viable mode of commute in Singapore.

Earlier this month, it announced plans to study how the Kallang Park Connector can be turned into a seamless route for cyclists.

The journey would stretch from Bishan-Ang Mo Kio Park all the way southwards to the Central Business District, passing through 11 housing estates and serving a staggering 400,000 people.

There are now seven obstacles that prevent the 10km connector from being a continuous route; these comprise overhead bridges, underpasses and pedestrian crossings. The Government called for consultants to find solutions to get around these hurdles.

The Land Transport Master Plan 2013 mentions making inroads towards inter-town cycling, but this plan for a seamless path to the city - announced two weeks ago - is the first so far.


ST ILLUSTRATION : MIEL

The cycling community is heady with optimism, and naturally so - this is a solid move towards making inter-town cycling a reality.

For the cycling enthusiast, it would be hard to imagine a more enjoyable daily commute than from Bishan to the heart of the city - if you don't have to get off and haul your bike around the obstacles.

If Singapore hopes to encourage pedestrians and drivers to take to two wheels, the Government needs to make the cycling experience safe, convenient and hassle-free.

This is worth bearing in mind, especially since the Land Transport Authority is launching a bicycle-sharing pilot scheme in the Jurong Lake District and Marina Bay at the end of this year.

I rode the route with planners from the Urban Redevelopment Authority and National Parks Board. We cycled in the heat of the day, but thanks to tree cover along the leafy Kallang River Canal, we remained cool and comfortable.

Along the way, we passed a gamut of urban landscapes - HDB blocks, industrial flats, condominiums - before the Kallang River opened up to the sweeping views of the Marina Basin.

If you could only discount the seven obstacles - which cyclists say have turned this route into "a park disconnected" - it would have been an amazing ride.

Mr Francis Chu, the co-founder of cycling group LoveCyclingSG, noted that a seamless route would unlock huge potential for cycle commuting, saying: "Seamless and safe connectivity are fundamental enablers for daily commuting."

INTER-TOWN CYCLING

Inter-town routes like these are the missing piece in Singapore's cycling jigsaw.

Experts like Dr Alexander Erath, a transport researcher at the Singapore-ETH Future Cities Laboratory, feel Singapore's roads are designed for cars to travel at speed - and so cyclists feel unsafe and decide against commuting.

"Cycling on separate bicycle paths is a whole different experience," he said. "It is not only much safer, less hectic and less noisy than on roads but, due to surrounding greenery, also somewhat cooler."

Bicycles are still viewed largely as a means of recreation and not a viable mode of commute here - and if we want to change this, we need to close the gap between towns with safe routes, like the Kallang Park Connector.

To be fair, the Government has already done much towards making cycling a viable option when travelling within neighbourhood towns - with networks of paths already developed in Tampines, Pasir Ris and Sembawang.

These cycling networks will be expanded to all Housing Board towns by 2030, and will span about 700km by then.

So far, only about 300km of these paths have been built, but this is made up largely of the Park Connector Network, which was designed for recreation.

Plans were announced last year to turn Ang Mo Kio town into a model cycling town of the future. These plans included a seamless cycling corridor from Yio Chu Kang MRT station to Bishan-Ang Mo Kio Park - which would, incidentally, feed into the Kallang Park Connector.

But perhaps it is time to step up efforts to bring towns closer to each other - and closer to the city.

Already there are two routes that appear to have such potential.

Last month, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong suggested that the Rail Corridor, which stretches from Woodlands in the north all the way south to Tanjong Pagar, could be turned into a cycling track.

During this year's Budget debate, Parliamentary Secretary for Transport Muhammad Faishal Ibrahim mentioned that the Government was going to link up the Alexandra Canal Linear Park and Ulu Pandan Park Connector to provide a cycling connection from the west to the city.

This sort of infrastructure is crucial if Singapore is tobecome a city of cyclists.

Indeed, Dr Erath said: "The main drag for cycling in Singapore is not primarily the weather, but the lack of infrastructure."

CYCLING IN TAIPEI

Last month, I spent a day biking in Taipei - the Asian metropolis might not be the first city that comes to mind when one thinks of cycling, but thanks to its hugely successful bike-share programme, it is well on its way.

Called YouBike, the bike-sharing scheme has had more than 46 million rentals since it was launched in 2008.

It is hugely popular largely because it is a breeze to use. For members, renting or returning a bike is as easy as tapping your EasyCard (the Taiwanese equivalent of Singapore's ez-link) on a terminal. A credit card can be used for one-time rentals.

On one particular 3km stretch, I passed four different terminals where I could dock my bike.

And bike lanes were almost everywhere.

Some of the older areas of Taipei do have narrower sidewalks, so cyclists have to jostle with pedestrians, but these are the same problems we face in Singapore.

My girlfriend, who was with me and does not normally cycle, said she felt safe and enjoyed the experience. I asked if she would cycle again, and the answer was a resounding "yes".

Similarly, if Singapore hopes to encourage pedestrians and drivers to take to two wheels, the Government needs to make the cycling experience safe, convenient and hassle-free.

This is worth bearing in mind, especially since the Land Transport Authority is launching a bicycle-sharing pilot scheme in the Jurong Lake District and Marina Bay at the end of this year.

When YouBike was first launched in 2009, it was underused. But it took off as the Taiwanese government increased the number of docking stations from the original 11 to 163.

A decade ago, no one would have believed Singapore could be a city of cyclists. Now look where we are.

It will take some years to get where we want to go, but if we step up our efforts, this will no longer be an impossible dream.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 16, 2015, with the headline 'Seamless cycling commute gets a leg-up'. Print Edition | Subscribe