Singapore still lacks the ride stuff

Pupils of a primary school in Sengkang chain their bicycles to railings as they are not allowed to park them in the school. Such attitudes need to change so people are encouraged to use bicycles for transport.
Pupils of a primary school in Sengkang chain their bicycles to railings as they are not allowed to park them in the school. Such attitudes need to change so people are encouraged to use bicycles for transport.ST PHOTO: TOH YONG CHUAN

We need to catch up with other cities in promoting cycling for commuting

More than 500 cities in the world have bicycle-sharing schemes. Singapore is not among them.

Although the Government announced bold plans last month to build a staggering 700km of cycling paths by 2030 - the equivalent of cycling from Singapore to Kuala Lumpur and back - that alone will not make Singapore a cycling city.

We have fallen behind other cities that actively promote cycling as a mode of transport. There are various reasons why we should pedal hard to catch up.

Cycling is a green option that can be an efficient people-mover for transport planners.

A cycling census in London this year found that one in four road users in the morning peak period is a cyclist. For some popular roads, as many as three in five vehicles in the morning rush hour were bikes.

Bikes take up proportionately less road space than cars. Given that the road network here cannot expand indefinitely, cycling paths provide a logical option even as we expand our train and public bus networks.

Cycling also encourages interaction and it can be a social leveller. Cars cocoon drivers and disconnect them from other road users. In contrast, there are no physical barriers between cyclists and they have to share space.

I was part of a three-man reporting team that rode some 180km of park connectors last month to explore whether they could be used for daily commute.

At the Kallang Park Connector, a cyclist on an Italian Colnago bike, which costs thousands of dollars, stopped to ask whether we were lost. It did not matter to him that our bikes cost a fraction of his. I wonder how many BMW and Mercedes-Benz drivers will stop and help a Toyota Corolla driver with directions.

The Government used to be lukewarm towards cycling. Small pockets of cyclists have lobbied for dedicated bike lanes on the roads but their calls were repeatedly rejected by the Government, citing space constraints. Tampines is the closest Singapore came to a cycling city.

But there was a change of heart this year. We are still not getting bike lanes on the roads, but the 700km of cycling paths will connect the whole island and all HDB towns will have a network of dedicated paths to MRT stations.

The Government is even exploring automated underground parking for bikes.

The hot and wet weather here makes cycling unattractive. While we cannot control the weather, there are four steps that we can take - besides building infrastructure - to promote the use of two-wheelers as a mode of transport.

First, we can re-introduce bicycle-sharing. This is not a new concept. The biggest community bicycle scheme is in Hangzhou, China, with over 60,000 bikes; the newcomer is Citi Bike in New York City that was launched in May, and Copenhagen is set to launch the world's most high-tech system this month with its bicycles fitted with onboard computers.

Insurer NTUC Income wheeled out a bike-sharing programme at four housing estates in 2004, but it folded in 2008.

There will be no lack of options should Singapore decide to take another crack at bike-sharing. Other cities have roped in advertising companies, banks and public transport operators. We have the benefit of learning from them.

Second, the current rules that restrict bikes in trains and buses should be relaxed. Folding bikes have been allowed on MRT trains and buses since 2008, but response has been poor because of restrictions.

The limitation on size can stay, but the bikes should be allowed on trains earlier, say before the 7.30am rush hour. The earliest they are allowed on trains now is 9.30am, well past the time most workers have to clock in for work.

And more than one bike should be allowed on each public bus at any one time, since there are some folding bikes that do not take up more than one person's standing room.

Third, school and premises owners should cater to students or workers who commute by bicycle by providing parking spaces or shower rooms.

This week, I saw half a dozen bikes chained to railings outside a primary school in Sengkang. I asked a security guard why the pupils could not park their bikes in the school compound. He shrugged his shoulders: "Have to talk to the principal."

Such attitudes should change.

Lastly, it is unclear which government agency spearheads the cycling policy in Singapore. National Development Minister Khaw Boon Wan is a known cycling enthusiast.

Three statutory boards - the Land Transport Authority, which plans public roads, town-planner Urban Redevelopment Authority and the National Parks Board, which builds park connectors - and at least three ministries - the National Development, Transport and Finance ministries - have stakes in the cycling policy.

While the much-touted "whole of government" approach to policies should largely see the cycling policy through, small cracks are already showing.

For example, there is no consistency in how overhead bridges are designed or built. Some do not even have ramps and cyclists have to haul their bikes up and down steps. There are also eyesores at some sections of the park connectors. At the Pelton Park Connector, the fresh coats of paint stop abruptly at a rusty old pedestrian bridge that was built at least four decades ago by the now-defunct Public Works Department. NParks could not refurbish the old bridge as it does not own it.

Besides coordinating government agencies, perhaps we can also take a leaf from London, which appointed a "cycling commissioner" this year to be an advocate for cyclists as the city plans cycling policies and programmes. We do not need to copy the idea, but there is no harm for the Government to step up its engagement with cycling enthusiasts as it expands the cycling infrastructure.

These steps, taken together with the expansion in cycling infrastructure, give us a good shot at making Singapore a cycling city. It will help us pedal into the league of self-respecting modern cities that promote cycling for commute because it is green, efficient and a social leveller.

tohyc@sph.com.sg