The Big Read: Why Singapore has yet to become a cycling paradise — and it’s not just about the heat
Experts say cycling as a mode of transport may not always be the most attractive option, when compared with other modes of transport over longer distances.
SINGAPORE: Since 2016, Mr Yee Qing Xiang has been cycling from his home in Bedok to his workplace in Kent Ridge about twice a week.
Not only does it help him keep fit, the 27km journey by bicycle also gets him to his office faster: It takes him about 75 minutes, compared to 90 minutes by public transport.
“I love the feeling of freedom on a bicycle. You can go further than you would on foot, and of course there’s the fitness bit,” said the 31-year-old engineer, who sets off for his cycling trips before the crack of dawn at around 6.30am.
There are some challenges, though.
If it rains, cycling is out. Sometimes, along certain parts of his journey near the Singapore River where “the pavement gives way to cobblestones”, it gets “a little bumpy”, Mr Yee said. When his bike has a mechanical failure, he is also unable to get onto public transport. Then, there is always the issue of sharing footpaths with pedestrians, he added.
Such gripes are common among cyclists interviewed, although most of them say that the overall experience is pleasant and enjoyable — and they credit this in no small part to the improvements in Singapore’s cycling infrastructure.
WHAT’S IN PLACE
In response to queries, an LTA spokesperson said that currently, about 120km of bicycle paths has been built, including those in nine residential towns: Tampines, Sembawang, Changi-Simei, Pasir Ris, Yishun, Punggol, Jurong Lake District, Bedok and some parts of Ang Mo Kio.
Together with the more than 300km of park connectors which have been built, Singapore is past the halfway mark of the 700km target.
Apart from cycling paths demarcated in red, bicycle wheeling ramps were built along staircases, among other things.
It was previously announced that Ang Mo Kio would have a 20km cycling network by last year. Currently, there is about 4km of completed cycling path network in the estate, following the first phase of work.
However, the timeline was extended after the authority saw opportunities to link the cycling network in Ang Mo Kio with those in nearby towns, such as Bishan.
The spokesperson said: “The cycling network in Bishan will be linked to the network in Ang Mo Kio that had been earlier announced … This will enhance connectivity for the Bishan residents, bringing them to amenities like Chong Boon market and Ang Mo Kio food centre that will be accessible via the cycling network in Ang Mo Kio.”
The cycling paths in Ang Mo Kio will be progressively completed in phases from this year to 2022, as “more time is required for the diversions works at heavily built-up areas”. When completed, the cycling network in Ang Mo Kio and Bishan will total about 24km.
WHAT’S COMING UP
Over the next five years, LTA said it would add some 100km of cycling paths by building new ones and expanding existing networks in towns such as Taman Jurong, Bishan, Toa Payoh and Bukit Panjang.
A tender was recently issued to construct a 7km long cycling network in Bukit Panjang. Works are expected to start this year and be completed in 2021.
The LTA spokesperson said the authority is also looking at “providing more inter-town cycling routes to connect cyclists directly from their homes to the city, such as the Geylang-City and Queenstown-City links that are underway”.
To this end, a consultancy tender will be rolled out soon to “study in detail the feasibility and implementation of these inter-town connectivity as well as connectivity within the central area”, the spokesperson said.
The LTA first announced that a central area cycling network was in the works in 2017. No completion date has been set.
Nevertheless, when the new cycling paths are built, residents in Chinatown, Farrer Park, Jalan Besar, Kallang, Lavender and Little India will have “a direct cycling connection to the city-centre”.
“Connectivity for cyclists within the city centre will also be greatly enhanced,” said the spokesperson. “This will make cycling safer and more seamless for those who prefer cycling as their main mode of commuting, especially those working in the central area.”
STILL A MINORITY PURSUIT
While efforts are being made to enhance the connectivity of cycling networks, riding the two-wheeler seems to remain a minority pursuit in Singapore.
LTA’s then-director of active mobility Tan Shin Gee had said in news reports in 2017 she hoped that in five to 10 years, 4 to 6 per cent of all trips would be done by bicycle. Currently, the figure is about 1 to 2 per cent.
Some common challenges faced by cyclists include the lack of bicycle-parking spaces and shower facilities at workplaces.
One cyclist, a 36-year-old fine arts lecturer who only wanted to be known as Ms Joey, used to cycle from Yishun to her workplace in Bugis about three times a week, since 2016.
However, she stopped late last year after she was informed by the management “not to park her bicycle in the office”. She said:
I was told later on that it was because it didn’t look too professional, and I couldn’t find other secure options outside of the office to park my road bicycle.
Then, there is the familiar refrain that Singapore’s “hot and humid” weather is not conducive for cycling.
Senior Minister of State for Transport Janil Puthucheary had previously spoken out against this mindset, stating that it was “a matter of expectation and conditioning”.
While novice cyclist Dave Lai concedes that it does get “too hot to cycle at times”, he is thankful that he can take a shower at his workplace, which makes sweating and the heat less of an issue for him.
The 32-year-old speech therapist began cycling to work about two months ago.
On alternate days, he would make the 10km trip from his home in Lakeside to the National University Hospital, which takes him 75 minutes.
While this would take longer than using buses and the MRT (which is about 45 minutes), he said that cycling helps him to kill two birds with one stone.
“I can save time eventually, because I don’t have to find extra time to go jogging, or do other sports. Also, it can go some way towards reducing my carbon footprint, which is good for the environment.”
Mr Lai admitted that the lifestyle change did take time to get used to. Committing to the change is also about “finding the right kind of motivation”, he added.
I gave myself extra reinforcers, for example, I began listening to podcasts while cycling, which was useful to me.
Other cyclists also said that the weather and showering facilities, while important factors, are not significant impediments for them, pointing out that riders can choose to start their trips earlier to avoid the blazing sun.
CONCERNS OVER SAFETY, SHARED SPACES
For these cyclists, the more important considerations are safety and having to share space on pavements and roads.
On designated cycling paths, the increased presence of personal mobility device (PMD) users and straying pedestrians have become a headache for many cyclists.
Ms Jenn Chen, 24, a marketing executive who cycles from her home in Tampines Street 11 to the MRT station in Tampines Central, said she observed more PMD users on bicycle paths in the last six months.
While she recognises that the paths have to be shared, she said that “e-scooter riders often go at fast speeds”, which may be dangerous for others on the path.
It has prompted the LTA to put in place new regulations to “foster greater rider responsibility" and encourage "safe sharing" of paths and roads.
From Feb 1, cyclists and PMD users will have to ride at speeds of 10kmh or below on footpaths. They will have to stop and look out for vehicles at road crossings. All cyclists will also have to wear helmets when riding on roads.
However, the new rules seem to have caused a “bikelash”, with many cyclists saying that they will discourage cycling.
It was enough to cause some people to put off cycling to work entirely, Mr Yee being one of them. He said:
Previously, when regulations were a little lighter, I’d take about one hour and 15 minutes (to get to work). I won’t cycle on the roads on a weekday during rush hour, so that adds an additional 7km to my commute going by park connectors.
“A significant enough portion of my route is on footpaths, and limiting the speed to 10kmh would mean I would take much longer, and as such, makes it untenable,” Mr Yee said, adding that he will no longer be cycling to work from Feb 1.
On the roads, the debate continues over who has the right of way. Said Ms Joey:
Cyclists are still considered as pests on the roads, and there is still this tension between cyclists and drivers.
A recent altercation between a lorry driver and a cyclist along Pasir Ris Road has sparked discussions online about who had the right of way.
A viral video of the incident, which happened about a month ago, has garnered more than 2.9 million views and close to 30,000 shares.
The driver, Teo Seng Siong, told The Straits Times that he was not aware at the time of the incident that cyclists were allowed to cycle two abreast. Both the driver and cyclist, Eric Cheung Hoyu, were arrested and subsequently charged.
Teo was accused of causing hurt to the cyclist by negligently failing to keep a proper lookout while overtaking him.
Cheung was charged with breaching traffic rules by riding his bicycle in the middle of the leftmost lane, instead of keeping to the far left edge of the road, thereby causing obstruction to faster moving vehicles. He is also accused of committing mischief by knocking off the side mirror of Teo's lorry with his hand.
Both men will return to court later this month.
Some cyclists worry if such altercations between drivers and cyclists — accentuated on social media — would cast a shadow on cycling on roads, with cyclists fearing for their safety due to a possible backlash from drivers.
“Such cases, especially when they blow up on social media, open up situations in the future where cyclists could be scared and deterred from riding on the roads,” said Mr Chu.
TIME TO CHANGE THE RULES?
Mr Francis Chu, the co-founder of cycling enthusiast group Love Cycling SG, felt that it is time to tweak some traffic rules and make adjustments to the infrastructure, in order to accommodate the growing presence of cyclists on the roads.
“Over the last two to three decades, we’ve seen more cyclists so we would need to gradually refresh some traffic rules,” said Mr Chu, a businessman.
Taking a leaf from Taipei’s experience, he suggests that there could be a “slow lane”, where speed limits on the left lanes on multi-lane roads could be reduced to 40kmh, so as to reduce the speed difference between two wheelers and cars.
In the Taiwanese capital, advance bicycle boxes or “safety boxes” in front of cars are demarcated on roads to allow cyclists to get a few seconds’ head start before proceeding.
However, transport experts such as Dr Park Byung Joon from the Singapore University of Social Sciences (SUSS) believe that demarcating a “slower lane” could create “bottlenecks” in traffic, not only along a particular road, but subsequent ones.
With Singapore being a land-scarce city, creating safety boxes may not be a feasible option as well, he noted.
In May 2017, the LTA completed improvements along Bencoolen Street, including lane reclamation for a cycling path and a covered pedestrian walkway.
However, the area is too small to form an adequate cycling network, resulting in low utilisation of the cycling path, according to a report published by the Centre for Liveable Cities last year, which examined existing road and street designs.
Singapore also had its first on-road cycling lane installed on Tanah Merah Coast Road in 2017. The on-road cycling lane has raised profile chevron markings to demarcate it from the vehicular lane, but it is not protected from heavy vehicles that frequent the route.
The LTA has said that it does not have plans to build more on-road cycling lanes elsewhere.
In some European and American cities, bicycles are allowed on subway trains and public buses. In Singapore, foldable bicycles — not bigger than 120cm by 70cm by 40cm — can be taken on board public transport.
To make cycling a more attractive option for commuters, some cyclists have suggested fixing bike racks in public buses so that it would be more convenient for them to use a bicycle for first- and last-mile journeys.
In Los Angeles, for example, most buses are fitted with bicycle racks.
Experts, however, caution that while such improvements could be experimented, safety issues could arise. They also questioned if such racks — which mean cyclists would need time to mount and dismount their bicycles — were feasible during peak hours.
THE PROMISE OF SHARED BICYCLES
Apart from infrastructure improvements and relooking the rules, the introduction of shared bicycles could potentially persuade more people to take up cycling in Singapore — albeit that bike-sharing companies are currently going through a challenging period, particularly for those that had expanded too quickly.
In 2016, the authorities viewed dockless bicycles as a possible solution to improve first-and-last-mile connectivity and encourage cycling for short trips, and looked to dockless bicycle-sharing operators such as oBike, ofo and Mobike to fill the niche.
A recreational cyclist who only wanted to be known as Mr Tay, 29, said that he got his mother to try out shared bicycles last year. “I used it to encourage her to pick up cycling … and eventually, she went to get her own bicycle,” he said.
The administrative executive, who has his own bicycle, however noted that the concept of shared bicycles would help only “in a small way” to encourage cycling culture.
The culture or lifestyle of cycling … is way larger than just bridging the last mile or going to the market.
Experts say that it can be “difficult” to measure how integral shared bikes are to cycling as a mode of transport.
SUSS’ transport economist Walter Theseira said that while the presence of shared bicycles does increase the number of single trips taken by cyclists, it remains unclear whether this will lead to an increase in the uptake of cycling as a whole, or if more commuters are integrating cycling as part of their journeys.
Dr Park said that while bicycle-sharing companies did indeed encourage cycling because of its “low price points” and “the fact that it could be parked and picked up anywhere”, such benefits were not long lasting, due to questions over the viability of bicycle-operating companies.
The concept of bicycle sharing has taken a hit in the past year amid reports of bicycles being dumped or parked indiscriminately and bicycle-sharing companies facing financial woes.
NO SMOOTH RIDE IN DENSE CITY
Despite efforts to make cycling more commonplace here, one of the biggest hurdles that cannot be wished away is Singapore’s high population density, said experts.
Singapore had a population density of around 7,796 people per square km last year. This is about 1.5 times that of Amsterdam, for example, which has a population density of 4,908 people per square km.
Said Dr Park: “While all the other factors such as the hot weather come into play, at the end of the day, Singapore is an extremely dense city. If our population is already so dense, what are we going to do when we each have bikes?”
He noted that the “existing roads are already close to saturation points, especially during the morning and evening peak periods”, while buses and trains are “already crowded”, so it can be difficult to accommodate bicycles onto public transport.
Given how dense the city is, there is a certain limit for cycling.
Dr Theseira concurred: “Road carrying capacity plays an important role and there is not much you can do to make cycling safer on congested rush-hour roads unless you are willing to construct dedicated cycling lanes or paths.”
Moreover, cycling as a mode of transport may not always be the most attractive option, when compared with other modes of transport over longer distances.
Dr Park noted that buses and MRT trains already provide “great connectivity” to a large majority of commuters here.
Said Dr Theseira: “The physical reality of cycling, however, is that it takes more time and energy to go a certain distance than motorised transport, all else equal.
“Cycling therefore has a hard time being competitive with motor transport when commuting distances are longer, or when traffic is managed well.”