Singapore: World's first tropical cycling city?

For the Republic to get there, we will need to find a way to dilute that link between cars and status, and move people's car-owning aspirations towards a larger one that views the bicycle, not as an inferior form of transport but, as the ultimate vehicle of freedom.

Last weekend, as I dusted off my bicycle from the basement of my apartment block and took my first ride in years to the neighbourhood mall and back, the English rock band Queen’s song “Bicycle Race” popped into my head.

The catchy chorus goes: “I want to ride my bicycle / I want to ride my bike / I want to ride my bicycle / I want to ride it where I like”.

The international hit, released in 1978, was inspired by the Tour de France and its official video featuring a bicycle race with nude women at Wimbledon Stadium caused a hullabaloo at the time.

Throughout its history, the humble bicycle has oft been associated with notions of liberty, freedom, and an accompanying sense of carefree happiness.

Perhaps it is these qualities, and the imagination it inspires, that led American novelist Christopher Morley to write: “The bicycle surely, should always be the vehicle of novelists and poets.”

I would love to ride my bike more, including to work and back. Unfortunately, Singapore remains far from being a city where I can “ride it where I like”.

First popularised in Europe in the 1800s, the bicycle was a permanent fixture in the early transport systems of cities all across the world, including Singapore.

Singapore in 1960, with an established cycling culture, had 268,000 bicycles, compared to 63,000 cars and 19,000 motorcycles. Several major roads even had bicycle tracks next to footpaths, according to a 2012 NTU paper that tracked the evolution of cycling.

But as Singapore enjoyed rapid economic development from the 1970s, growing affluence and the popularity of cars and motorcycles soon saw the bicycle fall out of favour. It was seen an inferior form of travel and cycling paths were removed to widen roads.  Transport planning began to focus on motorised vehicles, and the Government Registry of Vehicles stopped registering bicycles in 1981. This trend was largely reflected in developing cities across the world.

Cycling puts less strain on existing land resources and requires far less public investment than providing for cars; the affordability of cycling also makes it highly inclusive and accessible to all segments of society.

After suffering decades of neglect, however, the bicycle is making a comeback.

The resurgence of cycling

There are good reasons: In many cities globally, urban capacity for motorised vehicles is reaching its limits. Those such as Los Angeles, Jakarta and Manila are plagued daily with acute traffic congestion, costing the cities billions of dollars per year.

Cycling puts less strain on existing land resources and requires far less public investment than providing for cars; the affordability of cycling also makes it highly inclusive and accessible to all segments of society.

Apart from increasing interaction within communities, the regular physical activity involved also leads to lower level of chronic illness and obesity rates and thus less stress on a city’s healthcare system.

Cities that consistently make it to the top of sustainable and liveable cities rankings such as Copenhagen and Amsterdam have deeply entrenched cycling cultures that lend certain vibrancy to their streets.

Given its multiple benefits - cycling is space efficient, socially equitable and eco-friendly - it puzzles me that Singapore has been so slow to embrace cycling as a serious complementary mode of transport and to support it with the necessary infrastructure.

Taipei already boasts a famous bike-sharing scheme YouBike that has successfully integrated cycling into the daily commute, and Thailand has just announced Asia’s longest bicycle lane, a S$60 million track spanning 184.8km across five provinces.

In many ways, the city-state would be a perfect cycling city. It is high-density, with a compact urban design with relatively flat land and benign weather. So why has it not taken off?

The cycling challenge

Its hot, humid weather is oft cited as an obstacle. Safety is also an issue. But these are not insurmountable obstacles.

To some extent, the Singapore government has recognised the benefits of cycling and has addressed these issues with various measures.

Under the National Cycling Plan, the Urban Redevelopment Authority aims to increase Singapore’s cycling network to more than 700 kilometres by 2030. The Land Transport Authority (LTA) also has invested $43 million to design and construct dedicated off-road cycling paths in seven HDB Towns, and is due to launch a bicycle sharing pilot scheme by the end of the year.

There are pockets of progress, but it has been painfully slow.

At a recent lunch hosted by Danish Ambassador to Singapore Berit Basse for a group of editors, I took the chance to ask her what enabled Copenhagen to successfully become a cycling city.

It came down to this, she said: Mindset shift and public support. When the growth of cars started to seriously encroach on public spaces in Copenhagen in the 1970s, residents started staging protests to demand that their spaces be preserved.

Public demand drove policymakers to adopt measures that support the bicycle as a viable mode of transport . These included the gradual removal of car parking space in the city centre by 2 to 3 per cent a year, increasing the cost of parking in the city, and gradually narrowing roads to create space for more bicycle lanes.

For something similar to happen in Singapore, we need mass support to compel planners to make space for dedicated cycling lanes. If these lanes can’t be carved out of existing roads, we should allow cycling on footpaths, and make adjustments for both pedestrians and cyclists.

As the saying goes, if you build it, they will come. Making cycling safe and convenient is the first step towards mass adoption. 

The Danes, noted Ms Basse, also came to disregard the car as a status symbol. More people own bicycles than cars in Copenhagen, and those who own cars definitely also own bicycles. When it snows in the winter, bicycle lanes are cleared first before car lanes. Ministers, CEOs and citizens alike cycle to work, she said, making it the ultimate social equaliser.

Copenhagen is on track to become carbon neutral by 2025 and is regarded as Europe’s greenest capital, which manages to enjoy economic growth without growing its emissions.

For Singapore to get there, we will need to find a way to dilute that link between cars and status, and move people’s car-owning aspirations towards a larger one that views the bicycle, not as an inferior form of transport but, as the ultimate vehicle of freedom.

It is my hope that Singapore will become the world’s first tropical cycling city within the next decade. We have nothing to lose and all to gain. As English writer Herbert George Wells puts it: “Every time I see an adult on a bicycle, I no longer despair for the future of the human race.”

A shorter version of this column was first published in The Straits Times. 

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