Wednesday, 8 April 2015

Making bike commutes easy and safe

By Danson Cheong, The Straits Times, 6 Apr 2015

IN THE 1960s, bicycles on Singapore's streets outnumbered motor vehicles by three to one.

There were about 268,000 bicycles then.

Today, as is the case with most modern cities, bicycles are no longer the preferred mode of transport here. There are now almost a million vehicles on Singapore's roads, travelling an average of 17,800km a year.

Bicycles, on the other hand, account for only 1 to 2 per cent of all trips.

In recent years, however, given a rising population and the limited land area, the Government has been pointing commuters away from private vehicle ownership.

A curb on car growth has sent car and Certificate of Entitlement prices on a strong upward trend, forcing commuters to rethink car purchases and opt for alternatives.

More commuters are moving to buses or trains - public transport modes have seen their share increase from 59 per cent of trips during peak hours in 2008 to 66 per cent last year. But this in turn has overtaxed the public transport system, resulting in breakdowns.

The use of bicycles and other personal mobility devices has emerged as a plausible alternative to buses and trains, at least for short journeys.

This is due in part to push factors, but there are also pull factors, such as the growing focus on staying fit and green. Even so, the numbers are small, for now.

Cycling as a sport and recreational activity, however, has caught on, with numbers growing fast every year. The OCBC Cycle Singapore event attracted some 11,500 cyclists last year. When it started in 2009, there were only 5,400 participants.

More serious cyclists can be seen taking to less crowded roads in Changi, Mandai and Lim Chu Kang over the weekends, while others stick to a familiar favourite, East Coast Park.

A Nanyang Technological University (NTU) study in 2012 found that one in two households here owned at least one adult-size bicycle.

"If adult bike ownership is very high, this means the potential for greater cycling here is very promising," said Associate Professor Wong Yiik Diew, the director of NTU's Centre for Infrastructure Systems.

So how can we turn an increasingly popular sport or leisure activity into a daily commute?

Experts say there are a number of stumbling blocks to making Singapore a true cycling city like Copenhagen or Amsterdam.

The most obvious? The tropical climate. The heat and humidity leave cyclists drenched in sweat by the time they arrive at work. Not enough workplaces provide shower facilities, lockers or shaded bicycle racks for their staff. Experts, however, say the biggest roadblock for cycling here is still safety.

Police statistics show that the number of cyclist fatalities has been decreasing even as more people take to riding. Last year, 15 pedal-cyclists and their pillion riders died, more than a third fewer than the 22 killed in 2007.

Even so, the perception that cycling on Singapore roads is unsafe has not changed. Road traffic rules say cycling must be done on the road, but many cyclists find it intimidating to share space with other, more fast-moving and sturdier vehicles.

Still, the Government has been adamant that there is not enough road space to accord cyclists their own lanes, as is the case in the Netherlands and France.

Cyclists naturally have turned to riding on footpaths.

Over the past five years, the Traffic Police have issued around 3,500 summonses to cyclists, including those on motorised bicycles, for cycling on footpaths.

Despite the numbers, the rule is not strictly enforced, and Prof Wong feels the logical step is to throw out the archaic rule. He said the authorities could not expect vulnerable riders such as the elderly to ride on the road. "(Pedestrians and cyclists) are already sharing the National Parks Board (NParks) network," he said.

"Can you imagine riding on a park connector, and then when you reach a certain town, you face a new set of laws and you have to ride on the road? There is some disconnect," he noted.

Moving forward

THE Government more recently has recognised that bicycles have a substantial part to play in the transport ecosystem, and is working to address some of these issues. It has been building up a comprehensive network of pathways for leisure cyclists by offering an extensive array of park connectors.

The National Cycling Plan, under the Land Transport Authority (LTA), will see 700km of cycling paths ready by 2030. Later this year, NParks' 300km park connector network will be completed - the culmination of a 25-year plan.

Putting in place the infrastructure has contributed to the increased popularity of leisure cycling, say experts.

And this should also be the way forward to encourage more to cycle when it comes to commuting.

Dutch cycling infrastructure expert Jeroen Buis, whose consultancy firm Witteveen+Bos has an office here, feels that "if you build it, they will come".

"Building infrastructure helps increase cycle use. By making it safer, you pull people into riding bikes," said Mr Buis.

Conducive elements could include bike paths, clear and consistent traffic signs for bicycles, and ample parking, he added.

Given the heat and unpredictable weather in Singapore, the Government is looking to see if shaded paths will encourage more people to ride.

In Ang Mo Kio - a town that has been identified as a testbed for novel cycling features - a partially shaded 2.6km cycling and walking corridor between Yio Chu Kang MRT station and Bishan-Ang Mo Kio Park will be built by 2018.

The Dutch are also big on cycle education, and most Dutch schoolchildren go for cycling classes and sit an exam where they are tested on traffic rules, said Mr Buis.

The Singapore Cycling Federation said in January that it was coming up with a safe cycling programme that it hoped to roll out to schools - but for the scheme to succeed, it must be adopted on a national level, like the water literacy programme started by the National Water Safety Council.

Singapore will soon have all the parts in place when it comes to cycling - interest, infrastructure and education. What it needs now is a coordinated approach just like that adopted in Tampines - the country's first cycling town, where cycling on footpaths is allowed.

A new Activity Mobility Unit to be headed by LTA, which will start soon, could be just the answer.

It will coordinate across agencies regarding issues that involve personal mobility devices, such as bicycles, and pedestrians. Hopefully, this will eventually pave the way for Singapore to evolve into a cycling city.

How we can shorten our journey to being a cycling nation
By Danson Cheong, The Straits Times, 6 Apr 2015

WHILE Singapore is trying to find its feet as a cycling nation, some other places are miles ahead.

The Netherlands arguably leads the world in cycling culture, with about 26 per cent of all trips done by bicycle, and the European nation is an oft-cited example that Singapore could follow.

But Mr Jeroen Buis, a Dutch cycling infrastructure expert, points out that his country has got to where it is with a comprehensive transportation policy that leaves no stone unturned.

In its cities, parking charges are kept high and spaces limited to discourage car use.

In schools, children are taught traffic rules.

Roads are also designed with a safety-centric focus in mind, said Mr Buis. For instance, they are made narrower or installed with speed humps to reduce vehicular speeds - this makes it safer for both cyclists and pedestrians.

Meanwhile, a comprehensive cycling network consisting of both intra-city paths and cycle highways linking urban areas was also built.

The result?

A transport infrastructure system that makes it more convenient to get to where you want by bicycle, said Mr Buis.

Other experts point out that European cities such as Amsterdam are not an apples-to-apples comparison when it comes to Asian metropolises like Singapore.

"The intensity of how cities are built up is different," said NTU's Associate Professor Wong Yiik Diew. He said he feels Singapore should look at how other Asian places, such as Taipei, Hong Kong and Seoul are developing their cycling infrastructure.

There are more than 4,000km of cycle paths in Taiwan - including two round-island routes popular with both locals and tourists that circuit the country.

In 2011, the Taiwanese government also launched YouBike, a city-wide bike-sharing programme in Taipei where users can rent bicycles and return them at any of the 163 rental stations located across the city. The programme, aimed at encouraging short-range commuting by bicycle, has been hugely successful, with more than 40 million trips made so far.

This is the third of 12 primers on various current affairs issues, published as part of the outreach programme for The Straits Times-Ministry of Education National Current Affairs Quiz.

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