Just last year, I headed out to one of the cycling specialist shops and got myself a nice bike and kitted it out with skinny road slicks and disk brakes for on road commuting. I figured that, with the kind of frequency that our public buses are scheduled (according to SBS’ online bus tracking service, over 20 minutes between buses during off-peak hours) I can probably out-cycle the bus to most destinations within a 10km radius of my place. On top of that, it is probably an excellent way to fight the flab as well as ¬ dare I say it this year’s flavour-of-the-month, save the environment.
Indeed as it turns out I arrived for appointments earlier that I would had I waited for a bus, and I had quite an adrenaline rush from the commute as well. On the latter point, it was not only the speed that a well tuned gear ratio and slick tires enabled the bike to do (an average of close to 30km/h over the course of a journey, which is not too shabby when you compare that to the frequent start and stops of a bus), but the yobs behind the wheels of their corollas and their lancers. More than once I had nearly cycled into taxis swerving in to pick up fares, or drivers who come too close to the curb-side, forcing one to take evasive manoeuvres. Over the span of 6 months, I had numerous opportunities to test out the enormous stopping power of those disk brakes. Things came to a head when a cycling mate of mine had his front wheel of his bike dented by a car that came too close to him as he was evading the large chunks of debris that litter the side of our public roads on top of the double yellow lines, and in that moment of epiphany I went back to taking the bus, declaring that it is way too dangerous to cycle on Singapore roads.
One tends to blame the nature of Singaporean drivers, infamous for not giving way to other road users and their negative attitudes towards cyclists because “they do not pay road tax thus they have no right to use the roads”. Or we blame the government for not building cycling lanes for us to potter about on our 2 wheel commie-mobiles in tax free bliss. After all, in creating cycling lanes along the roads, the government has to give up opportunities to tax us up to 6 times over, from COE, to road tax, and GST on the car which leads to fuel tax and ERP, not to say parking as well. The infrastructural cost of building cycling lanes are high, and short of raising the low income tax it is difficult to justify expending such a huge amount of money on an extra strip of tarmac when that can be used to generate more revenue.
There is little initiative for the government to implement cycling lanes; pressure from society is still fairly low, given the justifiably negative perception that cycling is sweaty and dangerous, with reckless children (and in recent years foreign nationals) zipping recklessly on the sidewalks. To argue that cycling reduces carbon footprint is a fairly moot point as well. Given that our roads are almost at capacity during rush hour, it is impractical to mark off a portion of the road as designated cycling lanes a la London or Seattle. Thus it would seem that unless cars are reduced as an act of legislation one would need to build into the road reserves, which currently are simply grass verges and storm drains. Coming back to my point on the ecological sensitivity of cycling, while the act itself is sustainable, the creation of cycling lanes, with the repaving of the road reserves and the supporting infrastructural works, has an ecological impact that probably outweighs the benefit, especially if it doesn’t displace the pollutive car as a mode of transport.
Even the notion that cycling is dangerous was debunked with data published last year. While cyclists are 12 times more likely than car drivers to suffer a fatal accident, according to results published in the American Journal of Public Health, travelling on foot is 23 times more hazardous than commuting by car. And another Danish study reports that people who do not cycle to work have a mortality rate of 39% higher than those who do. So as it turns out if cyclists were to survive turning into a human speed-bump, they would live longer than their non-cycling friends. With petrol prices at an all time high, and the public transportation network bursting at its seams (how many times did you have to wait for a second or third bus/train because the one that just pulled up was too crowded to get on to), cycling is turning out to be an excellent way to get around.
Is the government then denying us a cheap, affordable, and beneficial form of transport that many other cities in the west are encouraging right now? Admittedly the ecological slant is arguable given the unique situation of Singapore’s roads, but does the government have a responsibility to provide for cycling lanes? Take San Francisco as an example. Public transit provides bicycle racks for cyclists who find distances between destinations too far to cycle, and the Brompton folding bike is a fashion rage there. Or London, where there are subsidies towards the cost of a bicycle, and city-wide efforts to encourage people to give up the car and cycle instead. And famously Paris, with its hugely successful public bicycle scheme, managed to wean its citizens out of the car and onto the saddle. All these initiatives are neigh impossible without funding and support from the government. How is it then that the Singapore government, having spent an obscene amount of money constructing the new KPE, has yet to spend very much in encouraging cycling as a viable form of transport?
Encouragingly there are bicycle paths, park connectors and the pavement sharing trial in Tampines. But to be honest, I doubt those who designed these initiatives cycle. In most estates, bike paths are placed so close to pedestrian sidewalks that they become paths for prams and joggers, essentially making it even more hazardous. And some even have drain gratings on them. But after having skidded on them on my slicks and getting my thin tires caught between the gratings more than once, I generally avoid said paths. Park connectors are nice, but in reality do not really connect. They are just glorified cycling paths. And they lead to nowhere in particular, making them useless for everyday commutes. And as all cyclists know, pedestrians are more dangerous than cars. They stop for no reason, have no signals on their backsides indicating their chosen direction and have no rules regulating them. So I personally wish the Tampines scheme would fail. After all, if one were to cycle at the kinds of speed you’d need to do on a shared footpath it pretty much defeats the purpose of cycling distances greater than 2km since one would never get there in reasonable time.