Archive for May, 2008

Why I’ve been ignoring the foldable bike trial

Paul Barter of Cycling in Singapore points out that despite the positive-sounding announcements about allowing folding bikes on buses and trains, what’s effectively been done is to put restrictions on how/when/where folding bikes can be brought on buses and trains:

Sadly, now that the details are out, this looks like a trial of RESTRICTING folding bikes on MRT and buses. The guidelines are much tighter than they were before this. In practice, MRT and buses (when not packed) had been allowing foldables without problems for some time. This long list of restrictions seems like overkill. They are also rather inflexible. For example, trains traveling in the reverse peak direction are often quite empty even during peak hours. But with these rules, foldables are not allowed on these spacious trains either. I don’t see a need for so many complicated rules! If the intention here is to make it easier to bring folders onto public transport then this is a very strange way to go about it.

On a related note, I just did something I’ve been meaning to do for a long time: send a letter to the ST forum suggesting that we install external bike racks on buses:

With foldable bikes now allowed on public buses and MRT carriages during certain hours, I wonder if the our public transport companies would consider installing low-cost external bike racks on public buses. America is not known as a cycling-friendly country, yet the American Public Transportation Association reports that in 2007, 62.7% of public buses in America have external bike racks. These are usually mounted in front of the bus and take up no passenger space. They have a simple mechanism that allows the cyclist to mount the bike securely in a few seconds. Certainly, it would cost less to install one such bike rack than to install one TV. Yet, many buses in Singapore have TVs, and none have bike racks. I hope our bus companies will consider this simple action that would provide a significant incentive for people to make part of their commute healthy and environmentally friendly.

Singapore’s Waste Problem

Highlights from this Reuters article:

“It is very costly to get rid of our waste,” said Ong Chong Peng, general manger of the island’s only remaining landfill, which cost S$610 million ($447 million) to create on Pulau Semakau eight kilometers south of the mainland.

The landfill “island,” a 350-hectare feat of engineering reclaimed from the sea, opened the day after the last of five mainland landfills closed in 1999.

Every day it takes shipments of over 2,000 tonnes of ash — the charred remnants of 93 percent of Singapore’s rubbish, burnt at its four incinerators.

The National Environment Agency (NEA) predicts a new multimillion dollar incinerator will be needed every five to seven years, and a new landfill like Pulau Semakau every 25 to 30 years.

With nowhere to site another landfill, recycling, though not yet rolled out to the masses in condominiums or state Housing Development Board (HDB) skyscrapers, is no longer just nice to have, but a necessity, said Ong.

With Semakau landfill expected to be full by 2040, even those who have worked for decades in Singapore’s incineration industry agree the old burn-and-bury approach is unsustainable.

“We cannot keep building incinerator plants,” said Poh. “It’s not really the solution.”

Like the NEA, he says Singaporeans must change their mindset. “We need to get people aware of the environmental impact of their actions.”

Convincing people to buy less in a country whose “national pastime” is shopping is a hard win, he said.

This part annoyed me:

Incinerators have met with public resistance in neighboring Malaysia and Indonesia, and have been banned in the Philippines because of perceived health risks.

But the plants are sacred cows in Singapore, which opened its first in 1979, little commented on or questioned.

“Singaporeans understand and accept that because land is scarce, incineration is one of the most cost effective ways of waste disposal, as it can reduce the volume of waste by up to 90 percent,” the NEA said in a statement.

I’m sorry, but I doubt that a substantial proportion of Singaporeans ‘understand and accept’ the incineration situation. Most of them just consume and throw their waste without a thought to how it is being disposed of. Most of them would not have thought abotu the health risks of incineration. This statement is just a way to shift responsibility for a controversial decision that was made unilaterally by the government onto the people.

Dreams

What I will write here is a partial explanation for why I am such an angry idealist. Not the ‘idealist’ part, because I was always that, but the ‘angry’ part.

The anger comes when goals that you work hard for are undermined by people who claim some sort of moral high ground in doing so. When your painstaking preparation is dismissed as insufficient by people who have absolutely no expertise in the field in question. When the value in what you do is dismissed again by those who are unfamiliar with the field in question and in any case have no notion of value other than monetary and social status.

It comes when the suffering you went through is tossed aside at will by these people, and you can do nothing but rage helplessly, because knowledge is not power — plenty of ignorant shits are in power. When people belittle your hard work on the basis of gender/sex alone, notwithstanding that you went through everything that your counterparts with in supposedly stronger gender/sex did.

When people who claim to be ‘doing things for your own good’ reveal themselves to be using you as know more than a tool for their own self-gratification, for if they gave a shit about your mental well-being would they really choose to teach you that hard work should be compensated for by the complete slaughtering of your dreams by those who do not even attempt to understand those dreams? “I don’t care that you’ve spent 400 hours of your life on this, gone through extremes of mental and physical suffering, including second degree burns all over your palms that I could not have failed to notice; this unknown thing that you want to do gives me the heebie-jeebies, therefore, for your own good, I shall forcibly stop you from doing it.” Certainly breeds respect for these enforcers, doesn’t it? Certainly breeds faith in the correlation between social seniority and wisdom. Perhaps those who lament the lack of “respect for elders” in today’s society would want to reflect more on why that is happening, instead of shunting the blame onto Evil Western Culture?

From that I learned that the most worthy ideals and intentions, the most thorough preparation and justification, can be shot down at will by those who have the power to do so. That by itself isn’t why it is so enraging. It is enraging because the same idiots doing it paint themselves as saints for doing so. Politics as usual, y’know. As it was possibly my first try at anything resembling a coherent long-term effort towards a goal that I cared about, it was not particularly encouraging. As a chronic idealist, I was not discouraged from my ideals, but I was certainly divested of a large portion of any optimism about people I still had left at that point.

It was perhaps one incident, but the pattern kept repeating. On small and large scales. Everywhere, there would be ignorant, arrogant pricks who could not reason to save their life scuppering other people’s dreams for petty reasons. Mostly what in this society would be termed ‘pragmatic’ reasons. And some of the worst offenders are those who are charged with nurturing the future workers of our society. But society is constituted in such a way that these people would be praised, rewarded, for dream-killing. For ambition-killing. ‘That person has his feet on the ground,’ observers would remark approvingly.

Those who keep their feet on the ground for too long eventually become permanently rooted to that one spot. When that becomes your exemplar of a good life, it’s no surprise that society remains in an infantile state. They haven’t even snipped their umbilical cords.

Fatalism*

My latest spiel in response to another of those fatalists, whom I spotted on a Cycling in Singapore post. As is sadly too common here, the fatalist in question insists that cycling to work will never be a widespread habit in Singapore due to the weather, the prevailing culture, current traffic conditions, etc. Now, the weather I can’t change, but I think it’s still a darn sight better than the weather in the American Midwest. Try cycling in sub-zero weather with 40km/h winds. Go observe the number of people cycle-commuting in places like Chicago and Ann Arbor. Then come back and tell me that you can’t create a significant bike commuting population in Singapore. Furthermore, people who bring up the weather fail to realise that the factor at issue is people’s willingness to tolerate the weather, not the weather itself. And people’s level of tolerance certainly can be changed.

As for other factors like traffic conditions and culture, it’s all too obvious that those can be changed too. But I will leave my case for those to be made by the comment I posted at Cycling in Singapore:

I strongly object to KY’s fatalistic view about promoting cycling to work. Of course, *right now* there are few people who cycle to work (as opposed to simply around their neighborhood), and *right now* it’s rather dangerous to cycle on many roads. But a major reason that few people cycle to work is that it’s dangerous. So we are in a chicken-and-egg situation, where the authorities refuse to build certain facilities because they claim there is no demand for it, yet there is no demand for them because the lack of facilities creates a prevailing situation where the product offered (bike commuting) is perceived as inferior. The economic concept of induced demand is relevant here — it’s basically the same mechanism that explains why adding lanes to expressways doesn’t relieve congestion (the initially faster traffic induces more people to use the expressway, eventually bringing traffic back to pre-expansion congestion levels).

People tend to naively think that bike-friendly cities in the West arose because the transport authorities spotted a significant existing demand for bikes and hence built bike-friendly infrastructure. In fact, the real situation is more complicated. Typically, it’s the efforts of a minority of cycling enthusiasts that push the authorities into bike-friendly measures. One bike lane at a time. But with each bike lane laid down, the mass of cyclists grows, as cycling becomes a more attractive option. As they grow, it gets progressively easier to make their case for more bike-friendly infrastructure. And so on. But at the start, there will be a ‘bootstrapping’ stage where a minority has to make the case for facilities for which the demand hasn’t ‘matured’. It’s a pretty commonsense notion really. Build the lanes, and the cyclists will appear.

Finally, I think it is incredibly short-sighted to claim that only low-income workers and crazy Westerners or Western-influenced Singaporeans will cycle to work. I think it’s pretty evident to everyone that oil prices, and hence the price of motorized transport, are going to increase steadily. It’s also notable that even in a society as car-crazy as America, bike commuting has been steadily increasing. This is not some kind of one-off cultural phenomenon. It is a signal of deep, albeit long-term, economic forces at work. If we choose to ignore it and plan only for short-term accommodation rather than long-term structural change, we will pay the price eventually.

It’s funny that KY rants about how people would not cycle to work if they were paid to. Well I think at some point in the not too distant future cyclists will effectively be paid to cycle to work — simply by virtue of the price differential between cycling and other transport options. And making cycling to work safer and more comfortable is also a way of ‘paying’ cyclists to do so, just not in monetary terms.

There is an insidious, self-defeating assumption here that Singaporean culture and Singaporeans’ attitudes towards cycling will never change — that women will always view it as the equivalent of menial labour fit only for construction workers, etc. Well of course if you go around saying that all the time and using that as an excuse for not pushing hard for cycling as a major mode of transport, then of course your predictions will come true. No change is going to happen when people go around saying that change is impossible. This comes back to the point that cycling-friendly cities (in the States especially) did not arise because there were already a bike-loving populations slavering for bike lanes. Rather, such cities became bike friendly because the starting minority of bike enthusiasts managed to get their ideas out and change the mindsets of people around them. The pre-existing culture was and is being changed in those places. To assume from the start that S’porean mindsets cannot be similarly changed is to make a self-fulfilling prophecy. Only people who believe things can change can change things.

*I was sorely tempted to title this post ‘Yes we can‘, but decided it would be too cheesy. For all that I distrust politicians, I think there is something in the Obama campaign’s line.