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.

3 Responses to “Fatalism*”

  1. 1 budak May 10, 2008 at 12:01 am

    it reminds me of some of those letters to the newspapers proclaiming that Singapore could not have a minority-race/female Prime Minister simply because the people just can’t accept such a notion…

  2. 2 zn May 21, 2008 at 6:33 pm

    bh, you call me an optimist?! i agree wholeheartedly against the fatalist argument (which my dad uses all the time) – and glad you agree with the chicken-and-egg point, though i’m sure you spotted that way before i did…

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