Archive for September, 2008

Prejudices Against Cycling

I have been reading a fantastic handbook on cycling[pdf] by the European Commission written for city/town planners. It includes results from a study in the Netherlands conducted on drivers who were forced to use a bicycle when their car was being repaired. The following graphic shows the drivers’ thoughts on various aspects of cycling after their cycling stints:

It’s never as bad as you think.

EU Obesity Rates versus Walking Rates

After reading this post at GNXP on obesity rates, I plotted obesity rates (2005) versus walking rates (2000) for 15 EU nations. The negative correlation is not surprising, but what is odd is that the three outliers for obesity (UK, Greece and Luxembourg) seem to form a linear regression by themselves, and the other nations cluster at a much lower level of obesity, with also a clear linear regression amongst themselves. [Update: Replaced original graphic with labelled graph. The cluster of three countries with overlapping labels consists of Spain, Germany and Ireland.]

I wanted to plot similar statistics for more countries, specifically to find out why Canada has much lower obesity rates than other English-speaking countries (UK, US, NZ, Australia). But I couldn’t find more statistics on walking.

Does money talk enough?

I’ve always maintained that cycling levels are low in Singapore primarily because of the lack of provisions for safe cycling. There is no doubt that the perception that commuting by bicycle (as opposed to recreational cycling) is only for poor people plays a role as well, but I’ve always thought it to be minor — when I say that I cycle to work on the roads, people’s first reaction is not to exclaim that only poor people do that, but shock that I would do such a dangerous thing. An alternative opinion in Today:

Despite the many acknowledged virtues of cycling to work, many in Singapore are still slow to warm up to the idea. The usual gripes are complaints about the warm weather, lack of infrastructure and traffic dangers.

I see these as mere excuses. The real reason, I believe, is that culturally, we see commuting to work on a bicycle as “low class”.

Excluding the Tour de France type of machines, the bicycle is indeed the cheapest form of transport. Imagine a towkay cycling humbly alongside the regular troop of foreign construction workers on their way to work. What would his staff think?

From our cultural perspective, the boss would lose the respect of his staff. If he did not arrive to work every morning in a gleaming BMW, he would lose his command and air of authority.
Unless there is a change in mindset, it is no use pumping money into something people cannot generally accept.

But what if your boss is white and cycles to work? It seems that the ‘common perception’ makes allowances for race-based stereotypes: Whites in Singapore are stereotypically well-off, so if you see a white person cycling to work, you do not assume that he lacks money.

So the stereotype-based perceptions can be reversed if enough ordinary ‘middle-class’ Singaporeans start cycling to work. And I believe that money talks. Gas prices are only going to increase in the long run. A rising population in Singapore will lead only to higher demand for road space and hence higher COE and ERP rates. (And if not, then you will just get more congestion, which is in itself a cost on drivers.) Right now, these pressures are not strong enough to induce middle- and upper-class Singaporeans to cycle to work. But it’s only a matter of time before they are strong enough. You are not going to get private motor travel in current traffic conditions and current prices indefinitely. Face it. Either conditions worsen (due to increased demand) or prices go up. This has nothing to do with governmental policies — if they don’t raise prices, you just get [even more] terrible jams. Overall, it will be much less painful for Singapore to transition away from private car use if we start disincentivizing car use now, like many European cities have been doing since the 1970s. But if we don’t want to start, we will just be forced to, rather more painfully, later on.

The writer of the letter to Today is tough and fit. He claims to cycle 10km in 15 minutes, meaning an average speed of 40 km/h! That’s darn fast even if there’s no traffic lights on his commute. I take about 50 minutes for my 20km commute. The photo accompanying his letter in the print edition of Today also shows him riding a single speed (perhaps fixed?).

Anyone who cycles to work in Singapore will find this familiar:

On my daily rides, I see more ang mohs than Asians. The only exception is the Asian foreign construction worker — who has by necessity and not by choice — adopted this mode of commute. I am quite sure that if they won the lottery, even these workers would say that they would continue cycling.

At my workplace, I haven’t noticed any other non-white employee who is not a cleaner cycle to work. I think I might be the only Singaporean in a ‘professional’ position there who cycles to work. I can accurately infer the cyclist’s race/rank from looking at his/her bike. Beaten-up mountain bike with seat that is too low and no lights or other accessories = cleaner’s bike. Dutch-style solid commuter bike with lights and rack = some white guy’s bike. Solid mountain bike with lights and proper seat height and rack = some white guy’s bike. I haven’t seen any road bikes locked up there.

[Part of] my feedback at ‘Sustainable Singapore’

I had already posted some feedback along quite similar lines at their main feedback page, but I was so disappointed by their ‘Commute’ feedback page, for its unstated assumption that any further accommodation of cyclists will take place only on sidewalks, that I submitted another piece of feedback particularly for the ‘Commute’ section:


I am disappointed that this section does not seem to even consider the possibility of improving conditions for cycling on the roads. Little attention has been paid to research that has been done on the far higher accident rates for cyclists on footpaths as compared to cyclists on roads. For links to several such studies, see here:

It has always been assumed, by both urban planners and the general public, that cyclists are safer on footpaths. As such, cyclists on the roads suffer because drivers think that we do not have a ‘right’ to safety on the roads. As a cyclist, when I speak to drivers, they usually express shock and disapproval that I cycle on the roads. It is time to reconsider our entrenched attitude that roads belong only to motor vehicles and that bicycles belong on sidewalks. The number one reason why cycling is not a popular mode of transport in Singapore is that it is unsafe to cycle. As the studies linked to above outline, sidewalks present their own safety hazards, containing more obstacles than the roads and restricting cyclists’ visibility to motorists at intersections (which is where most accidents occur). The countries in which cycling is safest (e.g. the Netherlands) create dedicated cycling lanes rather than mix cyclists with pedestrians.

Given that the countries most experienced with accommodating cyclists wisely keep cyclists separate from pedestrians, and given that any research that has been done on the comparative risks of sidewalk versus road cycling has found sidewalk cycling to have higher accident rates, it is time to reexamine the assumption that cyclists can be accommodated only on the sidewalks. The current suboptimal conditions for road cycling are perpetrated by a lack of will on the part of transport planners to accommodate cyclists on the roads. It therefore begs the question to argue that cyclists should not be on the roads because the roads are unsafe for them. The question we should be asking is why we have created a situation where the roads are unsafe for cyclists in the first place. This is the question that urban planners in many parts of continental Europe asked themselves in the 1970s and 1980s, and that is the reason why they now have some of the most sustainable cities in the world. Sustainable development is not compatible with sticking to an assumption that road space for motor vehicles is sacred. Perhaps we should start to recognise that public transport is not the only alternative to driving. We can get people out of their cars and onto their bikes, if only we have the imagination to question some of our basic assumptions about our already too-generous provisions for private motorists. As I’ve stated in feedback elsewhere on this website, transport experts everywhere acknowledge that bicycles are a much more land-efficient mode of transport than cars, because you need less land to transport the same number of people on bicycles compared to the same number in cars. Given our scarcity of land, therefore, it is all the more important that we consider converting some of our existing road space, inefficiently utilised by car drivers, to space that can transport more people by bicycles.

In short,
1. Please reconsider the possibility that cycling on the roads can be made safe enough to transport significant numbers of people on bicycles on roads. This is for the good of everyone (less pollution, less congestion for the same land area, less annoying of pedestrians). Other cities have done it and are still economically thriving; there is no reason why Singapore cannot. Judging by the experiences of other cities, claims of economic disaster should we take away road space from motorists are greatly exaggerated, probably by motorists themselves.
2. Please take a hard look at all the research that shows the dangers of sidewalk cycling relative to road cycling. Look at other cities’ experiences with accommodating cyclists, instead of making decisions on ‘commonsensical’ grounds about where bicycles belong. This is not a new area of exploration, but one that many other cities have vast experience with. We should learn from the experts.

Thank you for considering my feedback.

Before I Forget

I’d like to say a big thank you to the taxi driver who slowed down to let me filter right in front of him just before the dreaded Toa Payoh flyover filter along Braddell Road. For those not familiar with the area, in both directions along Braddell Road, there is a two lane filter into the Toa Payoh estate. I usually have no problems avoiding being ‘squeezed’ into the filter when I cycle to work in the wee hours of the morning, but when I return in the late afternoon, traffic is somewhat heavier and filtering becomes considerably more difficult. Furthermore, in the return direction (going towards the CTE junction), most cars are coming down a flyover ramp at high speed, and are hence usually less amenable to yielding to cyclists (on the other side of the road, the cars are just coming from flat ground).

But no thank you to whoever was in the Volvo at the Lorong Chuan/AMK Ave 1 junction, where I was in the middle of the middle lane approaching the junction, because I didn’t want to turn left. You were turning left, I was nowhere close to encroaching upon ‘your’ lane, yet you still felt the need to honk several times at me.

Another thing of note. The section of Thomson Road at the big Lornie/Thomson/Braddell confluence had one lane closed off today. This was an unexpected boon for me because traffic was forced to slow down, which actually allowed me to feel safe filtering safely into the middle lane to get to Braddell Road. (I feel more assured that drivers will see and give a shit about my hand signal to turn right when they are going more slowly.) In normal traffic conditions, if I take the middle lane at the red light, drivers behind me get unhappy and often resort to passing me at decidedly unsafe distances (after, of course, lots of honking). If I don’t take the middle lane, I usually don’t get a chance to filter to the middle lane in the short stretch after the traffic lights and before the Braddell junction, and am ‘channelled’ helplessly into Upper Thomson Road, from where I have to take the pedestrian crossing at the next traffic lights to get to Bishan St 21, and detour through Bishan (up the bloody hill outside RJC) before emerging into Braddell Road near the CTE. Unintended traffic calming is a good thing.

Summer Streets NYC

Streetfilms’ video.

Build it and they will come

Those who proclaim from their armchairs that pro-cycling policies will ‘never work’ in Singapore invariably do so without reference to any examples of other cases where pro-cycling policies did not work. In fact, it seems that they do work in other countries. This clearly puts the burden of proof on the naysayers to argue why Singapore is a special case in which such policies will not work. “We have not enough land!” comes one reply. Easily countered by my previous post. “Our weather sucks!” comes another. Well, that reply invariably comes from people who have never done winter cycling, yet think it ‘obvious’ that cycling in the humid tropics is more unbearable than cycling in sub-zero temperatures. I have never known anyone who has done both who holds the same view. Come on. You’ve got to do better than that. For starters, you might want to educate yourself on the success of pro-cycling policies, some of which are detailed in this Washington Post article:

…among the world’s most developed countries, a reliable recipe has emerged for making cycling a mainstream means of getting to work.

Commuters in Northern Europe have been lured out of their cars by bike lanes, secure bike parking and easy access to mass transportation. At the same time, steep automobile taxes, congestion-zone fees and go-slow rules have made inner-city driving a costly pain in the neck. In the Netherlands, where such carrot-and-stick policies have been in place for decades, 27 percent of all trips are by bike.

“It is very clear how to do this,” said John Pucher, a professor of urban planning at Rutgers University and lead author of a global study of strategies that promote cycling. “It is not rocket science.”


When cities do fit the pieces together, they often see an almost instantaneous surge in cycling.

In Britain, a country whose nationwide transportation system is nearly as inhospitable to cycling as that of the United States, London has emerged as Exhibit A for the quick infrastructure fix that gets commuters out of cars.

In 2003, the city imposed a steep “congestion charge” of about $16 for cars driving into the city center. Within a year, inner-city cycling had increased by about 25 percent. In the past eight years, there has been a 10-fold increase in city spending on bike lanes, bike parking and education programs. The effort has nearly doubled cycling throughout London.


Germany, Denmark and the Netherlands have been connecting the dots for three decades. They started in the mid-1970s, in the wake of the world’s first oil shock and after 25 years of American-style, car-centric traffic management that had coincided with a sharp decline in cycling.

There is now an integrated system of safe bicycling routes in most cities in all three countries. It allows cyclists to go almost everywhere on paths that are separated from automobiles and in “traffic-calmed” neighborhoods. Besides pampering cyclists, these countries punished drivers with fees and restrictions intended to make commuting by car expensive, slow and frustrating.

The policies have resulted in the developed world’s highest per-capita rates of cycling and lowest rates of cycling accidents, the Rutgers study found.

In Berlin, biking now accounts for 12 percent of all transportation. The city has 3.4 million residents, and the city estimates that they use their bicycles a million times a day.


The build-it-and-they-will-come approach has also worked in Bogota, Colombia, where Dutch bicycle engineers were recently imported to build bike lanes and redesign traffic flows. In two years, bike use jumped tenfold, from 0.5 percent of all trips to 5 percent.

It also works in the United States. Rainy Portland, Ore., offers compelling evidence that bike lanes can transform Americans into bike commuters.

A recent study by Portland State University found that while just 15 percent of Portland’s streets have bike lanes, they attract half of the city’s bike travel. Since 1991, counts of cyclists in the city have jumped 400 percent. Portland now has the highest share of bike trips among major U.S. cities — about 4 percent.


Recent history, though, suggests that the cycling decline in China and India may be short-lived. A similar decline occurred here on the island of Taiwan about 30 years ago, when the export-based economy shifted into high gear. Many of the island’s 23 million residents bought motorcycles and then cars, as bicycles disappeared from the commuting mix.

The Taiwan government began pushing about 17 years ago for a modest return to cycling. It built rural bike paths. Taipei, the largest city on the island, joined the campaign, building 155 miles of bike lanes along rivers and through parks. Abundant bike parking was provided at transit stations. A network of 5,000 rental bikes appeared.

In the past year, with better facilities for bikers, a doubling of gasoline prices and growing concern about global warming, cycling has continued its climb. In Taipei, about 3 percent of all commuters ride bicycles, a 35 percent increase in 18 months.