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.

7 Responses to “Does money talk enough?”


  1. 1 Back2Nature September 22, 2008 at 2:55 am

    Wow! 40Km/h! Does he ride on expressway? Not many roads in Singapore allow such speed for 10Km.

    I feel that our cultural perspectives are changing because the people in “our” is changing. Singaporeans are decreasing, relatively speaking. Saturday evening at Raffles City, I suddenly miss Singlish. With more foreigners living here, “our” cultural perspectives will change. E.g. Many years ago, I once saw a lady (I guess is a Chinese from China) cycling in high heels and nice dress. A few months ago, I saw a “white” family of four mounting on to two good road bikes in full gears.

    Cultural perspectives are results, not causes. Thus, I don’t agree with “Unless there is a change in mindset, it is no use pumping money into something people cannot generally accept.” Once cycling becomes more conducive, the cultural perspectives will change. Of course, if pumping money yet cycling remains not conducive, such as “connecting” the park connectors that requires cyclists to push/carry their bikes for hundreds of meters, over pedestrian bridges, then that’s no use. Or restricting the size and timings to take trains/buses with foldable bikes.

  2. 2 Ponder Stibbons September 22, 2008 at 3:02 am

    Cultural perspectives are results, not causes.

    They are both. But the fatalists tend to focus only on the latter aspect of them.

  3. 3 Sprinklerhead November 3, 2008 at 3:37 am

    I cycle to work everyday – from Telok Blangah Hts to Dhoby Ghaut. It takes me average of 20 minutes to go about 14k. The thing that sucks the most is the unfriendliness of the buildings w/ no place to store your bike.

  4. 4 G.Wheeler November 17, 2009 at 2:15 pm

    I cycle to work,

    I’m non-white

    I don’t own a fancy bike,

    but I believe in the merits of bicycling.

    Join me at Go G.Wheelers to share this belief with others
    on 29 Nov at Xtreme SkatePark.

    We need the support of like-minded people like you!

    Visit our website at http://gwheelerdoyourpart.xanga.com/715203282/go-gwheelers/

  5. 5 Ponder Stibbons November 26, 2009 at 3:59 pm

    Unfortunately I’m no longer in Singapore. I’ll post something about this event though. Good luck with it!

  6. 6 Retirement Home December 13, 2013 at 7:54 pm

    I just couldn’t leave your website before suggesting that I actually
    enjoyed the standard info an individual provide on your visitors?
    Is gonna be again continuously to inspect new posts


  1. 1 Mass Cycling Event « One Less Car Trackback on November 26, 2009 at 4:03 pm

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