Archive for the 'Culture' Category

Curb white-collar driving on roads

(Because this is too good not to be parodied. I have left his grammatical errors untouched.)

THE explosion in the number of adults taking up driving on public roads, who are also usually well-educated, has swayed public opinion.

Drivers have managed to paint other road users, particularly cyclists, as irresponsible, especially in according drivers the right to endanger cyclists’ lives.

Yet every day, scores of drivers occupy all the lanes along Upper Thomson Road and other roads.

It takes only a single driver with his “reasonable” appeal to be allowed to emit noise and air pollution to disrupt optimum usage of a public stretch for other users.

It does not make sense to encourage driving on public roads.

I can sympathise with the poor blue-collar worker commuting daily from Johor Bahru but not the white-collar worker who lives an easy train ride away from her workplace. To those who still insist on driving, kindly stick to your video games at home.

It is safer and in the best interest of the public.

The original:

Curb recreational cycling on roads

THE explosion in the number of adults taking up recreational cycling on public roads, who are also usually well-educated, has swayed public opinion.

Recreational cyclists have managed to paint other road users, particularly motorists, as irresponsible, especially in according cyclists the right to use public roads.

Yet almost every morning, scores of cyclists occupy a full lane along Upper Thomson Road and other roads.

It takes only a single cyclist with his “reasonable” appeal for a 1.5m safe distance from a motorist to disrupt optimum usage of a public stretch for other users.

It does not make sense to encourage recreational cycling on public roads.

I can sympathise with the poor blue-collar worker cycling to work but not a recreational cyclist. To those who still insist on cycling, kindly use your stationary bike in your home or gym.

It is safer and in the best interest of the public.

Dr Terence Teoh

The NYT on Kampong Buangkok

Wow. I never would have thought they’d consider it to be of international interest. They even took the same shot of the HDB flats looming at the end of a footpath leading out of the kampong.

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.

The ‘land-scarce’ excuse again

From a recent parliamentary session:

What has not changed is that in Singapore’s land-scarce context, we do not have the luxury of space to develop a comprehensive network of dedicated cycling lanes on our roads. Our focus remains on making it safe for various road users to share the space we have.

The fallacy is in assuming that the introduction of bike lanes cannot be made at the expense of existing car lanes. But bicycle lanes transport more people per unit area of road space. So it would in fact be a better use of land to replace a car lane with a bicycle lane. If you are short of land, it should be all the more important for you to switch from car-friendly American-suburb-style urban planning to dense-population-oriented European-style urban planning. Only cities with lots of space for sprawl to spread can afford to have swathes of highways.

Note again the assumption that prevailing pro-car infrastructure is sacred.

Assumptions

People often don’t realise how many unreasonably pro-car assumptions they make when debating transport and urban planning issues. For example, despite the proven benefits of traffic calming measures, it is still often assumed that the only way to accommodate cyclists on the roads is to widen existing roads.* Horseshit. Why not take away a little bit of our extravagant 3-4 lane roads and reserve them for cyclists? We have grown so used to the idea that roads must be at least 3 lanes wide, that wider roads are a Good Thing, that we never stop to question these underlying assumptions. But reports by people who actually study these things indicate that cities who were far-sighted enough to remove cars from the pedestal haven’t suffered any of the doomsday consequences that car fans here predict. Quite the opposite, in fact.

One of my implicit assumptions was reversed after coming across this interesting factoid from John Pucher’s report[pdf] on cycling in the Netherlands, Denmark and Germany:

The Netherlands, Denmark and Germany have been among the most successful countries at promoting cycling for daily travel. Since all three countries are quite affluent, their high levels of cycling are not due to an inability to afford more expensive transport modes. Indeed, levels of car ownership in the three countries are among the highest in the world. The case of Germany is particularly noteworthy. Although it has a much higher level of car ownership than the UK, the bike
share of trips in Germany is almost ten times higher in Germany than in the UK. Clearly, high levels of car ownership do not preclude cycling.

So, we can let people attain the “Singaporean Dream” of owning a car while promoting cycling. Quite simply, we have to tax car usage rather than car ownership more heavily, which is why I support ERP.

And high levels of cycling do not preclude economic efficiency, or whatever it is people here always claim we’ll lose by promoting cycling. People always have all sorts of excuses why we cannot be an Amsterdam or a Copenhagen. Fine, perhaps those cities really are too small for comparison (less than a million inhabitants each). But what about Chicago, where I lived and biked happily for three years, where there actually are bike lanes on many major streets, where there are more bike commuters on the coldest day of winter than there are any day here? And Berlin, of which Pucher writes:

In 2004, for example, Berlin (3.4 million inhabitants) had 860 km of completely separate bike paths, 60 km of bike lanes on streets, 50 km of bike lanes on sidewalks, 100 km of mixed-use pedestrian-bike paths and 70 km of combined bus-bike lanes on streets.

Does anyone really want to argue that Berlin and Chicago are examples of how promoting cycling can cause the economic downfall of large cities?

[*]An example is a comment made by “Hun Boon” on a post at Cycling in Singapore:

Until the day roads are widened and cycle paths are built, bicycles will just have to share the space with pedestrians.

This will happen to Orchard Road one day, too.

It’s only a matter of how long our urban planners want to hide their heads in the sand. From the NYT:

Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg announced on Monday that he will create a car-free zone on three Saturdays in August, along a 6.9-mile stretch of streets through Manhattan, from the Brooklyn Bridge, north to Park Avenue and the Upper East Side. Cars, trucks and buses will be banned on the streets along the route from 7 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Aug. 9, 16 and 23. The mayor was careful to describe the initiative, called Summer Streets, as an experiment.

“If it works, we’ll certainly consider doing it again,” Mr. Bloomberg said, at a news conference in the East Village on Lafayette Street, which will be included in the route. “If not, we won’t. But we have never been afraid to try new ideas, especially the ones that have the potential to improve the quality of life.”

The route will run north-south along Centre Street, Lafayette Street, Fourth Avenue and Park Avenue to 72nd Street. The southern half of 72nd Street from Park Avenue to Fifth Avenue will also be shut to vehicles, to link to Central Park.

Mr. Bloomberg and the transportation commissioner, Janette Sadik-Khan, said the idea was to make the streets a haven for walkers, cyclists and others. Fitness, dance and yoga classes will be held along the route, and there will also be places to rent bicycles.

[…]

While the idea seems novel in New York, it has been tried with success in many other cities, according to Ms. Sadik-Khan, including London, Paris and Bogotá. She said that in Bogotá one of the city’s main streets was closed to motor vehicles every Sunday.

The plan got a mixed reaction on Monday along the route.

“I think it’s a lovely idea,” said Allison Blinken, 65, a retiree who lives on Park Avenue at 66th Street. “Anything that makes the street more pedestrian-friendly.”

[…]

Downtown, however, there was a fair amount of grumbling over the potential impact on business.

“He’s got to be crazy,” Pablo Urema, 49, a worker at a parking lot on Lafayette Street in SoHo, said of the mayor. “We do a lot of business every Saturday morning. No cars for the parking garage means no people for the businesses.”

Tran Harper, 44, the manager of Canal Lafayette Store, which sells Chinese teas and herbal products on Lafayette Street in Chinatown, was also displeased.

“It’s a big problem because my merchandise doesn’t fall from the sky,” Mr. Harper said. “How do I get it here? Saturday is the busiest day. We have a lot of deliveries on Saturday. Also a lot of customers park their cars in front and come in to buy.”

At the news conference Mr. Bloomberg responded with peevishness when asked about the potential for a negative reaction from business owners or residents. “I knew you were going to find something wrong with it,” he said to a reporter.

“Look, there will be minor inconveniences,” he said. “There’s minor inconveniences when it rains, when you have snow, inconveniences when it’s hot, when it’s cold, inconveniences when there are people on the streets, when there’s not.”

But the mayor predicted that most stores would see an increase in business and compared the initiative to his ban on smoking in bars and restaurants, which met with initial resistance but ended up being popular.

When I mention turning Orchard Road into a pedestrian mall to friends, they go ‘but people will need to drive there!’ Counter-intuitively, pedestrian malls actually result in an increase in business for shops in the area, with the exception of bulk-goods businesses (which form a negligible percentage of business in an area like Orchard Road, anyway). This is because people who would normally spend less time in the mall area due to the unpleasant fumes and noise find themselves walking around more in a car-free zone.

Most Creative Use of the Phrase ‘Public Space’, Ever

From a certain Khoo Chun Yok, in the ST Forum:

Why are void decks so, er, void?

HDB void decks strike me as under-used spaces.
Is this due to:

  • Fire hazard?
  • Insufficient human traffic?
  • Lack of air-conditioning?
  • Our collective love of blank walls?
  • HDB restrictions on commercial use?
  • Our national obsession with shopping centres?
  • Need to have space for the occasional wedding or funeral?
  • Need to let second-storey residents enjoy a little peace and quiet?

Whatever the reasons, it is a great pity that so much public space should be left void, empty. A cafe would be nice. Or perhaps a bookstore. A newsstand, perhaps.

If rent is low – and why shouldn’t it be, the space is empty anyway – these small businesses could survive, and give us an alternative to shopping centres.

Public spaces need to be occupied, for them to belong to the public.

I am sorry, but a newsstand, a bookstore or a cafe is not space that belongs to the public. The owners of such establishments can dictate what kind of behaviour is allowed in their premises, who is allowed to enter their premises, what times the premises are available to the public, and so on. In fact, such places are commonly known as pseudo-public spaces:

…pseudo-public spaces include Malls, theme parks, and sports stadiums. A pseudo-public space resembles a public space with its diversity of people. But Malls, stadiums, and theme parks are privatized spaces that are “sanitized” of certain elements. Attempts to control free speech in public spaces pale in comparison to the success of pseudo-public spaces in controlling speech. For example, most Malls prohibit leafleting or making speeches. Mall security guards routinely remove homeless people as well as anyone wearing what they deem to be gang colors. As a private space, Malls can control speech and looks. They can “sanitize” their environment. And they can prohibit activities that do not lead to their raison d’etre — consuming commodities.

Well, it seems that the only notion of ‘useful’ public space Khoo Chun Yok has is that which forwards the goal of consuming commodities.