Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Reuters feature "Singapore fold-up bike goes against Asian tide."

"Singapore fold-up bike goes against Asian tide," by Gillian Murdoch. Reuters (Features), 20 Dec 2006.

SINGAPORE (Reuters) - Chu Wa feels the small thrill of breaking Singapore's notoriously strict rules and getting away with it every time he wheels his pretend "shopping trolley" through a shopping mall or along a train platform.

The contraption is actually a fold-up bicycle, which Wa designed to look like a shopping cart so he could take it through the many prohibited zones in the city state.

"Singapore is absolutely not fair for cyclists," said the 46-year old product designer.

After years of biking to work in the Netherlands, Wa gave up and bought a car when he moved to Singapore, finding its motorways and shopping malls bike-unfriendly.

"If you love cycling in Singapore, you have to accept the status of a secondary citizen, many places are 'restricted zones' and you are simply not welcome," he wrote on his blog,

At the same time as European cities are back-pedalling from cars to bikes in a bid to clean the air and ease congestion, rising affluence has seen bikes ditched from Beijing to Bangkok. Bikes have been banned from parts of Shanghai as have bike rickshaws in Dhaka, and bikers in Jakarta and Bangkok have mounted protests to campaign for better facilities.

The lack of top-level support makes returning to cycling more difficult than it should be, said Wa, who had five regular bikes stolen from unguarded bike stands in Singapore.

His solution? The JZ88: a thief-proof bike that flips from shopping trolley to cycle in 8.8 seconds.

With a shopping bag strapped over its handlebar, and spokes concealed under clear plastic shields, Chu's folding bike goes everywhere he does. Weighing nine kilograms (20 pounds), it is small enough to fit under train seats and in taxi boots.

Shoppers stare as he loads groceries into his trolley, and pedestrians sometimes laugh as his long legs pedal the little wheels. But Wa says his bike is more than a gimmick.

"My ideal is to see more Asian cities become bicycle friendly ... The hurdle is so high, in terms of road safety, too much effort, or bad weather, that even the authorities can't do much," he said. "(But) the folding bike can be a bridge".


First patented in 1899, a decade after the modern bike was invented, folding bikes have long been a feature in Europe.

While brands like England's Brompton are well known abroad, Hong Kong-born Wa says most people in Asia don't know they exist. His folding bike customers are two-to-one expatriates to locals.

In Singapore, like much of Asia, bikes are seen as poor man's transport, he says.

With a record 117,000 more new cars on its roads this year, Singapore seems to have declared the car the winner in the Asia-wide car versus bike transport battle.

Local lore has it that a car is one of the must-have "5C's" - car, cash, condo, credit card and country club membership. Even the Director of the Singapore Environment Council has called the country a "nation of car lovers".

Government statistics say the proportion of households with cars increased to 32 per cent in 2000, up from 28 per cent in 1990. Bicycles don't feature in future transport plans.

By contrast, London's Cycling Action Plan has chalked up a 72 percent increase in cycling over the past four years. And New York's Bicycle Master Plan is almost doubling its bike lanes over the next three years.

Professor John Whitelegg, who works at the University of York's Air Pollution in Asian Megacities project, says some Asian officials are in denial about the environmental costs of car culture such as air pollution and congestion.

"Unlike in Europe, growing car ownership is seen as very virtuous, in improving quality of life and job creation in car manufacturing and road-building," Whitelegg said.

"It's just part of rapid economic growth and urbanisation, which they associate with removing poverty. And what's happening in China is also happening in Indonesia, Vietnam and Thailand..."

"The economic escalator is so strong nobody can think of a way to get the benefits without the disbenefits".


Despite the odds, a few "rebels" are trying to buck the trend.

In 2005, Singaporean entrepreneurs Alex Bok and Lynton Ong opened the first in a chain of Bike Boutique stores they plan for Hong Kong, Kuala Lumpur, Bangkok, Jakarta, Manila and Australia.

Housed in an old shop-house, the concept store they hope will become the "Starbucks for bikes", charges sweaty bike commuters S$150 a month to store their bikes and take a shower before work.

Customer Mark Goh, says cycling's image problem is a worse barrier than tyre punctures, the tropical heat, or heavy rain.

"The problem with Singaporeans is one of perception, not motivation," the 39-year-old law firm managing partner said.

His colleagues think he is a "clown" for giving up his air-conditioned Mercedes-Benz to pedal half an hour to work.

"They prefer to spend their weekends in air-conditioned malls, eating out and moving about cocooned in air-conditioned cars," he said.

"More importantly, the car you drive is a huge status symbol. It benchmarks your social level. Few would dare proclaim that they own a bicycle as against a German-make car".

FACTBOX - Cycling declines in Asia, on rise in Europe

Dec 20 (Reuters) - Bicycle ownership and use has been declining in China and India, while Europe is at the forefront of measures to popularise cycling. Here are some comparisons:


There are some 1.6 billion bicycles in the world, 500 million of them in China, 250 million in Europe and 150 million in the United States.

China and India are the world's largest producers of bicycles. China manufactured about 80 million bicycles in 2005, accounting for about 60 percent of global production while India's share was around 11 percent.

The global bicycle industry, including bicycles, parts and accessories, is estimated to have total retail sales in excess of $20 billion.


Annual bicycle sales in China have fallen from 40 million in the 1990s to 20 million. Bicycle ownership in India is down from about 45 million in 1995 to 31 million.

The proportion of trips undertaken by bicycle in India is between 15 percent and 35 percent, but cycling is popular mostly in rural areas. The absence of safe cycling paths and parking facilities are the major obstacles.

Sixty percent of the workforce in China's capital Beijing cycled to work in 1998; that is down to less than 20 percent now. Hundreds of bike lanes in Beijing have been converted for use by cars.


In the European Union, bicycles have been included for the first time in the comprehensive transportation plan.

High car parking fees and abundant bike lanes have ensured that 35 percent of local trips in Amsterdam are made by bike. The percentage is even higher in other Dutch and Danish cities, according to Dutch figures.

The United Kingdom has developed a plan to quadruple bicycle use by the year 2012.

The Danish capital Copenhagen provides 3,000 bicycles free for short-term use. One-third of commuters bike to work.

Germany has more than 40,000 km of bikeways. In the city of Muenster, bus lanes can be used by bikes but not by cars and special lanes near intersections feed cyclists to a stop area ahead of cars.

Sources: Reuters; International Bicycle Fund (; Earth Policy Institute (; Worldwatch Institute (

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