The Tampines trial of legalizing cycling on footways will end soon. Whatever the outcome, bicycle dilemmas in the heartlands are not going away.
Before the trial most bicycle riding in Tampines was on footways. During the trial most cycling there is still on footways. After the trial most cyclists will ride on Tampines footpaths, no matter what the outcome is.
Will the law get enforced if the trail says no to pavement cycling? I doubt it. The Traffic Police have better things to do than enforce this rule against pavement cycling.
Is there an opportunity for bicycle policy here?
Personally I am sad about the media and public reaction to the trial. I had hoped that this would be an opportunity to move forward. But today I don't want to focus on the trial itself. Instead I want to look further ahead.
Even if much of the publicity has been negative, the trial has raised bicycle issues higher on the national consciousness. After the trial, bicycles may even be seen as even more of a problem than before. Complaints about conflict with pedestrians will continue. They may even get worse.
Maybe this can focus minds on the need to get serious about including bicycles in transport policy.
Desperately seeking a serious bicycle policy
As we noted before, the Land Transport Master Plan 2008 takes a little more interest in bicycles as transport than we are accustomed to. But you could hardly call it a serious plan for a constructive role for bicycles in the transport system.
How could Singapore do better on bicycles? I am not talking about 'what' can we do, but about HOW we can do it. How can bicycles become an integral part of transport policy and planning here?
One key will be to establish clear lines of responsibility and leadership. The fastest way for bicycle policy to improve will be for a single agency to take primary responsibility for the issue. But which agency?
Best agency to take the lead on bicycle policy? The LTA!
After all, the LTA is the key land transport agency. When bicycles are used as transport, they are land transport, right?
I know that the LTA has not shown much enthusiasm for bicycles in the past. So it might seem odd to ask a reluctant LTA to lead the way.
Let me explain.
Singapore has some good bicycle policy efforts ... but they lack the coordination and expert guidance that they need
Various other agencies have taken significant initiatives for bicycle use in Singapore in recent years. Unfortunately many of these efforts suffer from a lack of coordination and direction. They would greatly benefit from leadership on this issue.
For example, NParks Park Connectors programme, which is wonderful in many ways, has design problems and many gaps.
Certain Town Councils, such as Pasir Ris and Tampines, have tried to create some off-road bicycle ways (with some built and others in planning). The ones built so far also have significant design problems.
Both the Park Connector programme and any efforts by Town Councils would benefit greatly if they could turn to the LTA (where the transport engineering expertise is) for clear national guidelines on design.
The Traffic Police took the lead (as I understand it) on the Tampines Footway Cycling Trial. The reported responses have been mostly negative (including even some bicycle enthusiasts, such as MrBrown). But the trial does represent a serious attempt to try something to resolve the squeeze that bicycle users face between the 'devil' of riding illegally on footways as many do, and the 'deep blue sea' of riding on the roads with the high-speed motorised traffic. It recognises the reality that most bicycle users ARE already on footways and that the law against this was not being enforced seriously.
But the need to have this trial highlights the policy vacuum on bicycles generally. The enforcement priorities and educational efforts of the Traffic Police could also benefit from a coherent national bicycle policy - led by LTA.
URA and HDB have created a rather permeable residential environment in many parts of Singapore which makes cycling for short trips quite easy in New Towns (despite the lack of dedicated bicycle facilities). But they could do even better if guided by a clear national policy, or by having someone at LTA to turn to for guidance on bicycle issues.
LTA's own Traffic Engineers also need the benefit of some leadership on bicycle policy! LTA's own road designs and lane-marking policies could easily change in various small ways that could make cycling safer. One example (among many) would be a policy of wider kerbside lanes wherever possible. Improving conditions for bicycle users is not rocket science. But LTA traffic engineers on the ground will not seek the necessary expertise unless they get a signal from above. And the top policy makers may not realise that there are actually many win-win opportunities to do better.
How could the LTA demonstrate leadership on bicycle policy?
How could MOT and LTA build on their recent small steps towards a more positive and comprehensive approach to bicycles as part of the transport system?
I think the key is to make bicycle policy someone's responsibility. Somebody specific. Not just the LTA in general but one little bit of it.
The LTA needs a dedicated Bicycle Transport Unit
This need not be grand or require a big budget. A bicycle unit within the LTA could start modestly - maybe as a single Bicycle Officer. Amazing things can start to happen once even just one person in government has bicycle transport policy as their primary responsibility.
There are precedents around the world for this. One example is BikeWest the bicycle agency in Western Australia. It started small but grew into a significant sub-agency.
Once we get the institutions right for bicycles in the transport system, good bicycle policy is much more likely to follow. Meanwhile, bicycle dilemmas are not going away.