"The road to a cycling city," by Cassandra Chew. The Straits Times, 16 Jun 2010. Govt should take a firm stand as pedestrians and motorists alike do not welcome cyclists
"I WAS in a bicycle store one weekend when I noticed a bumper sticker by the cashier counter.
"Watch For Cyclists", the striped black-and-yellow sign read. As I picked it up, the shopkeeper urged me to take one. Her eyes were heavy. It was the weekend when news of the death of experienced cyclist Evelyn Toh, 39, broke. She had been hit by a van.
'At least the newspapers reported the accident,' the shopkeeper sighed. 'They didn't use to.' It was a brief conversation, but she said plenty with just those few words.
To her, society has little regard for cyclists. And it is easy to see why.
Cyclists here are almost like the red-headed stepchildren of the road, without a place to call their own. By law, cyclists are to ride on the road - except in Tampines, where cycling on pavements is allowed.
Yet, many motorists are unwilling to share the roads with them. Ask any cyclist and he will readily share an incident or two, or three, when he had a near brush with death, no thanks to a motorist who drove with a bad attitude.
Naturally, some cyclists opt for the relative safety of the pavement. But as it turns out, pedestrians are equally, if not more, territorial than motorists. I would be hard-pressed to find a pedestrian who does not find cyclists a menace on the walkways.
So where do cyclists belong?
It's a question that needs to be answered quickly as this island copes with a burgeoning two-wheeler population. The longer it is sidestepped, the longer the vulnerable cyclist on the roads will have to ride on, exposed to hazards from careless motorists, deprived of the rights of safety they are entitled to.
If the answer is that cyclists are 'legitimate road users (who) deserve to be able to ride safely', as Dr Vivian Balakrishnan, Minister for Community Development, Youth and Sports, said recently, then the status quo is not going to cut it.
Like cycling advocate Irene Ng, a Tampines GRC MP, I feel the Government plays a key role in establishing cyclists' right to be on the roads. Although millions are being invested in infrastructure for leisure cycling and short commutes, more can be done to integrate cycling as a mode of transport here, she argues.
And there are good reasons to do so.
Cycling is a good form of exercise. It is cheaper than travelling by car. It is also a faster means of travel than being stuck in a car if there is a traffic jam. Cycling produces less pollution than cars. Cycling infrastructure costs less to build than that for other vehicles.
But here is a reason that will interest every road user, not just than the health- and environmentally-conscious.
Cycling as an additional form of transport can help ease traffic congestion, a problem that can cost businesses billions of dollars.
That was the projection by the business community in Melbourne, Australia, in the early part of this decade, which led their mayor at the time, Dr John So, to be serious about encouraging cycling. Like many cycling cities in the world, Melbourne used bicycle lanes. Then, Dr So added bike rental stations and parking facilities equipped with showers and cafes.
Over in the Swedish city of Malmo, Mr Ilmar Reepalu, the mayor, says the idea is to make cycling attractive. So besides offering useful maps, the city wooed commuters by getting local celebrities on board. Mr Reepalu put them on bicycles, sent them round the city and published their favourite experiences in a book.
In Melbourne, Dr So also rounded up people in the community to get everyone on the same page. 'Companies can organise cycle-to- work days and cycling carnivals on weekends to get motorists to become recreational cyclists,' he suggests. From his experience, motorists will be more open to sharing the roads if they knew what it was like out there for cyclists.
Both city planners, who will be in Singapore in two weeks' time for the World Cities Summit, displayed strong political will to make cycling safe. And soon, the community came alongside to partner them in their efforts.
Today, bicycles make up 40 per cent of all journeys to and from work in Malmo, and 9 per cent of peak hour commuter traffic in Melbourne.
The Government here can spark a similar transformation if it establishes the legitimacy of cyclists here and promotes the humble bicycle as a means of transport.
If there is not enough room on existing roads for bicycle lanes, then how about shared lanes where cyclists have priority?
Motorists can be re-educated on the hows and whys of giving way to cyclists. Driving instructors, on their part, can help teach learner drivers the appropriate way of co-existing with cyclists on the roads.
More bicycle parking spaces can be erected near MRT stations and town malls. If outdoor bicycle parking facilities are unsafe, what about mandating, as New York City has, that new buildings have secure indoor parking for bicycles?
On the other hand, it will also be necessary to look into the list of bugbears that motorists have about cyclists.
After all, we can't expect motorists to share the roads if cyclists continue to flout traffic rules and get away with it.
If we have moved away from the practice of licensing bicycles, then what about a compulsory road safety test before cyclists are allowed on the roads?
And to help alter motorists' view of cyclists as parasitical road users who don't contribute to the upkeep of roads, perhaps we can consider charging cyclists a nominal fee if their bikes are above a certain size. Call it a bike tax.
There are solutions if we are willing to find them. The question is: Are we committed to doing so?
Cyclists, for their part, can abide by the rules.
But until the Government takes a firm stand on where they belong, motorists will have an excuse to see cyclists as road hazards who don't pay road tax, and not as living, breathing people who matter too.