"They are these days a ubiquitous sight in central London: Executives in suit and tie pedalling from the train station to work in the financial district, or casual backpack-toting commuters on missions unknown, all mounted on bicycles with the distinctive blue livery.
Parking is a veritable breeze. These riders and their Boris bikes - dubbed affectionately after London's cycle-crazy mayor Boris Johnson - need only look for the nearest electronic docking point.
And there are 570 stations, each housing up to 125 points, and no more than 300m apart, all over the city.
Since London's public bicycle sharing scheme was launched in July 2010, as one of the three "spokes" to propel what Mr Johnson has declared the city's "cycling revolution", the response has been promising.
Barclays Cycle Hire is operated and funded by Transport for London (TFL), the body responsible for the city's public transport system, with partial sponsorship by Barclays Bank.
Can Singapore replicate such a model in its central district? After all, cycling is growing in popularity and official support has increased, with the Government having pledged S$43 million to improve cycling infrastructure islandwide under the National Cycling Plan.
While biking enthusiasts Today spoke to debated the viability of a public bike sharing scheme, at least one group of private investors is determined to put the model to the test in an urban workplace context by piloting a project at one-north in the next couple of months. (See related story below.)
PICKING UP SPEED
Modelled after similar projects in Paris and Barcelona, feasibility studies for London's own cycle hire scheme began in 2008.
There were two clear goals, said TFL's head of operations James Mead: "The first is simply to get more people out of their cars and onto a bicycle in London. Second is the impact of that on traffic congestion, on emissions. It's better for the air. And also the health benefits - people are fitter when they ride a bike than driving a car."
The target - to increase cycling's share of total journeys in London from 2 per cent to 5 per cent by 2026 - is one that even Mr Mead admits is ambitious. There have been teething problems, public criticism and rumbles about the cost to tax-payers. Yet even so, the scheme appears to have gained traction in its first 18 months.
It averaged about 15,000 hires a day when it started; by January this year it was 24,000, said Mr Mead, who is confident of hitting 40,000 hires a day, the ridership needed for operations to break even.
Regular users can pay £45 (S$89) a year for unlimited use and a key to slot in to release the bike from its docking point; it can be "returned" at any other station. Casual users simply sign up with a credit or debit card and pay a £1 daily "access fee"; the first 30 minutes of use is free, after which charges climb exponentially (£1 for an hour, £6 for two hours, £35 for six hours).
"The intent, really, is for short point-to-point journeys," said Mr Mead. "The idea is that you can get to almost everywhere you want to go in less than half an hour, get your coffee or your meeting, come back out, start another journey. So you can ride a bike 10 times a day and it won't cost you more than £1. But prices do ramp up quite steeply by the hour because we want those bikes back."
LOW THEFT SURPRISE
Another telling sign of how Londoners have embraced Boris bikes: As of January, fewer than 35 bicycles under the scheme have been stolen.
TFL was prepared for at least 60 bikes a month to go to missing, or 720 a year. A similar scheme in Paris saw 9,000 bikes stolen in the first two years. Mr Mead attributed the London phenomenon to the Barclays scheme's "counter-intuitive" decision to do away with bike locks. The £300-pound penalty fee for lost bikes probably played a part too.
"What we've learnt from Paris is that we actually need to tell people, 'keep your bike with you all the time, put it back in the docking point after you're done. Don't lock it up outside the coffee shop.'
"The other thing that makes it so successful is this community feel around the bikes - all sorts of websites and forums have sprung up where people talk about how they use the scheme and which docking stations always have bikes ... I think people really understand that these are everybody's bikes, and they try to take care of them. It's been really gratifying."
Accidents meanwhile, were capped at fewer than 40 (and no fatalities), another encouraging statistic which Mr Mead attributed to the design of the heavy 23-kg bikes "that can't go very far".
CHEAP, QUICK, CONVENIENT BUT...
One other factor that encourages commuters to cycle in the city centre are the bike lanes and tracks that criss-cross it - though these are often shared with other vehicles or pedestrians.
While central London is far ahead of Singapore's CBD in this respect, civil servant Fergus Harradence, 37, a Barclays cycle hire member, thinks more dedicated cycle routes are needed. "In West London, the main parks and along the River Thames this is not a problem, but in other places you end up jostling with the traffic on fairly narrow and busy streets. The experience would be much improved, and probably more people would use these bikes or their own if the infrastructure was better."
The convenience of the bike hire scheme appeals to those like civil servant Jeremy Burke, who says it is "no more complicated than purchasing tickets in most major cities ... you can just turn up and use it".
Investment banker Stephen Lien, who recommends gloves on 'particularly cold days', added: "It is the cheapest and quickest way to get around central London versus more conventional modes of public transport ... especially if the Tube is down or buses are not running."
Still, a common grouse of riders is the difficulty in docking the bikes when users end up concentrated in certain locations - such as during morning peak hours when most people are biking from the train stations to the office. "It would be great if the bikes were moved around the system more systematically so that there was less build-up in certain spots and less gaps in service at other places," said Mr Burke.
The writer's trip to London was made possible by the British High Commission in Singapore.
3 spokes of London's 'cycling revolution'
- Public bicycle sharing scheme to encourage people to cycle instead of drive within Central London
- "Cycle superhighways", 12 routes marked in blue running from outer London into Central London, for commuters wishing to bike between home and work.
- £4 million made available to selected boroughs for the creation of cycling hubs and local cycling communities
"Will Singaporean's pilot scheme take off?" By Cheow Xin Yi. Today Online, 15 Apr 2012.
Product designer and avid cyclist Francis Chu has come up with his own innovative twist on the bike sharing system, for his upcoming pilot project at one-north: The docking stations aren't fixed, but mobile.
This tackles one of the problems faced by the London project. Mr Chu explained that during peak hours, most bike sharing systems will have logistics teams undocking bicycles from the end-stations and transporting them by trailer back to the start stations, where they have to unload and dock the bicycles one by one.
"This is obviously very expensive and takes a lot of effort. The window of opportunity is not that great because peak hour is limited - the faster you can recycle the bicycles, the more people can use them," he said.
"What we have come up with is a station integrating storage with the docking of the bicycles. The station itself is on wheels. When the trailer is full, we just close the door the whole station is ready to go," said Mr Chu who, with five other investors, pumped S$100,000 into the scheme.
Besides making short point-to-point journeys, Mr Chu hopes his pilot scheme, called "Isuda" (or "easy, fast and access" in Mandarin), will also encourage commuters to use cycling as a "last-mile connection" between a bus terminal or train station and their workplace.
His group has secured approval for the scheme from JTC Corporation, one-north's landlord, and is running a trial with "one or two users". They hope to price the scheme at S$20 a month for unlimited use, with incremental charges for the duration of each ride.
ERASING A STIGMA
"There is the perception of ... riding a bike for commuting as only appropriate for foreign labourers. That is a stigma that will take some time to erase," he says.
"One of the reasons that one-north is a good location to start with is the mix of people who work there - there is a high proportion of foreigners but these are researchers and usually highly educated; they do not associate cycling with this stigma but, rather, they see it as a greener and efficient mode of transport."
Why not approach the authorities for funding to make it a national scheme?
"We want to be independent and have the freedom, and progress at our own pace. Of course, if there are schemes or funds that are in line with what we are doing, there is no harm in us approaching the authorities." (The group is, meanwhile, in talks with the Land Transport Authority for permission to run the scheme on land not belonging to JTC and to clarify traffic regulations for cycling.)
Essentially, Mr Chu's aim is to make bike sharing profitable by reducing the operating costs. "The reason why London's and Paris' bike-share schemes need sponsors is because it's a very expensive operation. If we can make a small profit, then bike share can be expanded in an organic way," he said, citing hopes of expanding the scheme to the Central Business District someday.
'STILL IN ITS INFANCY'
To cycling enthusiast Ryan Li, the challenge of implementing a bike share scheme in the CBD is the need to balance space for human traffic with space for cyclists, given how built-up the area is.
"Most people cycling to the CBD to work are experienced riders cycling on the roads. Unless there is really a cycling lane catered for on the pavements, it will be quite a challenge" for new riders to cycle within the CBD, said the owner of biking specialist shop Bike Labz.
Indeed, given factors like that and the tropical weather, there are those who are sceptical that cycling to or around the business district would become popular.
The Bike Boutique formerly at Tras Street was founded in 2003 by Lynten Ong and a partner originally as a bike storage facility offering cyclists the use of showers. Mr Ong, who left the company in 2007 before it changed its business, said that in his time, demand was "quite minimal".
"Cycling has grown a little bit more over the years. It's more acceptable now ... but if you notice, it's more an expat market rather than a local market. It's still in its infancy, I think it'll take a while more before locals can accept the fact that it's okay to cycle to work.
Maybe when COEs go up to S$100,000 for cars," quipped Mr Ong, who now owns a bike shop at Jalan Batu.
See comments and responses on Today Online.
"Tips to ride the bumps in Spore's cycling ambition," by Sibert Muijzers. Letter to Today Online, 20 Apr 2012.
Will "Life in the bike lane" (TODAY on Sunday, April 15) work in Singapore? As an expatriate here for three years from the Netherlands, the No 1 bicycle country in the world, my answer is: No, or not yet.
However, I have some positive comments and even advice.
First, just thinking of the year-round tropical weather and I start to sweat already. Fortunately, though, there are not many steep hills here. In Holland, companies provide shower facilities, so one could still start work fresh - something to promote here.
Imagine, if 10 per cent of commuters were to cycle to work, peak-hour traffic and congestion on public transport would be solved, not to mention the healthier lifestyle for those sitting at their desks for hours.
A change in attitude, that cycling is for the poor, is needed.
Second, like pedestrians, cyclists are at risk on the roads here, especially users of sports bikes or mountain bikes, in their unprotected outfits at higher speeds.
They should realise that they are not in full control of their own safety but are dependent on others. Wearing a functional open-air, wind-optimised helmet is advised. Having said that, nowhere in the world do I see motorists so well behaved.
Third, pedestrians have their own protected pavements; what do cyclists here have? In this respect, I am surprised that product designer and avid cyclist Francis Chu wants to be independent of Government funding for his bike sharing project.
Such schemes should always be combined with sufficient and free parking lots. For example, I live near the Tiong Bahru MRT Station, and all I see are a few bikes locked to roadside fences. Partnership with the Government should be sought.
Holland has bike sharing/hiring programmes, although they are not big, as we have our own bikes, including bikes that can be folded to a size smaller than airline carry-on luggage, which one can take on to trains and buses.
So bicycle producers should promote and develop their business in Singapore.
Next, petty crime is unfortunately high in Holland. Every other year, on average, one of my bikes is stolen when locked, but unattended. Singapore sure has an advantage here.
Lastly, do not forget the millions of tourists. Independently exploring a country like Singapore is best done by bike. One then sees and experiences the most, gets as close to local residents as one wants, stops and goes whenever and wherever.
No other means of transport, including walking, can beat that. Singapore's other modes of transport, though, are well organised and mostly not that expensive. Still, the tourism board should act and promote cycling.
The writer has three bikes in Amsterdam and none in Singapore. This is a shorter version of his comment first posted at www.todayonline.com (from the comments of the previous article)
Friday, April 20, 2012
Two articles. a letter and comments in Today Online: "Life in the bike lane"
"Life in the bike lane," by Cheow Xin Yi. Today Online, 15 Apr 2012. Could Central London's 20-month-old bike sharing scheme provide a model for Singapore's CBD?