Saturday, February 20, 2010

Why Singapore is not so bicycle friendly

When I first arrived in Singapore, I began asking questions about getting a bicycle and riding to work. Most Lee Kuan Yew School colleagues with whom I spoke advised against it. They told me there were relatively few bicycle riders and that Singapore was a ‘bike-unfriendly place.’

As readers will know, I purchased a budget-priced portable bicycle last wednesday. I am now creeping up the learning curve vis a vis bicycle transport in Singapore. On Wednesday, I rode ‘round trip’ to work, each leg about 10 miles and rejected that as a regular practice. I arrived at the office too hot, sweaty and tired. On the trip home, in twilight, I was a bit casual about crossing against a red light and nearly experienced an unplanned transition to my next incarnation. On Thursday I took the shuttle in the morning and role home in the evening twilight. This worked well but I had an ignominious, painful (though not serious) fall. Singapore sidewalks often have sharp fall-off at the edges and, frequently, there are trenches. Focused concentration is required, especially when perched atop my somewhat wobbly portable bike with its sall wheels. My concentration can wander - there is so much to see and absorb in a new culture. Each time I do a fall provides sharp wake up call. Fortunately no disabling injuries...yet. Just a few bruises. Yesterday I rode nearly 20 miles and found a better route to work, with 1/3 of the journey on a walking/bike path along a drainage canal - and only one fall.

But I have learned something interesting about Singapore bike transport. There are lots of riders, though few ride the Metro/Bus friendly portables (I have seen only one other, so far). But the riders, especially on weekdays, are overwhelmingly poor people - I suspect that many are temporary immigrants with ‘workers permits.’ I assume - though I don’t know for sure - that they are riding for economic reasons, not to promote sustainability or improve their health.

Singapore’s government is responsive. The ‘lobbying’ that it took to allow portable bikes on metros and busses (by the owner of Singapore’s leading portable bike store) was miniscule by Washington standards, but few have yet taken advantage of the opportunity. Statistics compiled by Singapore’s Department of Land Transportation (responsible for busses, trains, and roads) report that only 11% of Singaporeans own automobiles. They are heavily taxed and one must have an ‘Entitlement Certificate to make a purchase. An automobile is at least as much a status symbol as a convenience. In European Cities and, so some degree in Washington DC, bike transport has become a status symbol. In Singapore, it is not.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

HI I love your post, I hope you can send it to the media, Singapore need to wake up, we are talking about fuel price, tax etc. bicycle should be mass market to reduce its cost. =) Colin

7:52 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I worked in S'pore about 15 years ago as an american expat. I've been an avid road cyclist for years and actually got my start mountain biking doing the S'pore bike hash. Like most asian cultures, Singaporeans value prosperity. Anything that harkens back to older, less prosperous times, like riding a bike, is not popular. The assumption is, if someone is riding a bike they must be poor...and if there is a conflict between a motor vehicle and a cyclist, the poor person gets less consideration. Sad but true. Can't say it is much different in american cities where cyclists who ignore or arent' aware of traffic laws are often homeless or poor.
I remember doing a nice road ride out to the airport and back from River Valley road...and when I mentioned it to a local co-worker, their reply was...why? the challenge, just like in other cities around the world is to connect the dots between the very real benefits of cycling as recreational choice, as a transportation choice and how those choices benefit communities as a whole and not just the people who ride bikes.

9:34 PM  
Anonymous Gordie said...

Well said piece of writing. Im an Australian living in Singapore and I am a commuting cyclist for work and grocieries etc. Singaporeans look aghast at me on my bike like Im strange. Colleague even say in that racist tone "only Bangla use bikes". I find it strange that in their race for modernity and being more western than western countries, they only choose the prosperity part and have no idea how to to green. Asking Singapore Ministry of Transport a question about bicycle parking and locking bikes comes back with conflicting information. They see a bike locked to a pole or a fence and remove it or clamp it. There are blog site where Singaporeans place photos of bikes parked in the wrong spot. he racist remarks about foreigners says it all. Singaporeans, tell me. You love the west so very much. Dont you see the thousands of commuting 'white' people?

12:28 PM  

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