Friday, February 1, 2013

Cycling in Singapore

I am off travelling again, this time to Singapore. Coming from a place that is cold and rainy this time of year to one that is 80° and sunny all the time  has made me itch to get on a bike. At the same time I have been reading about a tragic accident that killed two young cyclists here. This has me thinking about how people use the roads here and how that is different from what I am used to.

The biggest thing I have noticed since being here is that pedestrians and cyclists are not respected on the roads. The drivers here seem to have a consensus that they have the right of way in any situation. Even a crosswalk or a pedestrian signal is no guarantee that a driver will be looking for you. Pedestrians and cyclists here need to be extraordinarily careful at traffic interchanges because the drivers are not prepared to stop.

Another issue is that the lanes here tend be narrow. The people that do bike in the road do so over on the outside edge of the lane. You don't see people taking the lane. Yet because of the narrow lanes there is no way for any cars to pass safely. Instead the riders have to trust that drivers will see them and move around.

Also, I have yet to see a bike lane in the city. For a city of five million people, the infrastructure made for cyclists is non-existent. Instead pedal-pushers are relegated to the gutter. It is almost as if they have become road debris that needs to be avoided. Not people.

The whole system seems designed to push riders off the road. Yet it appears that using a bicycle is remarkably popular. People ride all throughout the city. You see bikes parked at every street corner. Some of this must be due to the nature of the bicycle. It is a cheap, fun, and effective way to travel. That doesn't mean it is safe.

This isn't helped by the fact that most riders don't wear helmets. In a tough city, I would imagine you would want any protection you could get. Even worse, most bikes have no lights. Riding on the side of the road with no lights in the dark makes the bike almost impossible to see. That is really taking your life in your hands. 

Singapore is such a modern city in many other ways, but conditions for bicycle here remind me much more of cities in Mexico, China, or Africa. Cities across North America and Europe are competing to encourage bike riders. This city appears to have done nothing for them. If Singapore wants to be seen as a truly modern city, I am afraid some changes in this area will be necessary. I hope that the changes will also help to prevent accidents like the one that claimed the lives of those two boys earlier in the week.

The first change is to make an effort at providing space for cyclists. There are many things the city could do, from adding bicycle lanes to simply painting a sharrow on the road. Seeing the conditions here only reinforces my belief that people will ride bikes, even if it is on dangerous roads not designed for them. It is better and faster for everyone if bikes are given a bit of space to ride.

The second, more important matter, is to change the culture. That isn't easy, and it has been slow to shift in the United States. People are coming around to the idea that bikes aren't an impediment to traffic, but an alternative to it. Doing so is critical to creating a bike friendly city. Once you change the mindset from bikes as road debris to bikes as little cars, the safety condition get much better.

If Singapore can work on these two things, they will be come a safer and much more exciting city.


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