Two wheels good, four wheels bad?

yuuka
From the Red Line
Published in
9 min readMay 11, 2024

We need to talk about the role of cycling with public transport.

We may have reached a tipping point where it may no longer be tenable for the LTA to continue to regulate the bicycle-sharing industry in a laissez-faire manner, where operators are allowed to do whatever they want and charge whatever they want.

It also doesn’t help that bicycle-sharing operators have been exiting the market; as long as bike-sharing is a for-profit enterprise instead of a public service, it can never become part of our public transport strategy.

And heck, while we’re here — what is our strategy for cycling with public transport anyway? We should also not forget that cycling infrastructure also benefits PMD users with the footpath ban, and don’t forget the widespread — perhaps too widespread — proliferation of PMAs amongst senior citizens too.

The Bicycle Contracting Model?

A model similar to buses may be preferable, where the LTA collects usage fees and contracts out the provision and maintenance of shared bicycles; much as it does for connecting bus routes to train stations or major bus hubs which can’t stand up for themselves on a commercial basis. This can even be integrated into our distance fare system, which can give riders a free or very low cost last mile connection with bicycles, as it does with public bus services. This is the way it’s done in London, Taipei, New York.

There are indeed cases where competing road uses may pitch the bus against the bike, and there will be more. After all, there is no reason why a bus should be exempted from a 30kph speed limit on a Silver Zone or a Friendly Street where cyclists and pedestrians are not protected from traffic; and that affects bus travel times. Ultimately, though, they can both serve the same purposes, and this is how the LTA can enable choice. Then it raises the question of whether cases like people riding 121 from Kim Tian Road to Tiong Bahru MRT is because they have no choice; would better infrastructure bike-sharing alleviate it?

To get people to support cycling infrastructure, get them cycling by reducing the barriers to using a bicycle; even if not necessarily to own one. We can build a cycling culture that isn’t entitled lycra-clad sport cyclists and the corresponding ridicule. But I daresay the access issues must first be solved, before there will really be a critical mass for those who want to garner support to challenge the legislative and infrastructural status quo. When daily cycling is normalized, then the lycra folks will look even more out of place than they usually do.

After all, not everyone will have space to store bicycles in their homes. And there’s also the consequences of choices — if you didn’t cycle to the MRT station in the morning, your bike is at home, so you obviously can’t cycle home at the end of the day. Bike-sharing mitigates this inconvenience, so even for cyclists who own their own bikes, it is still useful. As far as public transport is concerned, riders may just be magically appearing at train stations or bus stops.

But of course, you can’t just leave the bicycles there. Greater systemic thinking is necessary, in our infrastructure design, to enable successful bicycle-sharing programs.

Places, not passes

I had the pleasure of being invited by the LTA to join their focus groups on what to do with the NSE’s surface streets, and while that was in January, I never really had a chance to reflect on what I learnt there until now.

A large theme I took away from the focus groups, personally, was that people wanted places. But my definition is a bit different. Geylang Road is not a place. Nor North Bridge Road. Nor Serangoon Road. Squeezing pedestrians into five foot ways is not what I’d call a walkable place, even if there are activities that naturally attract people to go there. It was made quite clear by many attendees at the focus groups I attended that the roads along the NSE alignment should not go the same way; once the through traffic goes underground, space should be reclaimed for places. This distinction is important, and we’ll come back to it.

source Google Maps

And places also do not necessarily welcome fast-moving traffic; be it rapid buses making one stop in Ang Mo Kio, or sport cyclists in lycra speeding on a dedicated cycling lane. We also bear in mind that neighbourhoods by themselves are places. Cyclists running over old people in coffeeshops inspires so much indignant outrage (even on my own part), because coffeeshops are places.

On the other hand, good bus service often require passes. That’s a bus lane on Geylang Road. But the bus stops that use this bus lane are often sad little wedges crammed in on what’s left of the pavement between the road and the five foot ways and a tiny shelter. Some places, like along Balestier Road and Pasir Panjang Road, don’t even have a shelter, just a pole in the ground that isn’t otherwise distinguishable from a Malaysian streetscape.

Oops

In comparison, Taipei’s wide roads with median bus lanes are clearly passes. Xinyi Road is 8 lanes wide; so is Nanjing Road. The intersection of Xinsheng Road and Ren’ai Road is also pretty crazy in itself.

L A N E S

Doing this on the reinstated Ang Mo Kio Ave 6 or Thomson Road will not be a change from today’s status quo. Perhaps the removal of streetside stops and pushing all bus service into the median lanes and road islands, as Taipei typically does on such trunks, might even make using buses more inconvenient.

But apart from the NSE, should there also be a policy move towards reclaiming space from some of these roads? It could, but the second-order effects on speeds — which, again, affect not only cars, but also buses — could make traffic congestion worse and increase travel times; whether that is a desired effect, I leave as an exercise to the reader. A segregated cycling lane might also even entrench some of these places as passes, where instead of people spontaneously stopping by to visit a shop, they just blast right through at 30kph.

In fact, this may already be how Tiong Bahru Estate works. Bus service is banished to Tiong Bahru Road and the internal estates are designed to be (somewhat) walkable. Granted, it was built in a time before mass car ownership, and recent pedestrianization efforts aren’t very notable; but I suppose a road cyclist could reasonably go pretty fast on Tiong Bahru Estate’s internal roads.

Be careful what you wish for

I think ultimately, my urbanism origin story was that I didn’t understand many of these at the time, and it affected how I previously thought about cycling. But I will stand by what I’ve said previously, and use this distinction between places and passes to advise that infrastructure choices must be taken in moderation. Perhaps what’s changed is that I now lean more towards the slow, traffic-calmed road where bus dependency is bad; use higher order public transport to get anywhere quickly.

The great dilemma now becomes: what is the appropriate mix of place and pass? A one-size-fits-all solution will not work. The treatments required around shophouses near Novena is very different from that around Marymount Road or Ang Mo Kio. Novena, for example, must be more walkable, compared to Teck Ghee where all you might need is just closely spaced, handicap accessible overhead bridges — the latter which may be viewed as heresy to folks who watch a certain Dutch youtube channel then assume that everything must be like that with street running trams going at 30kph and all.

There is still a place for grade-separated transport systems. The Netherlands, worshipped in some urbanism circles as a holy grail, is still vehicle-centric with plenty of highways; just that their highways have bike paths alongside. Like Singapore, you can live without a car in the Netherlands, but your life will be easier with one. And even Amsterdam went to great expense (even tearing down entire districts) to build its metro. You can have walkable environments like the Dutch, but higher order transit is needed to allow people to get in and out quickly. There is little point in nice, walkable places if people still need to drive there.

It may be easier to welcome the cyclist into a place compared to a Brisbane Moment. It says something when Hong Kong politicians place a premium on removing buses from main roads. While people who live along main roads should know what they’re signing up for, an internal combustion engine is still an internal combustion engine. Isolated stretches of large bus infrastructure may work, especially in areas like Teck Ghee and Marymount where the corridor intersects MRT lines, but perhaps not throughout the corridor.

Bus lanes can be a standard as with Yishun Ave 2 and other major arterials, but should we go further than that? Tampines Ave 1 has bus lanes, but is clearly a pass, not a place. I can’t help but think “transit priority corridor” is exactly what it says on the tin — prioritizing speeds with wide, straight roads, and that any benefit for cars is secondary, but welcome. No change to the road hierarchy invites speeding and reckless driving behavior, and thus disaster happened.

Perhaps my ideal topology could be that the reinstated roads above the NSE should bring with it some level of change in the road hierarchy, much like what I suggested for the West Coast Highway. Instead of rebuilding them as main roads, we can consider designing them as less important roads with less expected traffic, which can then justify lane reduction and narrowing. Lesser, smaller lanes should happen, along with applying treatments from the Friendly Streets campaign. These may make the urban environment more welcoming for cyclists and other active mobility users.

Otherwise you end up with Bencoolen Street — a very nice place, but it doesn’t work without a network effect. How effective is that? And these are all very nice, but where would you find a bicycle?

Putting everything together

Existing and planned hubs along the NSE like Yio Chu Kang, Teck Ghee and Marymount must be, but should not only be, hubs to connect between bus and MRT service — perhaps they can even find places for large cycle parks near these stations. And like the Friendly Streets campaign, these treatments may only improve active mobility at a local level; cycling infrastructure is best integrated into greater town- and area-level plans. With TEL4, underground bike parking areas have been integrated into the stations — where possible, CRL and even existing stations would do well to emulate that too.

Walking and cycling masterplans should also be developed for places like Watten Estate, Lentor, and Upper Changi as well, in order to encourage people to walk and cycle to higher order public transport instead of driving. After all, people already do so to amenities inside these neighbourhoods — such as playgrounds, parks, and the few commercial amenities — which will benefit too from traffic calming and other pedestrian-focused road designs. These estates already have no public transport service, so people are more inclined to drive already.

But what bugs me about the discourse is how incorporating cycling into our public transport network is just about providing the infrastructure. Lowering barriers to bicycle access to provide an alternative to the car is necessary too, and a bicycle sharing scheme that is integrated into public transport will go very far to achieve this.

Ultimately, getting to and from places requires us to think about vehicle access. Car-sharing companies take up lots in carparks to enable their users to easily access cars. Perhaps bicycle-sharing should do the same. And since not everywhere has a carpark, we will have to plan active mobility infrastructure with bicycle-sharing in mind, even if it’s just to leave space for yellow boxes to be drawn for shared bike parking for an increased number of shared bicycles, instead of just providing racks. It doesn’t have to be just MRT stations and busy bus stops.

Like what you read? Join the Telegram Channel for updates, or follow on Instagram for quick takes!

--

--

yuuka
From the Red Line

Sometimes I am who I am, but sometimes I am not who I am not.