The Struggle to Make Cycling Attractive in Singapore

That little guy still has a long way to go

The news in Singapore has been focusing a lot on cycling lately.

The Sunday Times commissioned a survey to about 500 respondents about driving and cycling. Unsurprisingly owning a car is still desirable among the young in Singapore:

Despite efforts to promote a car-lite Singapore, nearly two-thirds of young people polled in a Sunday Times survey aspire to own one. Less than a quarter know how to cycle and, among those who do, only a handful would cycle to work or school.

Some of the reasons stated are quite logical ones which I totally agree with:

Nearly all did not see the car as a status symbol. Instead, most said a car was a convenient mode of transport. A fifth said it allowed them to get to out-of-the-way places.The third-most popular reason cited for wanting to own a car was family needs, such as ferrying elderly folk or young children.

As a father of 3 kids I can testify that having a car is certainly more convenient, what with the need to ferry kids from place to place. Considering that Singaporeans tend to sign their kids up for tons of extra classes, until they’re independent enough to go on their own, you’re still better off sending and picking them with a car.

However, as if to bring these people back to reality, in a separate article the paper notes that most of those aspiring to own a car underestimate the cost of owning it:

But the costs of owning a car, including monthly instalments, fuel, and parking, can easily amount to more than $2,000 a month, according to a post on car costs on the Government’s website.

  This is more than half the median monthly income of about $4,000 here, based on 2015 Ministry of Manpower figures.

Cars are notoriously expensive in Singapore, no question about that. Even a relatively modest car can set you back by 6 figures.

But despite how pricey owning a vechicle is many still hold on to the view that cycling is not a serious option for travel:

Even if they could cycle, a majority of respondents in a recent survey viewed cycling as a leisurely pursuit, rather than a means for commuting – a view that experts say must change if the Government wants to encourage a more car-lite society.

About a month ago the Straits Times published an article interviewing those who had taken up cycling as a means to go about their daily activities, be it picking up children from school, going to work or just running errands:

Mr Kee, who owns a car, says cycling to work is less stressful than driving as he can ride past peak-hour traffic and jams.

“I hardly drive these days,” he says. “I do so only when there is very heavy rain and if I have many errands to run for the day.”

The main reasons most people cite for switching to cycling are the convenience, the ability to avoid crowds, health benefits and the relatively low cost. I’ve seen these reasons stated over and over again to the point where I wonder how effective they really are. Even though I tend to agree with the message and am a fervent believer that cycling is an important part of Singapore’s future, I think the hurdles facing the large scale adoption of cycling in Singapore will be difficult to overcome.

During a recent talk I attended, the speaker pointed out that unless cycling can become more convenient than using a car it will always be hard to sell to people because driving is still too easy. Even if you don’t have your own car, the influx of services like Uber and Grabcar have made it so convenient to call a car to take you from point A to B.1 Cycling under the hot sun in dangerous conditions and, in many cases, having to take a longer route, will never be attractive to larger portions of the population. Additionally our public transport system is so efficient and connected that the only push factor to take up cycling might be an irrational distrust in the reliability of our public train network or the fact that you just hate waiting for and getting into crowded buses and trains.

At the moment I simply feel that the majority of people who choose cycling do so for purely ideological reasons: where cycling is seen as ‘greener’ than both driving and taking public transport, or there are other tangible (or intangible) benefits that one enjoys from cycling, such as the health, wanting more personal space, or the freedom to just come and go as one pleases without the hassle of waiting or finding a parking lot. Most people however would rather not put themselves through what appears to be a tiring and cumbersome lifestyle choice.

And this will remain the case unless the government makes a concerted effort to

a. Make getting  around Singapore by car, private or otherwise, so frustrating;
b. Make owning or maintaining a car so onerous; and,
c. Create such a comprehensive and connected cycling network that the quickest option, even with the choice of public transport, is simply to cycle.

Only then do I believe that cycling has a chance.

  1. There’s still of course the option to take a taxi but most people willingly opt to pay the extra charge so that they don’t have to stand on the roadside like an idiot. Hailing a cab in Singapore is a frustrating experience worthy of it’s own post.