Reviving the bicycle for transport

Malaysia is getting more urbanised and motorised today. Our towns and cities are now planned with the needs of cars in mind instead of people’s needs — easily half of the space in our cities is now used for cars. This leads to urban sprawl, which causes even more noise and air pollution that lowers our quality of life.

Such senseless mobility that involves not only high costs, but also speed — that leads to more stress, more road bullies, and more road deaths and injuries — are unhealthy, bad for our quality of life as well as is economically and environmentally unsustainable.

What the country needs now is a less disruptive mode of transport, one that reduces environmental pollution, is healthier for all, calms the chaos on our roads, and will connect people with people, and people with nature.

We need a cheap yet efficient alternative transport that will slow us down, not stress us out, one that is economically sustainable and will lead to a better quality of life for all Malaysians.

We need to bring back the bicycle. Yes, the bicycle — that good old cheap-to-operate pedal-power machine our ancestors depended on to take them places, that now no longer has a status on our roads or a place in our transport planning.

All over the world today, bicycles are getting much-deserved reconsideration as a solution to basic problems in transit, community, and the environment. That’s not surprising because the bicycle is actually the world’s cleanest, healthiest, most economical and most efficient form of transport.

.Statistics on car ownership in Malaysia indicate that Malaysia is shifting more and more towards private car use. Over the past 15 years, 4.71 million new cars have been registered for private use in the country. That translates into a private car penetration rate of 18%, or 1 car for every 5.54 persons. In 2006 alone, over half a million cars were sold in the country.

The General Insurance Association of Malaysia (PIAM) revealed in September 2004, that our local car population has grown significantly — from 3.3 million private cars in 1997 to over 5.4 million private cars in 2003.

More recently, according to Road Transport Department (JPJ) director-general Datuk Emran Kadir, the number of vehicles in the country has increased to 15.2 million up to June 2006, from 7 million in 1994 (Star, 3 October 2006). “The number of drivers also doubled to nearly 12 million this year compared to 6 million in 1994,” he said.

The rise in motorised vehicles, especially car use, has led to worsening road congestions from traffic jams and rising road casualties from motor vehicle accidents. Road accident is one of the major causes of death and injury in Malaysia.

According to Transport Minister Datuk Seri Chan Kong Choy, 6,188 people were killed in road accidents last year (Star, 26.9.06).

According to PIAM, in tandem with our rising car population, the numbers of road accidents jumped from 215,632 cases in 1997 to 298,653 cases in 2003.

“Despite the many efforts undertaken by the Government to enhance road safety, over 300,000 cases of road traffic accidents were reported in 2004 alone compared with 290,000 cases in 2003, at the average of 895 accident cases involved per day in 2004 throughout the country.

“These accidents have resulted in the loss of 6,000 lives last year. This phenomenon is said to consume an estimated sum of RM6 billion … due to loss of productivity, medical costs, management costs, property damage and others.” (Member of Parliament Dr Wee Ka Siong in a statement at the plenary of the 60th session of the United Nations General Assembly, 25 October 2005)

With the increasing costs of petrol today, motorised vehicles like cars and motorcycles have also become costlier to use. Motor vehicles are also costly to maintain as the consumer has to pay substantially for road tax, licences, parking fees and vehicle servicing as well as repairs for wear and tear, all of which don’t come cheap.

Motorised transport also eats into the country’s coffers as roads, highways and car parks (not to mention car service and car-wash centres) all have to be built to accommodate it. Motorised vehicles also use up a lot of space — at present easily 40-50% of public space in our cities is utilised by such vehicles.

The infrastructure for bicycles, on the other hand — such as roads and parking facilities — is less expensive to build and less land-intensive than that for cars. In Denmark, for example, cycle paths are so much cheaper to build and maintain that some cities have gone to extremes to encourage them. The city of Copenhagen, for example, resorted to providing a fleet of free bicycles to its residents.

Bicycles are not only handy in densely populated urban areas, they also have tremendous potential in rural areas. Where roads are poorly maintained or non-existent and cars are expensive, cycling may be the quickest and most affordable way to travel.

Bicycles do not contribute to air or noise pollution, and they reduce traffic congestion. They also offer a chance for people to improve their physical fitness at a time when obesity is at record levels.

What has also been discovered worldwide is that accident rates have dropped wherever cycling has gained momentum, as cars are forced to slow down as they become more accustomed to sharing the road. According to an official in London’s transport office, “the number of accidents has roughly fallen in half as the number of cyclists has doubled”.

The bicycle is particularly useful for moving people and goods for short-distance travel. It can also help the country achieve better social cohesion as cycling (which slows us down) connects people as well as connects the cyclist with nature, unlike driving or riding a motorbike (which operate at a higher speed), which is a senseless mobility as it does not foster interconnectedness among road users.

Bicycle-friendly streets are vital public amenities that help promote social interaction, besides preventing pollution and enabling people to engage in physical exercise that benefits health.

Although this poor man’s transport is the healthiest mode of transport, its usage has unfortunately declined in Malaysia, to the extent that the bicycle is now used only for recreation and as a mode of transport for the poor.

This is mostly due to the single-minded pursuit of motorised transport and its infrastructural development by our authorities, as an important component in our national development. The lack of proper cycle paths, and safety issues (like the rise of air pollution from motorised vehicles, and risks of being knocked down) all contribute to the demise of the bicycle in Malaysia.

Lack of imagination and awareness on the use of bicycles as a transport solution on the part of our policy-makers also demote the status of bicycles.

CAP calls on the Government to consider promoting the bicycle, which is cheap, non-polluting, small and silent — an excellent device to unclog modern roads — as a replacement to cars on our roads, and in the process effectively transform our present road snarls with more miles, and smiles.


Car travel is getting slower

As car use expands and as people move in droves to cities, traffic congestion becomes worse and traveling by car becomes slower. Many major cities around the world today are discovering that after a certain point, more cars actually mean less mobility. In London just a few years ago, the average speed of a car was roughly the same as that of a horse-drawn carriage a century ago! In Bangkok, each year the average motorist there spends the equivalent of 44 working days sitting in a car going nowhere. (Source: Earth Policy Institute, 2002)

According to the Amsterdam-based labour activists centre, the Transnational Information Exchange (TIE), present-day notions of increased mobility with cars are, to a large extent, artificially created.

It gave the following example: “In the Berlin of the 1920s, the average person made 900-1,000 trips a year, for work, shopping, leisure or other purposes. 90% of these trips were done on foot, by bicycle or tram and underground. The number of trips made by the average person has remained the same, but today 80% is done by car in the same city!”

Increasing car use today has been attributed to: an ever increasing push for the “need of the car” encouraged by car manufacturers, the design of modern-day infrastructure specifically for automobile mobility, and the influence of advertising that reinforces maufacturers’ ideology of the car.


Bicycles better than cars

The bicycle is an efficient means of transportation. In fact, cycling is more efficient than any other method of travel. The bicycle is the most efficient machine ever created: converting calories into petrol, a bicycle gets the equivalent of 3,000 miles per gallon.

In a typical journey in London for example, cycling is faster than the car, and is also faster than public transport, taxis or walking.  Cyclists can easily cover 5 miles in half an hour and be confident that they’ll arrive on time. Car or bus journeys take longer and depend on traffic, or irregular bus services.

In a city like Ontario, Canada, where the average car speed is 30 km per hour, it has been observed that for trips of less than 5 km, bicycles average close to the same speed as cars in getting one to one’s destination because they have more available routes and avoid delays to find parking. Cars waste a lot of time racing from traffic light to traffic light. As a result, bicycles often end up at intersections behind cars, just as the light is turning green.

As pointed out by Winfried Wolf, author of the book Eisenbahn und Autowahn (Railways and Automania): “Traffic systems should be evaluated by looking at the time you need for a journey itself, for buying the means of transport, for maintaining and cleaning it, and for earning the money you need for the trip. When you take all this into account, a car driver moves at the same speed as a cyclist.

Bicycles are in fact, better than cars for many reasons. For one, it provides phenomenal fuel efficiency. It’s been called “the most efficient form of transportation ever invented”.

“People of average fitness can achieve 20 km per hour with an average power input of about 1/10 horsepower (or 75 watts). This level of exertion is minimal and can be kept up for hours.

It’s thus no surprise that Government authorities around the world are increasingly adopting the bicycle as a solution to urban transport problems (see separate story on “Cities Around the World Are Using the Bicycle Solution”) — and for many other good reasons.

The bicycle is a cheap, simple, reliable and sensible mode of transport

— Bicycles require no road tax, no licensing, no insurance, and no fuel bills — and is cheap to manufacture and maintain. Increased cycling will thus reduce household, and national, budgets devoted to car use.

— In large cities today, it has been found that motorised traffic is now slower than it was in horse-drawn carriage days. The bicycle is, in fact, faster for modern-day travel. It has been shown that for distances of 2 miles or less, a bicycle has a clear advantage over a car or public transport (Commuter Challenge, Strathclyde Regional Council, UK). For distances of 5-7 miles, cycling is still faster than a car. During rush hour, a bicycle is about twice as fast as a car (British finding).

— The bicycle is practical for man. “Man on a bicycle can go 3 or 4 times faster than the pedestrian, but uses 5 times less energy in the process. He carries 1 gram of his weight over 1 km of flat road at an expense of only 0.15 calories. The bicycle is the perfect transducer to match man’s metabolic energy to the impedance of locomotion. Equipped with this tool, man outstrips the efficiency of not only all machines but all other animals as well.” (Ivan Illich, in “Energy and Equity”, 1978)

— A bicycle does not pollute (and is also a lot quieter), unlike cars, which produce millions of tons of poisonous fumes and are the main source of air pollution in Malaysia. Cycling can thus help maintain cleaner air for breathing, and minimise noise pollution.

They are also much safer for pedestrians.

— Bicycles take up little space on the road, unlike cars, for which billions of ringgit of public money has to be spent on constructing highways, flyovers and multi-storey car parks. 20 bicycles can be parked in the same space taken up by 1 car. A bicycle is also small enough to be parked anywhere, so one saves on expensive car park bills.

Cycling thus saves energy and space, as well as protects one from the associated deleterious effects of automobile usage.


Short trips ideal for bicycles

Many trips in our cars today — eg: to the bank or shop nearby — are short distances. Short trips guzzle fuel and cause wear and tear on our car’s engine, not to mention the brakes, clutch, etc. That’s because for such kind of repeated short trips, much of our car’s engine wear is due to a high number of starts per mile driven. Driving short distances and stopping before the engine gets a chance to warm up and circulate the oil creates raw metal-to-metal wear and tear. It is well known that cars continuously driven at highway speeds take on far less wear and tear for the overall mileage than short-distance, stop-and-go, around-town driving.

Car trips over short distances are also responsible for much of the toxic fumes in exhaust, because catalysers are not very efficient until after 3-4 km (2-2.5 miles). People who travel 5 km to work by bicycle instead of driving a car cut their carbon dioxide emissions by 0.7 tons a year (Source: Swedish Society for Nature Conservation).

“Bicycles should be encouraged as the most efficient transport mode for short trips in cities of all types and income levels, particularly for trips too long for walking and too short for express public transport services … (E)fficient bicycle use is generally from 600 or 800 meters to 5 or 7 km,” says Michael Replogle, currently Federal Transportation Director of Environmental Defense Fund, US (Source: “Non-Motorised Vehicles in Asia: Lessons for Sustainable Transport Planning and Policy”, 1991).

Bicycles are also significantly less energy intensive. A 1991 survey showed that a cyclist can travel 1,600 miles on the equivalent energy of 1 gallon (4.55 litres) of petrol.

Bicycles should be encouraged as the most efficient transport mode for short trips in cities of all types and income levels, particularly for trips too long for walking and too short for express public transport services