It's Time to Cycle to Commute!

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Apart from being a healthy habit, cycling is a feasible, carbonfriendly way of commuting. Penang Monthly explores the possibility of commuter cycling in the state.

Penangites are taking to cycling like ducks to water. Granted, some have been doing it their entire lives while others are just beginning to get on the bandwagon, but what both parties have in common is the wish for better cycling infrastructure.

Syerleena Abdul Rashid

Datuk Dr Lim Seh Guan (centre) and a group of commuter cyclists participating in Bike on Friday (BoF) to promote the use of the recently constructed Phase 1 dedicated cycling lanes.

This might not be that far away as Phase 1 of the island’s East Coast Cycling Lanes is now complete, and Phase 2 is set to finish in 2018. But even with these in place, along with careful road upgrades, the question still remains – are Penangites ready to cycle to commute and not just for leisure?

Commuter Cycling 101

There is a distinct difference in purpose between both types of cyclists: “Leisure cycling is mainly concerned with maintaining a healthy lifestyle,” says Datuk Dr Lim Seh Guan, chairman of G Club Penang Cyclists. “Leisure cyclists are inclined to cycle long distances with the sole aim of visiting different geographical locations from the comfort of their saddles.

“Commuter cycling, on the other hand, is what is proposed by urban city planners to combat evergrowing traffic congestion. In old cities like George Town, the roads are quite narrow and there are no adequate parking spaces. So commuter cycling is encouraged. One can navigate through busy streets with ease. Many people don’t think about it but George Town is flat and compact; this makes it ideal for a commuter cycling culture to develop.”

Commuter cycling is what is proposed by urban city planners to combat ever-growing traffic congestion. In old cities like George Town, the roads are quite narrow and there are no adequate parking spaces. So commuter cycling is encouraged.

G Club Penang Cyclists launched its firstever bicycle train – Bike on Friday (BoF) – early last year to promote the use of both shared and dedicated cycling lanes and to help build novice cyclists’ confidence to commute on their own. The group now comprises 20 regular commuter cyclists who cycle to work every Friday in a bid to reduce weekend traffic build-up. “I believe if any town is to succeed in introducing commuter cycling, it is George Town,” observes Lim.

Improving the Experience

However, the implementation of shared cycling lanes is cause for concern for Pulau Tikus assemblywoman Yap Soo Huey, who has been cycling around Penang since her school days. “When cycling lanes were first placed on the sides of the roads, they were met with criticism. Firstly, cars were still speeding along the cycling lanes, making cyclists feel uncomfortable and squeezed out. The lanes are narrow – a lot of the carriageways in Penang are actually narrower than the stipulated standard set by the Public Works Department (the standard width of a road lane is three metres) and the reason why the state makes them as such is because they feel the pressure to give more space to cars.

“To level the playing field, the state is now starting to prioritise cyclists, and if cyclists are to take precedence for a change, present guidelines must be amended to allocate more space on the sides of carriageways so that motorised vehicles can safely overtake bicycles. Secondly, the roads, junctions and timing of traffic lights are all designed to encourage acceleration, and that is the reason why cars are still speeding. I believe these must be rectified before the shared cycling lanes are safe for use.”

Yap adds that cycling on sidewalks will bring about its own set of problems. “Currently we don’t have a registration system for bicycles, and because of that, enforcement of laws affecting bicycles will be very difficult. If a cyclist runs over a pedestrian, it will be very hard to prove accountability.”

She cites Japan as an example: “The Japanese government in the last few years has been retreating on its policies on cycling on sidewalks because of the growing number of incidences where pedestrians were seriously injured or died as a result of reckless cycling.” In 2014 a cyclist in Tokyo was ordered to pay 47 million yen (roughly RM1.86mil) in damages by a Tokyo court to the family of an elderly woman he knocked down and killed at a pedestrian crossing. The court found the cyclist to be travelling between 15-25km/h.

“It is also trickier to cycle on sidewalks, especially at a junction. Cyclists have to make sure that there are no cars turning into the junction in all three directions before crossing to another sidewalk. And sometimes, the sidewalks are not placed on the same stretch and they slope downwards at the end. So cyclists are forced to navigate the slopes while simultaneously zigzagging their way around the junction to get onto the next sidewalk,” she says.

Mohd Monir Hossain considers cycling on the road to be a safer alternative than cycling on sidewalks.

Mohd Monir Hossain, from Bangladesh, shares the same sentiments regarding sidewalks: “While I feel much safer cycling in Penang and it’s a cheaper alternative to public transportation, I do find cycling on the shared sidewalks a bit more difficult than cycling on the road because you’ll not just have to concentrate on steering your bicycle while looking out for cars at junctions, you must keep an eye out for the pedestrians as well. That is why I find cycling on the road a much safer option.”

On the other hand, Mathijs Nanne of Holland voiced his concerns about the implementation of the one-way road system. “I cycle to work every day and when the oneway road system was introduced, it was the first time in my five years of cycling in Penang that I felt quite unsafe. Cars in general do not take account of cyclists crossing the roads and that is very dangerous. But to the authorities’ credit, they are putting cycling on the map. They just need to look at proper international guidelines and see whether they are applicable here in Penang to make the cycling system fully functional and safe.”

Currently we don’t have a registration system for bicycles, and because of that, enforcement of laws affecting bicycles will be very difficult. If a cyclist runs over a pedestrian, it will be very hard to prove accountability.

Council’s Building Director, Yew Tung Seang (fourth from the left) says that cycling to work gives him a buffer between home time and work time.

A Work in Progress

Penang Island City Council’s (MBPP) Building Director Yew Tung Seang says that problems pertaining to shared cycling lanes in Penang are not a big enough issue yet to justify comprehensive changes. ”But I am aware of the safety issues concerning cyclists sharing lanes with motorised vehicles and as such, we have developed several safety implemented in the next phase of the Penang Bicycle Route Masterplan, such as placing rubber separators along the Tanjung Tokong area to ensure that motorised vehicles are aware that the road lanes are being shared with cyclists.

We are planning to construct cycling lanes connecting Straits Quay to Padang Kota Lama and from Queensbay Mall to the airport. The lanes will be 39.3km long, inclusive of the existing 12.5km dedicated cycling lane from Gama to Queensbay Mall.

“As for pedestrian safety on the shared sidewalks, I speak from experience as a cyclist that our speed is only limited to 15km/h on these sidewalks. If you observe closely, only novice cyclists will opt to cycle on shared sidewalks because they are still inexperienced and hesitant about sharing cycling lanes with motorised vehicles. More advanced cyclists will join the vehicles on the road because they prefer a speedier alternative. Granted, Penang does not have the luxury of wider walkways in comparison to cities like Melbourne, but we are working on improving our existing sidewalks to make them safer for pedestrians and cyclists alike. And if the sidewalks are crowded with pedestrians, then of course it is the cyclists’ duty to slow down or dismount,” says Yew.

The deputy director of MBPP’s engineering department, A. Rajendran, says that at present, the council is focused on educating cyclists to respect and give way to the pedestrians. “Many bicyclefriendly countries have regulations for their cyclists and in Malaysia, we too need to introduce these regulations. But at the moment, our priority is to educate the cyclists about the importance of cycling safely.”

Yew adds that speed tables have also been placed at certain junctions for the safety of cyclists. “Cars will now have to slow down before turning into road bends and we hope that these speed tables will mitigate risks to cyclists. But then again, it is a give and take situation. There must be mutual respect. Cyclists can’t take for granted that just because they’re cycling on sidewalks, priority must be given to them. There are general do’s-and-don’ts upon reaching junctions.

“That said, I think commuter cycling is a doable thing on the island; the distances are not too long. To help cultivate a stronger cycling culture, we will be introducing a bicycle sharing system similar to Taiwan’s YouBike later this year. Twenty-five bicycle stations will be set up around George Town and the first half hour of bicycle rental will be free of charge.

“We have also started building bicycle bridges across Sungai Ara and Sungai Nibong as well as a shared bicycle-pedestrian bridge along the Tun Dr Lim Chong Eu Highway for commuter cycling purposes. All three bridges are scheduled to be completed by the end of next year.”

Further improvements to the Phase 1 dedicated cycling lanes are in the pipeline as well: “We are planning to construct cycling lanes connecting Straits Quay to Padang Kota Lama and from Queensbay Mall to the airport. The lanes will be 39.3km long, inclusive of the existing 12.5km dedicated cycling lane from Gama to Queensbay Mall,” says Yew.

It would seem that the future of commuter cycling in Penang looks bright. However, motorists and cyclists have to play their part and be respectful of other road users if Penang is to become a commuter cycling city.



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