New bike lanes are appearing all around the state, and local authorities have a master plan to turn the island into a haven for bike riders.
It’s 10 in the morning on a golden Sunday, and around 10 people have streamed into Starbucks along Jalan Tanjung Tokong. They've just finished a 47km round-trip that began at daybreak in Tanjung Bungah, and which took them through the hilly terrain of Teluk Bahang towards the Tropical Fruit Farm – an area named “800” for its number of feet above sea level.
It’s a curious cast of city folk wearing black tights, helmets and brightly-coloured shoes wheeling in scores of souped-up bicycles. They are members of G Club Penang – cyclists who, along with an estimated 700 other Penangites, wake up early on weekends to pedal along different routes around the state.
The club was first launched in 2009 – a small group of cyclists gathered outside G Hotel for a joyride to Teluk Bahang. It was the brainchild of Dr Lim Seh Guan, a cycling enthusiast whose visit to Lyon, France the year before opened his eyes to new possibilities. “I started cycling
everywhere in Lyon. I realised Lyon was a lot like George Town – narrow roads and everything is near.” Upon his return, Lim championed the idea of bicycle lanes to the newly-elected state government, and received a favourable proposal. “If we could get 500 people to ride at our event, they said the CM (Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng) himself would come and ride with us. So I accepted the challenge.” At the inaugural “Campaign For A Lane” (CFAL) in 2009, he broke the mark: 700 cyclists turned up in support.
Since then, its growth has been exponential. Last year, over 3,000 people participated in the fifth edition of CFAL, and new events such as this year’s “Ride for Sight 2014” that championed the cause of the visually-impaired saw around 1,500 cyclists. Couple this with the number of tourists and locals renting bicycles for rides around George Town, and the trend is obvious: Penangites are taking to bicycles like children to Christmas morning.
Over the last few years, the state administration has seen the change and is supporting it wholeheartedly. “Penang is very active when it comes to cycling,” says MPPP building department director Yew Tung Seang. “We are moving towards becoming a bicycle state,” he reveals. The first step was to answer Lim’s dream by earmarking over 200km for bicycle lanes and routes within the island. It started in August last year with a 1.2km trial stretch
of new green-shaded lanes on the roads at Tanjung Bungah and has led to a 12.5km shared lane project from Queensbay to George Town, which Yew hopes will be ready for use this year. “My objective has been to look into cycling for transport. You want to encourage people to take this as a mode of transportation,” he says. The state also proved its commitment by spending around RM30mil on this initiative, with a group of private developers helping to carry out the project as part of their CSR programme.
The next phase promises an even more tantalising idea: shared bicycle stations. While this facility has flourished in progressive cities around the world such as Copenhagen and Tokyo, the lack of urban infrastructure and planning has suffocated its potential in South-East Asia, until now. The council is currently soliciting proposals from companies for a bicyclesharing system, and the idea could help alleviate the island’s well-known traffic congestion issues. “With a bike rental system, you can park your car somewhere and take a bike from one point to another point. Hopefully by the third quarter of this year, we will know whether anybody is interested or not,” Yew says.
There are obstacles, however. Politics invades all spheres of life in Malaysia, and in Penang, even the roads that snake around the island are not spared. While the state government has free rein over roads in the town centre, roads beyond the Tanjung Bungah boundary belong to the Public Works Department (PWD), which is under the federal government’s jurisdiction. This creates a complicated scenario where one island has two opposing authorities manning the roads. “There are some technical areas we need to tackle with PWD. But while negotiating, we are venturing into the option of doing the lanes on state roads first,” says Yew.
Then, there is the question of whether enough cyclists will use the lanes once they are active, or whether illegal hawker stalls will seize the space for ad-hoc business opportunities. “People will say, I will cycle if there are proper state facilities,” says Lim. “But the state government could say, 'Cycle first, then we will provide the lanes.' So it’s a chickenand- egg situation. That’s why our group and lots of other cycling groups are acting as pressure groups to get the government to agree. I think they are convinced, but it’s a matter of financing and the willpower to do it.” Motorists will also need to be mindful of their peers on the road once the lanes are in use. “People think that the roads belong to the cars and motorbikes, and that bicyclists have no rights. But bicycles are a mode of transportation. We demand equal rights to be on the roads,” says Lim.
But among its regional brethren, Penang is poised to be one of the leaders in providing a safe and well-connected network for cyclists, and a greener way of living. Yew is himself a cyclist and is optimistic for the day when cyclists and motorists will both plough through the streets of Penang together, with no fear or apprehension. “Even without the green lanes or emblems, we cannot stop people from cycling. But to me, if we can enhance their safety, that’d be great. We are keeping our fingers crossed to see if this is possible.”
Jon Chew is the current contributing editor of Poskod.MY, and former associate editor and web editor at Esquire Malaysia. He has also written for Monocle, The Guardian Travel, Wired, FHM and The Star and online sites.