Infographic summarizing the possible steps in encouraging the bike to work culture in our country.

CYCLING TO WORK: The Essence of Happy People for Happy Cities

The Population Problem

The 21st century is arguably the last century for mankind. While this may seem to be exaggerating, James Martin explains the 16 mega problems we face in this 21st century in his book, “The Meaning of 21st Century” which highlights that Global Warming and Excessive Population Growth are the biggest problems our species needs to address ever since we came out from our caves! [1] While the argument on defining and strategizing towards the optimum population cap for our only one, planet earth continues in the political arena [2], the answer is self-evident every day.

As we live in decades of unchecked urban sprawl, the ever growing population of Greater Kuala Lumpur hits 7.2 million [3], constituting a quarter of the nation’s 30 million population to date, which increases the demand for automobiles and putting pressure on the need for expensive transport infrastructures.

The Traffic Problem – The Happiness Problem

Undeniably, congestion on the roads can have huge social, environmental, health and economic consequences, and greatly affect a city’s liveability. In the US, the 2011 Urban Mobility Report estimated that congested conditions in 2010 cost more than USD 100 billion in delay and fuel costs, or nearly USD750 for every commuter in the country. In addition, 1.9 billion gallons of fuel were wasted in traffic jams. [4] As I swift past the congested traffic with my foldable bike each evening, I sympathize those who are stuck in the traffic, on their way to gym to ride on stationary bicycles that are powered by unnecessary energy at the cost of expensive gym membership.

The fact is that many of us express our frustration over the inefficient traffic on social media but fail to recognize that we are part of the problem, instead, blaming the authority for not learning how to transport people rather than cars. To make matter worst, the ownership of car in most developing countries is a stereotype of wealth, and most of us are too comfortable for a paradigm shift in our mentality towards the way we travel every day.

The interesting paradox of the two commuting options
The interesting paradox of the two commuting options

 The 2 Wheels Solution

The solution is here, and has withstood the test of time. When Ernest Michaux designed the first commercially available velocipede (known as bicycle today) in the 1860s, he probably did not expect that the two-wheeled-man-powered ride would become one of the most sought after solutions to urban design today. The reviews of bike centric urban designs are splendid. One great example is Copenhagen, Denmark, where 50% of Copenhageners commute to work or study by bike. Besides saving 90,000 tonnes of CO2 each year, cycling also translate to an annual health benefit of DKK 1.7 billion (USD 296 million) for the city, coming mostly in the form of healthcare savings and increased tax revenues as a result of fewer illnesses. The notable part is that 63 % of all members of the Danish parliament, located in the middle of Copenhagen, commute daily by bike, which well reflects that leaders walking the talk.

With 390 kilometers of biking lanes and traffic lights especially for bikes, the city’s infrastructure is built on the fact that a bicycle is not only the cheapest, healthiest and fastest way to get around the city, it is also a very important factor in reducing carbon emission. Therefore bicycle culture is a vital part of the city administrations ambition to become the first carbon neutral capital in the world by 2025. [5] It seems to me that this strategy may be the ultimate solution for our Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib promise during COP 15 that Malaysia will be voluntary reduces up to 40 percent in terms of emissions intensity of GDP by the year 2020 compared to 2005 levels, as estimated 40% of our energy demand comes from transportation. [6] [7]

Why choose the bicycle as a commuting tool?

  •  SPEED

It is irrefutably true that there are serious savings from healthcare, unnecessary infrastructure, and various unsaid social benefits in the bigger picture. However, from a micro perspective, majority of cyclists would agree to three main factors that motivate them to do so, namely, speed, savings and surroundings. Depending on the location and intended journey, some travelling routes have shortcuts that are only accessible by bicycle, instead of requiring your car to detour around an unnecessary loop of ring road during peak hours. The convenience of speed can also be associated with the usage of public transport. For instance, it takes me 45 minutes to reach home at Kelana Jaya from my office at Bangsar, this is done by taking the Putra LRT line and using my foldable bike to complement the last mile journey. While it takes more than an hour by car due to the traffic congestion during the rush hour.

Shortcuts can be found in many unexpected lost spaces, such as here in the neighbourhood of Section 5, PJ
Shortcuts can be found in many unexpected lost spaces, such as here in the neighbourhood of Section 5, PJ
Speedy ride: Suitable foldable bike complementing public transport to achieve the most desirable journey time
Speedy ride: Suitable foldable bike complementing public transport to achieve the most desirable journey time
  •  SAVINGS

Aside from the push factor, the pull factor will be monetary savings. As fuel subsidies are gradually removed, cyclist commuting to work may find a huge savings from petrol, toll charges, parking fees, car maintenance, and even your gym membership. Personally I manage to save up as much as rm400 monthly, which yet, does not include the many other indirect benefits yet. This savings is constant, and will only get better. Automobile initially was invented to make people more independent and freer, but the reality is that cars make us more dependent and vulnerable to big government and big business and big crisis, as fossil fuel is finite for an ever growing population. However as a cyclist on a daily basis, this is not a threat.

  • SURROUNDING EXPERIENCE

Overall, I think that the most attractive factor of getting to work by bicycle is the surroundings experience. Auto mobility communicates with brake lights and amber indicators whilst actual people remain hidden behind a screen, but bicycle communicates with a wave, an arm, a smile, indirectly forming a familiar bicycle community that promote social integration and happier nation. When you cycle, you realize that KL is actually quite small, it just feels big because we are stuck in traffic all the time and spending hours on freeways to see nothing but cars around you. However, you do not see any physical barrier of communication between cyclists on the road.

The bike culture offers a different kind of freedom; it is the adrenaline and ice breaker I seek for every morning and after work. Unlike being separated from the world by a glass cube with your selective environment of sight and sound, biking offers you a full bodied experience, our physical strength, the sensation of speed, the sight, the sound, the smell around you, bicycle reconnects us to the environment we live in, and gives us a better insight to understand our cities better.

This, I am assured many cyclist would agree too, as It is through the bike culture I came to understand Kuala Lumpur better, the smell of the polluted river, the sighting of freeway that separates communities apart, the discovery of lost spaces that are eventually overtaken by huge profit making developments.

Road less taken: Rediscovering Kampung Sungai Penchala  the remaining village setting within the bustling city.
Road less taken: Rediscovering Kampung Sungai Penchala the remaining village setting within the bustling city.

Mentality and Myths

While the benefits are evident, the common doubts raised by most people are, safety and sweat. As commuters on road, we never ignore on the risk possibly taken, but we have the options on where we want to ride. With my experience, most people assume that cyclist who cycle to work will be using the main roads or highways like they do with their cars. Nevertheless, it is a responsibility to study your route thoroughly and decide according to the fastest journey, road condition and activity of the area that determines the type and condition of traffic.

My principle of the safety of daily commuting to work by bike is simple;

  1. Ensure you are comfortable with your bicycle. It is important to discover the suitable ergonomics position for you to enjoy and affirm with the handling of your bicycle.
  2. It is not the amount of cars around you that matters, but the speed of travelling objects around you. I use the LDP highway when the traffic is gridlock during rush hours, otherwise the neighbourhood route when the LDP traffic is clear for cars to speed.
  3. If you need to get across a busy road, proceed to the nearest junction with traffic calmer or traffic light and push your bike through the narrowest lane.
  4. Always focus when you are on the road. The same principle applies to biking as it is a matter of life to look out for potential physical threats ahead on the road.
  5. Cycle against the traffic when it is physically practical to do so, this allows you to be alert on incoming vehicles.
  6. While sometimes the path less taken is rewarding as a shortcut, always be clear on your whereabouts and nearby road exits as crime is a concern for any road users.
To the Left: A group of cyclist commuting on a dedicated bike lane along federal highway by keeping to the left lane to allow motorcyclist over take them.
To the Left: A group of cyclist commuting on a dedicated bike lane along federal highway by keeping to the left lane to allow motorcyclist over take them.
Dangerous Threat: KL Bicycle Mapping project initiator Jeff Lim demonstrating the drain cover which has grates parallel to the road trapping narrow bicycle wheels and cause riders to fall and get hurt.
Dangerous Threat: KL Bicycle Mapping project initiator Jeff Lim demonstrating the drain cover which has grates parallel to the road trapping narrow bicycle wheels and cause riders to fall and get hurt.

 It is debatable whether one would sweat for commuting to work on a bicycle. Based on my experience, if you are cycling under the tree shades, not speeding nor climbing a gradient, and commuting before work starts around 8am or after work ends 6am, one should feel the sufficient breeze to cool off his perspiration. If one sweats, the office space or nearby gym centre should have a shower facility to assist. Even without so, the water hose bidet that can be found in most Malaysian toilets can be improvised to be a shower by attaching a longer hose and a sprinkler head.

Gregers Reimann, a Danish expat and green building consultant illustrates the cheap RM50 solution improvised to the water hose bidet.
Gregers Reimann, a Danish expat and green building consultant illustrates the cheap RM50 solution improvised to the water hose bidet.

The way to forward

However, the question remains, how do we motivate more people to cycle to work? What are the other push factors to make this happen? What can the government, corporates and communities do? These can be tackled through policy, incentive and infrastructure means. Government should lead an example by ensuring government servants, or anyone living within 10km radius of their work place to cycle to work once a week wherever it is viable to do so. City Councils should have designated car free zone during certain rush hours to promote dedicated route for cyclists without major effect on traffic flow. To reduce the dependency or control the usage of automobiles and ultimately encouraging people to cycle around the city, the government can implement a rule that any personal vehicles wish to enter to city must have at least 3 passengers including the driver (Jakarta [8]), or road space rationing that restricts automobile travel through means that certain cars can only enter a certain road space based on their car plate (Beijing [9]), or charged motorist when they use priced roads during peak hours to control the traffic congestion (Singapore [10]).

Incentive is a sound motivator as it is monetary attractive to many. Company can introduce cycle to work scheme like UK where employee can get a bike by deducting their salary for instalment basis [11]. Also, allowing cyclist to claim extra mileage based on the distance they cycle to work or meetings as they help to reduce the company’s carbon footprint. Bike equipment are not cheap as it is increasingly becoming commercialize as an expensive hobby instead of a necessity, thus it will be good if there is no GST Goods Service Tax charges on bicycle and accessories purchases to make bicycles affordable. Multinational companies can go to the extra mile by having the option of free bicycles along the new contract since some of them include a complementary tablet or smartphone for new contracts. Government or companies can even allocate dedicate insurance for employees who cycle to work.

Nevertheless, the assistance of physical infrastructure will be a major breakthrough as our city scape has yet to respect the daily necessity of a cyclist. Secured bicycle parking facilities with spotlights and CCTV should be provided at offices, malls, and also major traffic connectors such as LRT transport hubs. Though I acknowledge the presence of bicycle parking at some LRT stations, however the location of bicycle parking must prioritize security and accessibility. Bike parking spaces should be bright and highly visible, within sight of security guards, and not tucked away in some dark basement or taken up by motorbikes instead.

Another low hanging fruit approach is to ensure pedestrian walk paths and the edge of the roads are maintained properly. This is because sometimes cycling on them is like cycling on landmines, with potholes, loose paver bricks & gravels, and opened drain covers that can be life threatening. The provision of physical infrastructure for cyclist commuter can be extensive such as providing dedicated bike lanes; however it is crucial that designers and city council should not build bicycle lanes based on assumptions but to collaborate with end users in the designing process if they are serious of getting people cycle to work.

You cannot expect a car user to design a bicycle lane for cyclist that has various details to look into.

A mall that makes sense: Citta Mall in Ara Damansara has a simple secured and easily accessible bicycle parking, unlike other malls that will require you to park your bicycle with motor bikes without any rail to secure it.
A mall that makes sense: Citta Mall in Ara Damansara has a simple secured and easily accessible bicycle parking, unlike other malls that will require you to park your bicycle with motor bikes without any rail to secure it.
Too fast too furious: It is good to have demarcated paint bike lanes like this in Ara Damansara however traffic calmer/ traffic light is needed to slow the incoming cars as the provision of sight is minimal.
Too fast too furious: It is good to have demarcated paint bike lanes like this in Ara Damansara however traffic calmer/ traffic light is needed to slow the incoming cars as the provision of sight is minimal.
Just Right: A simple 1.5m width pedestrian path way with solid covered drain openings in Woodlands, Singapore can be used for cycling too.
Just Right: A simple 1.5m width pedestrian path way with solid covered drain openings in Woodlands, Singapore can be used for cycling too.
Infographic summarizing the possible steps in encouraging the bike to work culture in our country.
Infographic summarizing the possible steps in encouraging the bike to work culture in our country.

Just Do It

To change a city’s skin, is to change a city’s mind. “A developed country is not a place where the poor have cars, it’s where the rich use public transport.” The notable paraphrase from Enrique Penalosa, former Mayor of Bogotá, Colombia, reflects the successful story of implementing Transmilenio Bus Rapid Transit, 300km of dedicated bike path and various other bold projects under the flagship of Project for Public Spaces (PPS) has earned him the title “The Mayor of Happiness” [12]. The essence of sustainable urban design is as much about having people moving through landscapes as it is about being in them, breaking the physical barriers between people and increasing human interactions, creating a better and happier city.

Are you one of those who are frustrated and having your time and money spend in the daily traffic jams? Then get your like-minded colleagues to start the culture of biking to work, you would not experience the happiness until you, just do it.

Works Cited:

[1] J. Martin, The Meaning of the 21st Century “A vital Blueprint for Ensuring Our Future”, New York: Riverhead Penguin, 2006.
[2] D. Dorling, Population 10 Billion “The Coming Demographic Crisis and How to Survive It”, Constable & Robinson, 2013.
[3] TheStar, 02 01 2013. [Online]. Available: http://www.thestar.com.my/News/Nation/2013/01/02/The-Klang-Valley-has-finally-arrived-to-be-in-a-top-spot-in-world-business.aspx.
[4] T. A. T. Institute, “Urban Mobility Report,” [Online]. Available: www.mobility.tamu.edu/ums/media-information/press-release.
[5] Denmark.Dk. [Online]. Available: http://denmark.dk/en/green-living/bicycle-culture/copenhageners-love-their-bikes/.
[6] E. C. Malaysia, “National Energy Balance 2011,” 2011.
[7] D. G. W. Theseira, “UNDP,” Ministry of National Resources & Environment NRE, 2013. [Online]. Available: http://www.undp.org.my/files/editor_files/files/REDD%2Bspecial%20page/21Feb_Annex3B.pdf.
[8] L. Krisnawati, “The State Ministry of Environment, Indonesia,” [Online]. Available: http://www.unep.org/transport/pcfv/PDF/pathumbai_ESTinIndonesia.pdf.
[9] B. R. S. Rationing, “Wikipedia,” [Online]. Available: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Road_space_rationing_in_Beijing.
[10] E. R. Pricing, “Land Transport Authority Singapore,” [Online]. Available: http://www.lta.gov.sg/content/ltaweb/en/roads-and-motoring/managing-traffic-and-congestion/electronic-road-pricing-erp.html.
[11] C. 2. W. Scheme, “(http://www.cycle2work.info/ , http://www.cyclescheme.co.uk/ ),” [Online].
[12] I. w. E. Penolosa, “Happy Cities for the Global South,” [Online]. Available: http://www.yesmagazine.org/happiness/happy-cities-for-the-global-south-interview-with-enrique-penalosa.

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