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The How of Bicycle Lanes for Malaysia – Lessons learnt beyond the Physical Infrastructure

It was indeed a landmark event for many cyclists when DBKL launched the first ever 5km South West Bicycle Corridor (KLSWC) in last April. The corridor, which spans from Mid Valley to Dataran Merdeka along the wasted set back along Klang River, offers a great alternative route for bike commuters from South West region into the city centre. Writing this piece of column comes close to my heart, as I am a commuter since my school days, university days, and even today at work, as well as bike touring. FYI, I wrote a piece on “Cycling to Work: The Essence of Happy People for Happy Cities” in last 2014 January issue.

It’s still irrefutably true that the bicycle is the ultimate weapon that complements the integrated public transport solution to the current infamous massive jam issue of Malaysia. More highways as the solution? Then you will rather see yourself wasting more time on the road instead! A recent World Bank’s Malaysia Economic Monitor report in June gave some shocking statistics on this. KL’s road congestion translates into RM20 billion losses annually! Commuters wasted between 270 and 500 million man-hours and at least RM3,100 individually in last year. This cost of congestion includes cost due to delays in traffic, opportunity cost due to traffic reliability doubts, fuel cost, carbon emission cost, health costs of emission during traffic congestion, and economic cost of lost productivity of business.

Part of the segment of KLSWC which is voted as the most favoured segment due to the shady trees.
Part of the segment of KLSWC which is voted as the most favoured segment due to the shady trees.

THE RISE OF BICYCLE LANES

While the integrated public transportation with the last mile bicycle commuting is part of the solution, what worries me and the focus of this column, is the How of bicycle lanes, which will ultimately define their functionality. We see an increasing number of local authorities adopting bicycle lanes as part of their sustainability or green manifesto. These include MBPJ’s PJ Cycleway Project at Ara Damansara, MBSA 10km bike lane along Taman Tasik Shah Alam, MPKK’s Kota Kinabalu 5.3km coastal bike lane linking from Tanjung Aru to UMS, MBPP’s Georgetown Jalan C.Y Choy Bicycle Bridge, MPSJ Subang Jaya Bicycle Lane. While it is noble to hear various municipal councils drawing up their bicycle masterplan such as MBPJ, MBPP and MPKK, my personal journey over these bicycle infrastructure made me questioned on the sincerity of the objectives which is to encourage bicycle commuting. Some of these bicycle lanes are not even designed appropriately for a pleasant commuting ride. To make matter worst, bicycle lanes which are not maintained is no different to car roads with pot holes. The bicycle lanes at Ara Damansara shows exactly that having demarcated blue lanes and bicycle signage is far from completing a successful bicycle lane, perhaps only to score some points for some individuals.

Some of the snippets of the media covers on the KLSWC
Some of the snippets of the media covers on the KLSWC

GETTING IT RIGHT – PUBLIC ENGAGEMENT DRIVEN

It is always about the balance of “software” and “hardware” because building the physical infrastructure is only half baked. It is a fundamental and no brainer procedure for any municipal councils or government agencies to hold public engagement sessions to understand the end users better. Simply by usage experience, i am hesitant that some of the bicycle lanes are designed by designers or contractors who even cycles. However, the recent launched KLSWC is one where I will refer as a successful precedent. The Kuala Lumpur Bicycle Map project (visit cyclingkl.blogspot.com), comprise of a group of cyclist who surveyed the bicycle friendliness of all the routes in Kuala Lumpur, was invited by DBKL to participate in series of the design workshop. The proposed KLSWC is strongly support by the grass root group then, due to the lack of safe passage for bicycle commuters getting into the city. There are a lot of news coverage on this particular bicycle lane, partly due to the strong support of DBKL’s mayor then, Datuk Seri Ahmad Phesal Talib, which is very vocal in bike to work culture. There are also two other bicycle paths in KL in the pipeline, namely a 4km and 2km lane from Wangsa Maju to Taman Melati and Taman Batu Muda respectively.

Collage of some images over the KLSWC segment near Mid Valley
Collage of some images over the KLSWC segment near Mid Valley

THE HOW OF BICYCLE LANES
1) CONNECTIVITY & SPEED ALLOWANCE

So what makes a bicycle lane works (in Malaysia)? Well as a cycling enthusiast with absolutely no professional qualification, I can generally identify 4 key factors for the physical design. However, take note that it is always important to have public engagement programs to understand the various localized needs. First rule, bicycle commuter wants to have the fastest route to their destination. Hence, the extensive connectivity and physical design of the bicycle lane to allow the speed of 20km/h are essential. Think about lesser corners, obstacles and speed humps. Think about car highways! But, it is easier said than done. These lanes are certainly not your winding lanes in your park. You need to commute like a cyclist to exactly know what we mean by shortcuts. The KL Bicycle Map project existed for that reason, we identified pockets of lost spaces in KL that connects cyclist commuter across the deadly highways. Be it dismounting your bike and carrying up the flight of stairs, or forgotten back lanes, or riverbank reserves, these are the area that you do not know its existence, until you needed that short cut to bike to work.

2) BIKE LANES AS COMMON SPACE

Secondly, the success of bicycle lane is more than the lane itself. One needs to see how the lane is also a vital component in the social cohesion of a community, common spaces. It is good to have at least 1.5 meter bicycle lane width for any direction to allow cyclists to keep abreast to have conversations. I have observed this from a recent ride in Hong Kong’s Shatin-Tai Po water front bicycle lane which functions as both leisure and commuting route. In terms of urban design, it is basically making sure a place is multi functional round the clock, thus pulling different crowd. Think about integrating a bicycle lane, with pockets of outdoor gyms, cafes, shop fronts, and open theatre. I will be better off cycling on a bicycle lane that shares common spaces with many public activities every hundred meters instead of speeding down a few miles with no respect to the local context. The KLSWC did its part by allowing cyclist to cycle along Bricksfield or Little India and to participate the routine of the local community.

Taken along Mid Valley KTM. Cycle freely or participate the evening jam?
Taken along Mid Valley KTM. Cycle freely or participate the evening jam?

3) SHADY TREES

Too hot lah! That’s the familiar inconvenience I have heard whenever almost any Malaysian that questioned my bike to work routine. I always argue that it is due to the fact many Malaysians have not even tried the idea of biking to work but instead, wouldn’t mind getting stuck in the hours of jams. Only if you are commuting by bike on a shady path and cycling at a constant pace in the cooling morning (not under the hot afternoon sun!), I don’t see why you should be sweating. Even if so, just take a shower in the office. So that points out, we need bicycle lanes that are shady, and preferably trees. Shady trees not only protect the cyclist from direct radiation from the morning sun which is the prime reason of feeling hot, but they also connect cyclists back to nature. Speaking about biophilic city design, I always question on the chances of us taking our nice time under a tree in this bustling city. Go figure.

4) SAFETY & SECURITY

It will be too technical for me to put in words when it comes to the safety design of intersections. However, aside from ensuring smooth lane without pot holes, any cyclist’s deepest fear is the metal drainage grate by the road side that will trap their tyres which leads to fatal crashes. On the other aspect, let us not take security for granted. The public sentiments on security is loud and i do not discount this to bicycle lane. I learnt it the hard way after being robbed personally, but that does not mean I should not get back to the street because the public needs to proclaim the street. Essentially, one has to design the bicycle lanes close to public space to share the sense of security, if not, it has to have frequent exit points. I would avoid cycling into a narrow lane with dead ends for obvious reasons. Besides with the provision of lights to light up the entire bicycle lane, a secured bicycle lane also means a good urban environment design that allows provision of sight across the space (e.g landscape that allows visual connectivity across spaces).

A collage of images of an intersection near bricksfield
A collage of images of an intersection near bricksfield

FEEDBACK REINFORCES USABILITY

With all of the factors mentioned above, I figured out the best way is to follow up the KLSWC with a survey ride. This survey was participated by 45 people who are well represented by gender, age groups, cycling experience, as well as leisure or commuter cyclists. The survey result indicates that all of them thinks that the listed design parameters of bicycle lane is crucial to determine the functionality of the bicycle lane. This includes the connectivity of location, security & safety, surrounding scenery, design aspect, social interaction with surrounding community, and also the shading against natural element. However, the connectivity of location scores a distinctive vote, simply explains that the coverage of locations served by the corridor will define the number of users. This is no different to car roads planning, which translates to the further and more neighbourhood the KLSWC connects to, the better it is. Another interesting observation is that 83% of the participant favoured the KLSWC segment which has the tree shading is the most pleasant to be rode.

Survey question showing the highlights of the design of bicycle lanes.
Survey question showing the highlights of the design of bicycle lanes.

As mentioned, the bicycle lane is not an infrastructure of its own but a component of the overall healthy urban living environment. The survey participants generally agrees that the KLSWC has motivated people to pick up cycling skills and encouraged leisure cyclists to commute to work by bicycles. Besides, it has also successfully addressed as an alternative bicycle connectivity of south west region into the city centre. I can personally testify that the ride on the KLSWC has given me a different experience of KL by bonding closer to the discriminated communities. This includes the chance to linger around bricksfield and observing a group of immigrants playing cricket, and also drug addicts and homeless people by the river banks. One thing that is certain, the KLSWC has opened up a whole new common space for all walks of life to interact together.

Survey question showing majority agrees the essential impacts of KLSWC
Survey question showing majority agrees the essential impacts of KLSWC

BICYCLE LANE NETWORK

It is indeed an exciting time to see more bicycle lanes appearing around the corners of this country. However aside and greater from the points I have made, a bicycle lane network is the priority to get more people on the 2 wheels. It is not wise to build a perfect highway which does not lead to anywhere. Let us not warrant ourselves excuses because the southern neighbour is doing incredibly well with their bicycle infrastructure. By this year alone, a total of about 50km of intra-town cycling path networks will be completed in 7 HDB towns. On top of the existing 150km park connector networks, the Singapore government has also set a 2030 target for turning Singapore into a cyclist nation with a network of 700km of bicycle paths.

DRAWS TO POLITICAL WILL & GOOD GOVERNANCE

To look at a bigger picture, the potential complications of bicycle lane network can be easily reflected on the River Of Life project. How do you design a bicycle network across the administration rights of dozens of local municipal councils while ensuring the design language remains the same? Is it the right time to have a regulation code for bicycle lanes for Malaysia? Which agencies/department and level of government takes charge on the regulation of bicycle lanes? Unlike the southern state island, these are some hard roadblocks we will need to define for the better of the future integrated transportation system. Like what I have always loved Dato Sri’ Idris Jala mentioned, “we certainly cannot envision the traffic of Kuala Lumpur with 10 million population, that is why MRT came into the picture”, but I will add on that with proper bicycle network to serve the commuting route as well as last mile, we definitely can do more than that.