Calories instead of petrol. A small, tough community in Penang holds fast to that principle.
They see that there are too many cars in the state. They don’t mind sporting a healthy sheen of sweat to get from Point A to Point B.
They are bike commuters, and they differ somewhat from the usual tribe of weekend warriors clad in body-hugging Lycra and pedalling just for the sport of it.
“A car weighs about two tonnes. A bicycle weighs 10-20kg. Even if we don’t talk about fossil fuel burning, the load of cars on our transport infrastructure is awful,” says bike commuter Datuk Dr Lim Seh Guan.
Dr Lim is one of the founding members of a bicycle train on the island called Bike on Friday (BoF). There are many such trains in cities like London and New York.
Less than 20 years ago, getting around by bicycle in Malaysia was not even worth writing about. People rode bicycles to work, to market, to school, to church, whatever.
Then car manufacturers went into high gear and produced them at costs so low that just about anybody could own a car. Technologies like air-conditioning and power steering made driving such an affordable comfort.
BoF tries to correct that. On the last workday of the week, when most companies will let their staff go to work in T-shirts and jeans, they form a bicycle train – a group of cyclists that ride to work as one.
Out of maybe 20,000 recreational cyclists in Penang are 200-odd BoF bike commuters with a core, seasoned group about 30-strong. They drive carrying their bikes to places with ample parking and cycle the last few kilometers to work together.
For novices, joining these sifu riders is a privilege. It takes a while to condition oneself to cycling amidst cars, lorries and buses.
“It’s actually quite safe, but one needs to mentally become inured to pedalling along with other road users moving at well over twice the speed,” says Dr Lim.
So BoF members dedicate themselves to guiding those who want to try bike commuting but need a bit of hand-holding. Those who wish to seek out BoF need only search the group’s name on Facebook. But nothing is more desirable to spur the bike commuting movement than dedicated bicycle lanes.
“With enough bike lanes, you can expect the road stress to go down. In a traffic jam, the mass of running engines creates a lot of heat. Thousands of cars stuck in jams have a bad effect on climatic temperatures. Because Penang is so small, we will be in big trouble if we do not correct this,” says Dr Lim.
Dr Lim is also the chairman of G Club Penang Cyclists, a club that made a name for itself organising the 82km round-island cycling event called Campaign for a Lane (CFAL).
CFAL enters its eighth instalment this year, and well over 5,000 cyclists will again congregate to pedal around the island to convince authorities and town planners that they must factor in the need for bike lanes. The fastest cyclists will finish the loop around the island in about two hours, averaging a velocity of 40km/h. Most people ride at half that speed, taking about four hours.
“There is nothing exhausting about cycling at 20km/h. It’s an invigorating exercise on your way to the office. You burn calories, save petrol and have no problems parking.
“Most islanders live about 20km from their workplaces. Taking an hour to cycle to work beats spending an hour crawling in a jam,” says Dr Lim, 53, who is an ear, nose and throat surgeon, and a triathlete to boot.
The Penang government has taken notice. It created the Penang Bicycle Route Masterplan in 2012, with the first completed phase being a 12.5km dedicated lane from Komtar to Queensbay Mall.
All in, by 2020, the state government plans to have at least 33km of bike lanes and paths both on the island and mainland.
There are also bicycle paths, painted green, that meander throughout pavements in George Town on a shared basis with pedestrians.
This, however, has not gone down well with certain non-governmental organisations who feel that cyclists should not share paths with pedestrians.
However, “in an old place like George Town, we have to share the space,” says Dr Lim. “If we don’t do this, there will be no end to jams, parking problems and pollution.”
He also has his attention trained on a future episode of the state. In the numerous public engagement sessions done in Penang about the proposed reclamation of two islands in the south, the word “cycling” grabs the attention of Penangites like Dr Lim.
Azmi Mohamad, deputy project director of SRS Consortium – the project delivery partner of the Penang Transport Master Plan (PTMP) – has said that to keep Penang’s economic growth engines (manufacturing and business services) humming and moving up the value chain, the reclaimed islands would also boast up to 404ha of high-tech industrial parks and 24,000 affordable housing units.
Besides that, the Penang South Reclamation (PSR) project will see a sustainable and resilient city adopting six smart city strategies related to people, economy, living, environment, governance and mobility, with advanced ICT infrastructure like smart surveillance system, free wi-fi on public transport and applications such as journey planners.
The smart city vision also supports quality and healthy lifestyles by creating view corridors, vast greenery, plots orientation and extensive bicycle path networks.
The reclaimed islands, which will also fund the PTMP, will feature 5km of public beaches, 25km of coastal parks, 30km of waterfront, sheltered pedestrian walkways and inter-connected bicycle lanes.
It is these bicycle lanes that Penangites like Dr Lim are interested in. He hopes the transport infrastructure for the new city on the reclaimed islands would not be centred on cars.
“No matter how many carparks you build, it will never be enough. People will just get more and more cars. It will never end.”
He highlights countries such as Germany, Japan, Taiwan and Singapore where there are even highways built exclusively for bike commuters and underground bicycle parking facilities.
The reclaimed islands, he feels, would set a new benchmark of liveability in Penang that would command world attention.
“If we want to make Penang a global magnet and attract world-class talent, we need to bring back cycling as a mode of transport.
“If we have a city that doesn’t cater heavily to cars, the buildings can be a lot closer together and the roads a lot narrower. Yet we won’t feel that it is packed. We’ll be able to use the land more productively than building big roads and parking lots,” he says.