Penang is not only a foodie’s haven, it is also leading the country in terms of effectively promoting cycling as a healthy lifestyle choice for its residents and visitors.

As a cyclist from Kuala Lumpur, I am always blown away by the way Penang motorists are more willing to share their busy roads with cyclists. Believe it or not, it is not uncommon for Penang motorists to actually give way to cyclists on the road!

This is something unheard of in other parts of our country, especially among KL’s fast and furious drivers.

I would often wonder why Penang motorists are more tolerant and patient towards cyclists on the road compared to the more aggressive drivers in KL. My theory is that the answer lies somewhere in the historical, social and political make-up of Penang.

Historical factor

In the old days, many people would eek a living out of manually carrying their wares and selling them on street corners. Indeed, Penang’s famous “nasi kandar” came from baskets of rice and curries carried with wooden poles on the shoulders of hardworking hawkers.

Another group of hardworking immigrants would provide public transport by pulling their rickshaws on foot.

When bicycles were first imported from Europe in the last century, all those street vendors eventually invested in a bicycle to transport their merchandise and customers about town to increase their work efficiency, as well as to lighten their heavy burden.

Cyclists enjoying part of the 12.5km dedicated bicycle lane at Queensbay Mall. Filepic

In other words, bicycles have long been embedded in Penang’s culture.

Even today, you can still see a few artisans, food vendors and trishaw owners riding through the streets of George Town on their trusty bicycles.

Social factor

Penang islanders tend to love outdoor activities and sports. For them, cycling is a great way to enjoy both the great island views and at the same time, maintain a healthy lifestyle.

After all, Penang island is not a large place, and cycling can help you get to your nearby destination stress-free. Since many of the local motorists are weekend cyclists themselves, they can appreciate the safety concerns of their fellow pedlars on the road.

Political factor

Another important reason why there is a thriving cycling community in Penang today is because the state and local authorities strongly support organised cycling activities and events, and Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng has led by example, by actively participating in a few cycling events himself.

Both politicians and community leaders (from both sides of the political divide) cannot deny that cycling is indeed a healthy past time to foster unity among its citizens.

Furthermore, cycling is a good match for Penang’s environmental aspirations to go green for a sustainable future.

Deputy Chief Minister 1 Datuk Mohd Rashid Hasnon (in blue shirt) waving while riding along the sea. This is part of the 12.5km dedicated bike lane at Queensbay Mall.  Filepic

Deputy Chief Minister 1 Datuk Mohd Rashid Hasnon (in blue shirt) waving while riding along the sea. This is part of the 12.5km dedicated bike lane at Queensbay Mall. Filepic

So far, the Penang state government has backed-up their cycling-friendly rhetoric by concrete actions such as providing a network of bicycle lanes around historical George Town so that overseas and local visitors can explore Penang’s World Heritage Sites by cycling.

Penang is encouraging people to cycle not just for recreation but to commute to work. Cyclists can use a dedicated 1.5km bicycle lane connecting Karpal Singh Drive to Komtar in George Town.

The route includes a 70m concrete-and-steel bike and pedestrian bridge across Sungai Pinang which cost the Penang Island City Council (MBPP) RM4.6mil.

The lane is part of a 12.5km bicycle lane from Queensbay Mall to Komtar. Penang Deputy Chief Minister I Datuk Mohd Rashid Hasnon, who is a known cyclist himself, launched a “Bike (to work) on Friday” initiative in March with the G Club Penang Cyclists.

Reality check

For a better insight, I spoke to two passionate and seasoned Penang cyclists, Sandra Leng and Tang Kui Seong, to find out exactly how much real progress has been made in terms of the state’s promotion of cycling.

What are the Penang dedicated bike lanes like?

Tang: Long stretches from the heart of George Town to Bayan Lepas have been constructed. Parts of these cover the eastern coast of the island making it a very scenic ride for cyclists.

Many roads in Penang have also been marked to remind motorists to share the road with cyclists.

Are these bike lanes being utilised?

Leng: There are not many people using the shared lanes for daily commuting at this moment but I know many, like myself, are just waiting for proper infrastructure (eg: more bike lanes and work places with bike parking and shower facilities) and safe conditions to make cycling our lifestyle.

It took six years of “campaigning for a lane” (CFAL) in Penang under the leadership of G Club Penang Cyclists to see some bits of dedicated bike lanes today. That’s very slow. I hope the lanes we have will continue to grow into a well-linked and practical network soon. We need more bike lanes linking housing areas to schools and work places.

A scenic bike lane near Queens Bay Mall, Penang.

A scenic bike lane near Queens Bay Mall, Penang.

Are locals using the bike lanes to commute to work or market, or for leisure rides?

Tang: Many are just using it for leisure rides. However, as more and more people start to cycle, I expect to see people using the bike lanes to run errands and ultimately, to cycle to work. Proper bicycle parking slots in strategic areas such as markets and food courts will make it more convenient for cyclists.

Private initiatives

Leng: G Club has played a big role in promoting cycling in Penang through their annual “Campaign for A Lane” (CFAL) round-the-island cycling event. CFAL held their 7th edition in August, and it has gained a cult-like following among many Malaysian cyclists.

Tang: I see that cycling can complement the public transport in the state due to the small size of Penang.

In March, the G Club Penang Cyclists, under the stewardship of Datuk Lim Seh Guan, launched their “Bike On Friday” initiative as an alternative mode of commuting.

Hopeful future

As long as cycling remains pertinent politically, and it makes sense economically, I believe that Penang will continue to progress towards being Malaysia’s first “Cycling State”. It may seem like a “Big Ask” but I have learnt a long time ago, Penang is a place where dreams do come true.