16 March 2006

What about bicycles?

What about bicycles I hear you ask? True, I haven't talked about bicycle policy much so far on this blog. That is partly because I often write about bike stuff over at the Cycling in Singapore group blog.

It occurs to me that a few postings over there might have wider interest beyond Singapore. So here are a few examples in case you are interested (btw only some of them were posted by me). I hope all the links still work.

Urban cycling in Jakarta

September 25, 2004
Cyclists, get set, ...oh the tracks are yet to be built!
Urip Hudiono, The Jakarta Post, Jakarta

"I hope I can ride my bike to work... or at least use it to travel a short distance around my office building, to go out for lunch for instance," the 35-year-old resident of Bintaro, South Jakarta, told The Jakarta Post on Friday.

His wish, however, is not yet on the agenda of the Jakarta administration.

UK debate - 'Don't force people to wear helmets'

Helmet compulsion article index. BikeBiz.com, 16 Apr 2004

The pro-helmet, anti-compulsion BikeBiz.com makes a commentary prior to listing an index of stories carried to date on UK's MP Eric Martlew's private members' bill 'protective headgear for young cyclists' as well as post-bill helmet compulsion articles.

Cycle helmet compulsion needs to be fought tooth and nail by anybody who cares about the health of children in this country.

Three cheers for speed limit enforcement!

Please, please do enforce the speed limits more strictly! This may be an unpopular view, but as a regular bicycle commuter on the roads here in Singapore I am looking forward to much stricter enforcement of the speed limits by the Traffic Police!

Park connectors are all very well but many of us need to cycle on the road and in my opinion one of the most dangerous and unpleasant things about Singapore's roads is the high-speed traffic. Traffic speeds are a key factor in the risk and severity of crashes, especially when they involve pedestrians or cyclists.

New Australian National Cycling Strategy

Australia has just released a new national cycling strategy - AP-C85/05 : The Australian National Cycling Strategy 2005-2010. See also the Australian Bicycle Council, which is the body which administers the strategy.

Although its draft version was criticised by Australian bicycle advocacy organisations for its lack of
firm commitment from governments, it should provide an interesting resource for bicycle transport advocates in Singapore where we are just taking baby steps on policy for bicycles as transport.

"Cycling track or obstacle course?"

"Cycling track or obstacle course?"
Letter from Elke Eskes-Frey. Today, 09 Feb 2006.

Pedestrian bridges along park connector give cyclists a back-breaking experience.

I grew up in an environmentally-conscious nation where people cycle not only to exercise, but also to commute and save energy — even if they have two cars at home. So, perhaps I was spoilt to think that I have rights on the road as a cyclist.

Low stress route makes for a joyful bike ride

Joyful? By bicycle? In Singapore? On the roads?? Yes! Let me explain.

My daily ride to work has become a joy since I found a low stress route to take. It takes me mostly along quiet streets. These stretches are linked up by some short off-road short cuts (and a few short stretches of busy roads). Riding to work is now a real pleasure.

09 March 2006

Cross border transport cooperation (not)

Cross border transport always poses cooperation difficulties and Singapore and Malaysia provide an interesting set of case studies.

I recently completed a draft paper that focuses on the often prickly negotiations over the fixed transport links between Johor in Malaysia and Singapore. [Update: the paper was published in Asia Pacific Viewpoint] . Here is a pdf of the paper.]

Crossing the narrow straits between Singapore and Malaysia one meets some puzzling features. Departing Singapore by rail from the Tanjung Pagar station of Malayan Railways (Keretapi Tanah Melayu or KTM) it is startling to find not a Singapore checkpoint but a counter where Malaysian immigration officials examine passports but stamp none and ignore filled out forms.

Heading to Johor Bahru (JB) from Singapore in a shared taxi via the busy causeway that connects the two, your driver might point out the new Malaysian customs and immigration complex that is under construction. It sits to the east of central JB, apparently marooned on a hill, where it was designed to connect to a bridge (maybe a ‘crooked’ one says the driver) that may replace the causeway (or just the Malaysian half of it).

Travelling by car from Malaysia into Singapore via the Second Link bridge located at the western end of Singapore you might be impressed by expressways, the checkpoint complexes and the bridge itself, but would also be struck by the lack of traffic (much less than the causeway’s).

By the way, you can view realtime online traffic cam images of both the causeway and Second Link.

The paper was triggered by curiosity over these puzzling features and uses these cases to examine the role of transport links in cross border processes more generally. It is not primarily a policy paper but transport policy folks might find something of interest in it.

The paper includes an analysis of the ‘Crooked Half Bridge’ issue that has been hot in recent weeks. Since it is more topical than the other examples in the paper I will provide a few excerpts:

… in 1996 with the Second Link not yet open, [Malaysia's then PM] Dr Mahathir suggested informally that the causeway be replaced by a bridge. Singapore was reluctant but in 1998 suggested inclusion in the package approach … Talks on the bridge continued into 2002 but when the package approach fell through in October the Singapore Government dropped its support.

Dr Mahathir’s surprising response was to announce in early 2003 that Malaysia would replace its side of the causeway with a bridge, saying ‘It does not involve Singapore. It is ours. We are implementing it on the Malaysian side... no need to seek permission’ (Reme Ahmad, 2002). In order to meet the causeway halfway, the bridge would need to be curved (or ‘crooked’) in order to reach sufficient height for small ships...

The bridge project was deferred in a 2004 budget trimming exercise but in late January 2006 it burst back onto Malaysia’s official agenda. Malaysian leaders have announced the intention to proceed. If Singapore agrees it will be a full bridge and if they don’t, then it will be a half bridge (now to be called the ‘scenic’, not ‘crooked’, bridge).

We can try to understand this in terms of ‘bargaining chips’:

… the half bridge proposal might be seen as a clever move by Malaysia. It seems to transform the bridge proposal from a chip for Singapore to a Malaysian one. If it is true that the half bridge does not require Singapore’s agreement, the proposal changes the bridge from a Malaysian request into an issue that might pressure Singapore to seek compromise. …

We can also see the proposal as a ‘window to development opportunities’:

The proposal can also be seen as consistent with Malaysia’s developmental approach to major projects and, some critics have said, of Dr Mahathir’s fondness for mega-projects (Kim, 2005).

Singapore has usually been seen as more cautious in such investments, with cost-benefit analysis as a key tool (albeit rarely made public). However, Singapore’s developmental state has in fact also made ‘strategic’ investments in transport infrastructure in order to enhance national competitiveness and strategic interests even when evaluation has not clearly supported them (Phang, 2003).

This developmental interpretation makes more explicable the lack of evidence presented publicly regarding economic evaluation or cost-benefit analysis, including impacts on traffic and capacity. Most proponents tend to imply that it is self evident that the causeway has a capacity problem. Perhaps the benefits are thought to be obvious in light of demographic scenarios that raise the not-too-distant prospect of almost 10 million people in this region?

I have also been intrigued by something that has NOT been discussed much in the recent news coverage, namely TOLLS:

… the half-bridge proposal may be intended to avoid a repeat of the toll-related problems of the Second Link [more on this below]. In contrast with the Second Link, this is a government financed project under the Ministry of Public Works ... Although this financing model does not require tolls, it seems likely that a toll will be levied. There are several reasons for this: the causeway already has a modest toll (Malaysian, and a symmetrical toll by Singapore); the Second Link is still losing money and undercutting it with a new and better bridge would make this worse; and a toll-free bridge (especially a half-bridge built entirely by Malaysia) might be seen as benefiting mainly Singapore users at the expense of Malaysian taxpayers.

Singapore’s leaders have expressed concern publicly over possible toll rates. At the signing of the 2001 agreement that included a full bridge, Singapore’s Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew argued for toll charges to be the same as the Causeway (Pereira and Ng, 2001). Later in an echo of the Second Link problems, Prime Minister Goh argued that symmetrical tolls would have to be applied (Singapore Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 2003).

Interestingly, a half-bridge option would make such symmetrical tolls absurd in the eyes of the public. This reveals another benefit for Malaysia of the half bridge idea, in that it undermines Singapore’s position on symmetrical tolls.

I should explain that tolls had been a source of conflict when the Second Link opened in early 1998. Singapore authorities insisted that any toll would need to be shared by both sides, or else both sides would need to impose a toll (Straits Times, 25 March 1990). The rationale for this appears to be concern to prevent the other side from ‘creaming’ all the toll revenue that the market would bear at the crossing. However, the Malaysian Minister for Public Works complained at the time that the Malaysian concessionaires had spent much more on the project than Singapore had, including building 1.7 km of the 2.0 km bridge (Straits Times, 24 December 1997). A result of all this is apparently excessive tolls, which seems to be a key factor in the Second Link being a missed opportunity for both sides.

Returning to the Crooked Bridge story, we should note that this short border is one of the busiest in the world, with roughly 80 to 90,000 people crossing each way per day (some say more). Trade is huge. Police on each side routinely hand over suspects to the other. Clearly there is a huge amount of pragmatic cooperation going on.

Yet, it is particularly striking that efforts to enhance a transport link are here being pursued in such a way as to avoid the need to cooperate, and in ways that actually worsen bilateral relations! A crooked half-bridge would provide a wonderfully ironic symbol of the prickly yet intimate relationship across the straits.

08 March 2006

Changing petrol price politics in Malaysia and Indonesia?

Last week I promised to write more on fuel price politics in this region. High oil prices are forcing governments that had been subsidising motor fuel to think again. The hole in their budgets is just too big. Leakage from smuggling has been growing too as price differences with neighbouring countries have grown.

Auto-dependent development fuelled by fuel subsidies in Malaysia

Malaysia - struggling to change the politics of fuel pricing

Last Tuesday Malaysia announced its largest ever single increase in petrol prices. It raised petrol prices by 19 per cent, diesel by 23 per cent and LPG by 21 per cent. This still leaves a considerable subsidy at today's oil prices. According to the announcements last week, if it were not subsidised petrol would be 28 per cent more expensive than the new price and diesel 25 per cent more.

Malaysia fixes its motor fuel prices with the result that unless world oil prices are low, Malaysian petrol is subsidised. Malaysia has been raising petrol prices, step by step over the last two years, while making some concessions in the face of squeals of protest - for example, by lowering or capping some other motoring costs, such as the tolls on expressways.

The protests this time have been louder, which I guess is to be expected given the size of the price rises. But I also notice more voices being raised in support of the change. The government has said that a large chunk of the money saved from petrol subsidies will be used to improve public transport. This seems like smart politics but does not seem to be enough. From what I see in the Malaysian press it has been met with some scepticism. {and I hope to write more on Malaysian public transport soon.}

It will be interesting to watch how this plays out. Will the experience encourage the government that the political cost has not been too great or will the political pain be enough to deter further reform to fuel pricing?

Indonesia's surprising success - but a long way still to go
Here Indonesia's example is worth noting. They have also been struggling to reduce budget-destroying fuel subsidies in the face of huge protests that have shaken Indonesian governments in the past (most dramatically in 1998). Yet the current government under President SB Yudhoyono has persisted with its phased elimination of fuel subsidies.

The latest rounds of price increases in 2005 were more significant than Malaysia's. In October 2005 Indonesia raised its fuel prices by 126%! This came after a rise of (on average) 29% in March 2005. Amazingly, these price hikes proceeded without TOO much trouble (relatively speaking).

The key to success? It seems to have been the explicit effort (however imperfect) to cushion the immediate blow to the poor by giving direct cash payments to poor households. In addition, there has been strong effort to raise awareness that fuel price subsidies are extremely regressive - that they are in fact not helping the poor but are benefiting the wealthy, big business and smugglers.

It seems the politics of fuel prices in Indonesia may be changing. There is still a very long way to go but something has changed. Protests have happened but have not destabilised the country.

My view on fuel prices?
I don't see any good reason to subsidise motor fuel. On average, the richer you are, the more benefit you get from such a subsidy, since the rich tend to own more vehicles, their vehicles tend to be larger, and they tend to drive them further. In fact, there are good arguments for taxing fuel rather steeply (as just one of a range of pricing measures to internalise the unpaid costs of motoring).

If you think fuel subsidies help the poor you are mistaken. Don't believe me? Then look here regarding the Malaysian subsidies, or here for arguments for eliminating Indonesia's subsidies.

HOWEVER, it is also true that any sudden change in prices, and its impact on other prices, will tend to hurt the poor in the short term. This pain is real and can be severe.

Political success in raising these prices further will depend on cushioning the blow. The help to the poor needs to be real and it should be well targeted to those who really need it.

As much as I like public transport, Malaysia's promise to improve public transport is not well targeted enough at helping those who need help most. Indonesia's cash payments look much better on this score. Maybe this is why Indonesia seems to be doing better than Malaysia at changing the political dynamic of fuel prices.

06 March 2006

POSITIVE visions and austere transport policies

The PUTRA LRT line, the Federal Highway, and a private toll expressway in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

Big new roads and shiny new mass transit systems are popular with politicians everywhere.

Much less popular are many of the key elements in the package of tough choices that is really needed for long-term sustainable urban transport.

Achieving 'successful' urban transport sometimes seems to be all about 'restraint', austerity or denial of 'legitimate aspirations'. Dry rational arguments, especially economics-based arguments) don't excite people’s passions (surprise!).

Transport demand management (TDM) is especially difficult to sell. Taking away space from general traffic to give to public transport seems even harder to sell (witness Bangkok's recent announcement that BRT is again OFF the agenda!).

Yet certain cities HAVE managed to make some of the key tough choices, including restraining private vehicle use and giving substantial road space to public transport, pedestrians and bicycles.

Famous examples in democratic contexts include:

  • Bogota: Transmileneo BRT system, improved public realm, traffic restraint, bicycle ways ...
  • Seoul: public transport reforms including BRT, pedestrian improvements, reclaiming a river by demolishing an elevated expressway, congestion pricing (on two tunnels) ...
  • Curitiba: the 'surface metro' pioneering busway (BRT), pedestrian zones, transit-oriented land use planning ...
  • Copenhagen: extensive pedestrianisation and improvements to public realm, central area parking reductions (consistently over many decades), bicycle planning, 30 kph speed limit zones ...
  • Zurich: tram priority (low cost approaches to public transport improvement), integrated public transport and its marketing, parking policy, traffic calming and parking restraint...

How did they do it when so many others have failed?

I have a working hypothesis that a focus on POSITIVE VISIONS might be an important aspect of these successes.

For example, ‘democratic public space’ was the dramatic rallying call in Bogotá. The proponents of the transport reforms there went to great lengths to make the changes about getting something good, instead of being about restraint, austerity or denial. Anyone who has heard former Mayor Peñalosa speak can attest to the persuasive power of his arguments in terms of democratic public space. These positive arguments appealed to broad constituencies. Does it have a particular resonance in Latin America's cultural and political landscape? Would this appeal elsewhere?

I should mention that rational arguments do sometimes work. Examples include space-limited and technocratic Singapore and Hong Kong where rather dry efficiency arguments are routinely used to justify policies that are tough on cars. However, I suspect that voters in most places will probably need the appeal of something more positive and exciting to compete with the all-too-obvious private appeal of personal mobility.

Not persuaded by such anecdotal evidence from a tiny sample?

OK, me neither yet. So I would be keen to find out more about the successful (and unsuccessful) arguments that have been prominent in urban transport debates around the world.

02 March 2006

Changing petrol price politics? Americans would support petrol tax?

One of Tom Friedman's NYT columns appeared in the Straits Times today (sorry subscribers only). In "Green is the new color of patriotism" he argues that even Americans would support higher petrol taxes if political leaders framed it the right way.
... confirmed by the latest New York Times/CBS News poll: Americans not only know that our oil addiction is really bad for us, but they would be willing to accept a petrol tax if some leader would just frame the stakes for the country the right way.
Here is Friedman on the result of that poll:

when asked simply whether they'd favour a petrol tax, 85 per cent said no and only 12 per cent said yes. But when the petrol tax was framed as part of a national strategy to achieve energy security and climate security, pollsters got a very different answer. When the tax was presented as reducing US dependence on foreign oil, 55 per cent favoured it and 37 per cent said no.

And when asked about a petrol tax that would help reduce global warming, even more respondents supported it - with 59 per cent in favour and 34 per cent opposed.

And that is without a single Democrat or Republican leading on this issue! Imagine if someone actually led?

The United States is not the only place where the politics of petrol prices is changing. It is changing in Southeast Asia too, for different reasons.

More on this soon.

01 March 2006

Electric bicycles and other modes that "fall in the cracks"

The WorldChanging blog some time ago drew my attention to a fascinating article about the rise and rise of electric bicycles in China that was in IEEE Spectrum in June 2005.

The article raises several important points for me.

One is that the electric bicycle market in China is BIG! Amazingly big. With an estimated 1 million of them in Shanghai alone. Three times more electric bicycles are sold in China than automobiles.

Another important point is that there is a struggle going on over what to do about these machines. A number of local authorities have banned or tried to ban them. Manufacturers and retailers have been fighting back. It is too soon to say how it will turn out.

This struggle is reminiscent of many others around the world over many different kinds of vehicle. Transport authorities seem to have a hard time knowing what to do with "in between" modes of transport. By that I mean modes that are not in the standard textbook lists of the main modes.

There seems to be a pervasive urge to force traffic to look like the traffic engineering textbooks say it should look like. There are no doubt lots of reasonable sounding practical reasons for trying to do so ... but the real world keeps refusing to become so neat and tidy.

In Asia, the mode of transport that seems to attract most ire from tidy minds is the three-wheel pedicab (in its various incarnations as bicycle rickshaw, becak, trishaw, tricycle, ciclo, etc). Off the top of my head a short list of places that have banned or restricted these includes: Singapore (ages ago, but now allowed as a tourist thing), Kuala Lumpur (also ages ago), Bangkok, Jakarta (famously throwing many into the ocean), Dhaka (banned them from several key streets recently) and Delhi (where they are banned from grand, colonial New Delhi).

Of course, bicycles are mainstream in some countries (I am very envious), but in a lot of places they fall in the cracks between transport planners' neat categories. Regrettably Singapore is one of the mamy places aound this region where the authorities seem to wish bicycles would fade away (see the Cycling in Singapore blog).

Our friends at TRIPP in Delhi have done a lot of research into the uniquely mixed traffic of India's cities and how this requires new approaches to road safety. You need to be realistic when your traffic includes handcarts, animal drawn vehicles, three-wheelers both motorised and non-motorised and straying cattle as well as pedestrians and bicycles doing some unpredictable things.

Maybe the whole world never was really converging on a simple mix of vehicles (and obeying the text books finally). And anyway, things are now getting more complicated even in rich countries. Electric bicycles are just part of this.

The advent of the Segway has also provoked the question for authorities everywhere of where should they be used? No-one knows quite where to put them.

The indomitable Todd Litman and Robyn Blair have written a thoughtful article (presented at the TRB Annual Meeting January 2004) about the policy dilemmas posed by personal mobility devices on non-motorised transport facilities (pdf). They methodically provide some definitions:
A Personal Mobility Device (PMD) is any relatively small, wheeled device that provides personal mobility and can operate on nonmotorized facilities. PMDs include skates, skateboards, wheelchairs, powered scooters, and Segway-type scooters. For the purposes of this paper, PMDs also include bicycles ...

Their opening paragraph sums up some of the difficulty:
In theory, managing transportation facilities is simple. Wheeled vehicles should use roadway and pedestrian should use nonmotorized facilities, including walkways, sidewalks and paths. But in practices these categories don’t always work. An increasing variety of wheeled Personal Mobility Devices (PMDs) such as wheelchairs, skates and skateboards may use both roads and non-motorized facilities. Recently, several new types of Electric Personal Assistive Mobility Devices (EPAMD) have entered the market, such as those illustrated in Figure 1. These are technically innovative, energy efficient and attractive to many people. Proponents have lobbied to allow their use on sidewalks and other nonmotorized facilities. This has generatedconsiderable debate.

This also reminds me of an article from Australia that talked about "Feral travel"(in Australia, "feral" animals are the non-native ones that have run wild and multiplied.. but in slang the word also gets applied to a lifestyle). They were talking about skateboards, in-line skates, foot scooters, and such like. Sorry nothing on-line but the reference is:
Stratford, E. Harwood, A. (2001) Feral Travel and the Transport Field: Some Observations on the Politics of Regulating Skating in Tasmania, Urban Policy and Research, 19 (1): 61-76

Should transport planners be more open to all these diverse travel modes, with their variety of characteristics? How would standard practice need to change to better on this? I don't know but these things are not going away.