Too hot and dangerous to cycle in urban Malaysia?

Cycling relieves stress and makes you smile

Be cool, be seen, be safe! - SIMON TAN/ALIRAN

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When I tell my neighbours in Taman Desa that I cycle to KLCC twice a week, their first reaction is “crazy, so hot, so dangerous along Federal Highway and Old Klang Road”.

I can understand their perspective. They are used to zipping around in the comfort of their air-conditioned cars.

I get the same reaction when I mention to people that I cycle from Sunshine Farlim to Lotus E gate along Masjid Negeri Road in Penang.

Lost cycling tradition

In the mid-1970s, when I attended lower secondary school at Masjid Negeri Road in Penang, about half my schoolmates cycled to school. Another 10% walked, 10% took a school bus, 10% used public transport and the rest were dropped off by parents on motorcycles or in private cars.

We rode simple bicycles back then, like my trusty black Raleigh ‘iron horse’ with no gears. Weighing around 20kg, the bike was equipped with a headlamp and a rear red light powered by a dynamo. It had a carrier and an attached lock.

My secondary school had some 2,000 students then. I don’t recall any injuries from cycling or walking – other than some minor falls. These usually involved nut cases (like me) who did wheelies over speed humps or ‘flew’ downhill when cycling round the island.

What has changed from the 1970s to the 1990s to the 2020s in Penang Island? Well, 90% of drivers in the 1970s were cyclists. Both my parents and my siblings cycled to school. Drivers back then looked out for cyclists and pedestrians. These motorists were unlike the drivers of the 2020s, who spend too much time looking at various screens – on their mobile phones, GPS systems, centre consoles of their cars, and road-side advertisement screens.

Poor road designs

Road (re)designs have compromised safety and comfort. Many roads were widened from one lane to two lanes in each direction. Take a look at Gottlieb Road and Bagan Jermal Road (see photo below), Green Lane and Scotland Road on Penang Island.

Worse, some roads like Burma Road were converted to one-way streets with three lanes. These wider roads encouraged cars to move faster from 40km/h to 70km/h.

Some motorists double park to buy pancakes, disrupting bus routes and bus stops. They add to the danger for cyclists, on top of the large speed differential between cyclists (10km/h) and cars (70km/h).

The widened Bagan Jermal Road – SIMON TAN/ALIRAN

This photo was taken in April 2024, along Bagan Jermal Road. On the right is the St Nicholas School, and on the left is the Indian Recreational Club. Straight ahead is the junction of Gurney Drive and Kelawei Road.

In the 1970s, Gottlieb Road and Bagan Jermal Road were two-lane roads (with a single lane of traffic moving in either direction). They had dedicated protected cycle lanes on both sides. Tall trees separated the car lanes from the cycle lanes, from Western Road to Kelawei Road – a distance of almost 2km.

Ironically, back in the 1970s, these two roads would have been the envy of Amsterdam, which was suffering from traffic jams.

Today, Amsterdam has made sustainable progress, but Penang is grappling with traffic congestion and rising traffic heat.

Sadly, several pedestrians in Penang were hit while crossing the intersection of Gottlieb Road, Burma Road, Mount Erskine Road and Bagan Jermal Road – which has no safe crossing.

In the 1990s, the once efficient George Town bus system collapsed at a time when intercity bus companies, national cars and highways were promoted.

Bicycles could have been an effective ‘first mile, last mile’ solution to encourage more people to use the bus.

Let’s move people, not cars – SIMON TAN/ALIRAN

Too hot and dangerous?

Road-widening involves cutting trees and creating a heat-island effect. Trees provide shades for people, lower road-surface temperatures and reduce radiation for cyclists. They also help to calm down speeding drivers.

Once a street become more than two lanes wide, the trees cannot shade the middle lanes. The heat that is absorbed is then transferred to pedestrians and cyclists.

From my experience, I can share how to adapt, mitigate and minimise the heat and danger using the theme “be cool, be seen, be safe”.

Be seen – The photo at the top was taken around noon when I was preparing to ride to KLCC. I chose a white helmet, white cycling jersey and white hand socks, as white has the lowest absorption and highest emissivity of solar radiation and visible light. Put simply, white is coolest in the sun and reflects the most light at night. Unfortunately, I could not find padded cycling pants that were not all black.

To reduce solar radiation, cover up as much as possible. Lycra pants and jersey are quite breathable.

I also prefer to hang my bags sideways to make them visible to drivers and add reflectors to bounce back headlights. At night, the blinking rear red and front white LED lights are ‘mandatory’, while the white clothes help to reflect light.

Select safe, quieter routes – Our streets have become more like motorways. For safety, avoid these busy main roads.

Instead, use service roads, residential roads, shaded back lanes, marked bicycle lanes and if lucky, protected bicycle lanes.

It is not legal to cycle on pedestrian crossings. So, get off your bicycle and walk across. If a walkway is shared with cyclists, cyclists should give way to pedestrians.

If your commute distances are too far or too dangerous, consider using trains or buses for some portion and cycle the first and last mile. Use Google Maps walking mode to find new routes. Try them out and adapt.

Promote and share safe shady and quieter cycle routes such as those along the Klang River of Life, the Air Itam River of Life, and routes through residential areas (Belia, Desa, Cheeseman, etc). Pester your mayor, state assembly member and MP to build more cycle lanes.

Minimise annoyances beyond our control – Use tight-fitting earphones as ear plugs to reduce noise pollution. Choose less busy roads to reduce breathing in exhaust fumes. I really appreciate Go KL’s electric buses.

So, just do it. Let’s cycle. Here are more tips:

  • Overcome mental blocks. Many will have thousands of excuses not to start. But once you start, you will find the benefits quite addictive
  • The rain can be quite challenging. Carry a raincoat and wear plastic sandals
  • Choose a bike suitable for your intended use or just use what you have for a start
  • If you are lucky enough to get a new bike, select efficiency over speed. Prioritise simple, durable yet not too heavy, and affordable bikes
  • Use a sturdy lock and find a safe place to lock your bike. Buy medium-price range bicycles
  • Get some useful accessories, eg a carrier rack or basket, bell, horn, lights, a spare tube, some tools, a water bottle – and some cash to buy curry puffs and fruit
  • For long hilly routes, use bicycles with gears or those that are e-assisted
  • Bring a spare change of clothes and mini towels to wipe off your sweat
  • Join a physical or messaging app group to share tips and experiences

Cycling relieves stress and makes you smile. Enjoy the freedom!

The views expressed in Aliran's media statements and the NGO statements we have endorsed reflect Aliran's official stand. Views and opinions expressed in other pieces published here do not necessarily reflect Aliran's official position.
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