How low-speed streets can help Singapore make more space for bicycles and other small 10-25 km/h vehicles

[Note: This post is an example of the kind of thing I intend to share as Patrons-Only posts in the future.  For now, I will post a few such items as public Patreon posts to give you an idea of what to expect. Next I hope to share a video about Walkable Parking. ]

I was honoured on 4 April to be one of the panelists for a Public Lecture in Singapore by Lucy Saunders on the Healthy Streets Approach in London.  See  https://www.facebook.com/CLCsg/photos/pcb.2263818770509632/2263818750509634/?type=3&theater 

I had the chance to say a few prepared words and I want to share them with you below. 

Ever since the 1971 Concept Plan, Singapore has recognized that its transport system needs to be space-efficient and could not become car-dependent. That would require way too much road and parking space for a place like Singapore. This recognition prompted a focus on space-efficient public transport, which was a good thing.

Unfortunately, walking and especially cycling were relatively neglected for several decades and Singapore planning was rather ambivalent about the idea of “streets”. I am using the word, street, as a contrast with ‘road’. A ‘road’ is primarily about movement. By contrast, streets have multiple purposes, catering to some movement but also enabling access to and from destinations and often being a place in its own right. Roadway planning has been especially uncomfortable with sections of street that need to serve lots of traffic but which ALSO have lots of activities along them. We can call these “Arterial Streets”.

Of course, streets are not the whole story and I should also acknowledge that Singapore has created lots of pedestrianized town centres, that the HDB landscape is quite walkable and permeable at ground level (despite being towers in the park … or in many cases towers in the car park), and that there are iconic pedestrian-friendly iconic places, such as Espanade and the Singapore River.

Singapore has a good road safety record but we should not be complacent. The annual road deaths rate per 100,000 people is about 2.2, which is much better than American, Malaysian or Thai cities. But it is worse than Tokyo (1.3) Berlin (1.5) London (1.6) Paris (1.7) HK & Istanbul (both 1.8). In fact it is three times worse than the world champion city, Stockholm (with 0.7).

I suggest TWO inter-related ways we could do better on the question of streets.

First, roadway design should make a clearer distinction between “Roads” and “Streets”. It seems to me that many roadways in Singapore are really “streets” not roads. That means they really SHOULDN’T be designed mainly for traffic. But in fact too many streets DO get designed in ways that makes traffic movement seem most important. This happens even on very small streets in residential areas or places like Little India. Many of the streets in these places have overly wide traffic lanes and huge highway-style directional arrows painted on the roadway. We should design streets as streets not roads.

My second suggestion is to treat even “Arterial Streets” as streets not roads. Singapore’s Arterial Streets almost always get designed as “roads”. So street sections like the busy parts of Serangoon Rd, South Bridge Rd, Geylang Rd and Balestier Rd as well as many of the streets running past HDB town centres have roadway designs that emphasize their traffic function and downgrade their other purposes.

I don’t want to be too hard on Singapore’s road planners here. Arterial streets are indeed a very thorny problem. Cities all over the world struggle with this. But I do think we are missing an opportunity here. It is often possible to embrace the multi-purpose STREET nature of an Arterial Street. Such streets CAN often be designed to be great places AND still carry significant traffic (within reason). One key to such designs is SPEED (or rather SLOWNESS). 30 km/h seems to be the magic number.

Before I go on, I should say there are some signs of new thinking about streets in Singapore. For example, the new Silver Zones program is very promising and an excellent example of how we can dramatically improve safety in local neighborhoods. It’s great to hear talk of a Vision Zero road safety goal. And the guidelines on how to make space for bicycles have been improving.

That brings me to my last point.

A better approach to streets can help us find more space for bicycles, e-bikes and the various kinds of “personal mobility devices” (PMDs) like e-scooters and similar. I am talking about all the small vehicles that travel between about 10 and 25 km/h. They are proliferating and often seem like a problem. But they also offer a huge opportunity to give people more mobility choices in a space-efficient, low-cost way with very few negative impacts. My view is that we should try hard to encourage them.

But we have been struggling with the issue of where they belong. The current rules seem a little confusing and inconsistent, with three sets of slightly different rules for bicycles, e-bikes and PMDs. And certain aspects of the new rules might even discourage their use which would be a huge missed opportunity. Meanwhile, many people on foot still feel threatened by the wheeled vehicles in their midst. Ideally we should want to eventually remove these vehicles from footpaths. Footpath riding should be seen as a temporary expedient. People on foot need to feel much safer and more comfortable than they do now.

More bicycle paths are coming, which should help. But bicycle paths won’t be enough.

Not many people outside the Netherlands realize it, but the bicycle network in that country is not just the famous segregated bike paths. Much of the bike network consists of traffic-calmed low-speed streets where bicycles don’t need to be segregated from modest flows of motor vehicles. The Mini-Holland efforts in the London Borough of Waltham Forest is a great example too.

Similarly, by using our streets, Singapore could also accelerate the roll out of a network of safe routes for bicycles, e-bikes and PMDs. Streets can be included in the network if they can be made safe for these 10-25 km/h small vehicles if we can design them for traffic speeds that are low enough (30 km/h is the magic number).

Including many streets (not roads) in the bicycle, e-bike and PMD network would face two regulatory obstacles. The new mandatory helmet law for bicycles used on ‘roads’ would be a problem. And so would the rule that now forbids the riding of PMDs on roadways. These rules would need to be changed to allow bicycle users without helmets and PMD users to ride on any streets that have low speed limits, such as 40 km/h or below.

So to end, I think the Healthy Streets framework is wonderful. Among many other things, for us in Singapore it usefully prompts a focus on the important concept of streets, as distinct from roads, which we have previously neglected. Singapore could benefit greatly from embracing the idea of streets and of low-speed street designs that make vehicle movement just one among several important design goals. And a network of low-speed streets can help us make more space for bicycles, e-bikes and PMDs.


For more of my thoughts on Singapore's urban transport story see Singapore Urban Transport: The Warts-and-All Story

For more on streets issues via Reinventing Transport and Reinventing Parking see these posts: 

Streets for people in India: Shreya Gadepalli 

"Slow" is not a dirty word  

Electric two-wheelers: how big will they be? 

Did the Japanese invent Shared Space Streets? 

Can "shared space" street design reassure vulnerable users and still be shared space? 

Slow spaces for a Public Space Dividend in the Streets 

Parking Change for Better Public Space 

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