Idea exchange: What Singapore is learning from Copenhagen on bicycling

Singapore is looking to Copenhagen, Amsterdam and other cities for lessons on how to improve conditions for bicyclists. (Xinhua/Then Chih Wey/Landov)

SINGAPORE — Singapore is known worldwide as an urban innovator on many fronts, but promoting bicycling is not one of them. So when the city-state established a National Cycling Strategy in 2012, officials here turned to the world’s leaders on such matters: Copenhagen and Amsterdam.

Singapore has a robust system for learning from other cities. That includes a state-supported  think tank called the Centre for Liveable Cities and sponsorship of the World Cities Summit, an annual gathering for mayors from around the world. To formulate a National Cycling Plan, Singapore put this learning system to work, both to understand how the two European cities became so friendly to cyclists and to figure out how to import their ideas into the context of a fast-growing Asian metropolis.

From time to time, Citiscope will look at how cities around the world borrow ideas from one another — and contextualize them to a different urban setting. In this first installment of “Idea Exchange,” journalist Timothy Misir speaks with Limin Hee, research director of the Centre for Liveable Cities, to see what Singapore is learning about bicycling and how it’s learning it.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.


Timothy Misir: You visited Copenhagen with a team of Singaporean officials to look at how the city approaches cycling and urban mobility issues. What did you learn?

Limin Hee: There were actually many teams that went to Copenhagen, and we organized our own visit there to look at the work they’ve been doing for active mobility. We’ve been engaging some of the experts there, like architect Jan Gehl, because we see Copenhagen as one of the cities we can learn from as they have one of the most mature cycling cultures and infrastructure among cities, with a 35 percent mode share for cycling at peak hours.

We also realized when we went there and interacted with the city’s cycling community that it was not always the cycling-obsessed city that it is today. In the 1950s to 1970s, they had a very car-centric mobility culture. They went through a real transformation when authorities realized they should be making cities for people, and not cities for cars.

In Singapore, 12 percent of the land is already used for transportation infrastructure and road space. So it’s very hard for us to expand our roads. We need to look at alternatives, and to promote an active mobility culture.

Q: You also spoke recently at a discussion on sharing street spaces, which focused on Amsterdam. Has your team looked to the Dutch for ideas regarding urban mobility?

A: Yes, but we can also look at less obvious cases. I was also quite astonished to find out what is happening in Los Angeles, which is well-known for its car culture. But recently there have been a lot of new bike initiatives, like the creation of cycling lanes there. So even for a city like Los Angeles we are seeing such changes.

Copenhagen “was not always the cycling-obsessed city that it is today. In the 1950s to 1970s, they had a very car-centric mobility culture. ”

One of the questions we are really interested in is: “What makes cities transform?” Most of the time we find that people have had enough of cities being made just for cars. We need to look at cycling as a serious mobility option in cities, and not just for recreation.

Q: Has there been change in how the authorities see cycling in Singapore after observing and learning from cities abroad?

A: It’s not just the government agencies that are realizing cycling could be a viable mode of transport — especially for the last mile of journeys. Many people also realize that it is actually a convenient form of transportation to bring them from the MRT [subway] station to their homes.

So I think there is a growing demand from the ground because there is a push for active mobility, both through our civic cycling groups like Love Cycling SG and others, who have organized themselves in a way that their call is better heard. They represent the constituency that has certain needs.

At the planning level, our agencies are well aware that there is a need to promote walking and cycling and viable mobility options, especially for short distances.

Q: In terms of adapting solutions from Amsterdam and Copenhagen to Singapore, how is it going so far?

A: I think every city has its specific needs and trajectory for development. So I think it is a process that needs a lot of public engagement. And our authorities are already doing a lot of that, in trying to implement the National Cycling Plan. Also in developing a framework on how spaces can be shared — for example, our sidewalks and park connectors, so it’s not just looking at the cycling manual and just planting the solutions here, but to tailor them to our existing mobility culture.

“It takes time to develop a culture for sharing space.”

It takes time to develop a culture for sharing space, and this is also evident in other cities we’ve looked at. In Copenhagen, for example, children are taught about road-use rules and safety precautions from a very young age, before they are able to cycle and use the bike lanes.

In Singapore we also face different climate conditions. We have to make cycling attractive in warm, humid and tropical weather. So for this, we have to provide cycling paths that are well shaded. This is just an example of one of the things that need to be addressed in its particular context.

Here, there is also a need to work hand in hand with all road users, who are not only cyclists. There has to be a change in mindset in car use and the dominance of cars on the road. I’m sure you’ve read here about drivers complaining of cyclists not paying road tax despite using space on the road. So we need a change in mindset, and it is hard for authorities to act within a culture that doesn’t always agree with this push for active mobility.

Q: What is the Centre for Liveable Cities’ role in the developing or leading the agenda?

A: Our role is that of a knowledge center, so most of the time we focus on research. For example, we look at case studies of different cities. For mobility, Copenhagen and Amsterdam, Seoul, Taipei, New York and most recently Los Angeles and Sao Paulo. We look at how cities transform. We do the research and recently published our findings in the report “Creating Healthy Places Through Active Mobility.” So we feel that our role is to do the research and share this knowledge, and keep promoting this message through various events and knowledge platforms we have created.

With regards to our city partnerships, the CLC has actually signed a memorandum of understanding with the Danish Architecture Center in order to promote collaboration and to share ideas and urban practices from both sides. As part of this MOU, there has been exchanges of senior civil service directors since 2013 and ongoing every year in initiatives like the Leaders in Urban Governance Program and its Strategic Urban Governance group.

Working through these two programs as a platform for interaction and knowledge exchange, we have been exposing our senior officers to the different urban contexts, and I’m sure many of us have taken back important lessons from both cities. We are also working closely with groups in China like the NDRC (National Development and Reform Commission), which has resulted in many Chinese officials coming to Singapore, and many of our experts and advisors going to Chinese cities to meet with the city leaders.

I think there is a lot to learn from each other, because China is also spearheading urbanization — they see the building of cities as the way forward to build their economy. We are beginning to have a lot more exchanges. We have many Chinese officials who have come as part of our fellowship program to share their knowledge in lectures, roundtables with Singapore companies and agencies.

Q: Why does Singapore value this sort of knowledge transfer so much?

A: I think knowledge transfer between cities is definitely something very central to the CLC’s work. As urbanization takes on a larger scale than ever, cities are facing the same problems and more and more places are becoming more urban too. So there are many related issues that cities face such as housing, affordability, water and sanitation, transport and mobility, and safety.

“We have to make cycling attractive in warm, humid and tropical weather. ”

And although we understand that every city’s experience is different, we are also beginning to understand in our conversations with government officials from other cities that many of them are facing common challenges, and in fact there are many lessons we can learn and share with one another.

So this is in a way central to CLC’s mission, which is to create, distill, and share knowledge on livable and sustainable cities. We actually see a lot of value in this sort of knowledge transfer between cities and we try to do this through the main areas of our work, which is basically research, capability development, and through our knowledge platforms like our publications, the World Cities Summit, and our lecture series.

The World Cities Summit is a very good platform for cities to come together to share best practices and experiences. In fact, the theme of the summit for the last year was common challenges and shared solutions. And we don’t just work with city mayors who come to our Mayor’s Forum every year. We also work with many international organizations such as the OECD and UNDP, as well as many companies that occupy the urban space, such as Microsoft, IBM, Shell, Accenture, and HP. So it’s not just an exchange of knowledge between cities, but between cities, businesses, and other stakeholders that have a voice.

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Timothy Misir is a journalist working between Moscow and Singapore.  Full bio

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