I guess the first question many readers would ask when seeing the somewhat confusing title above is: how does cycling factor in personal finance? Well, my reply is that after seeing how COE prices have skyrocketed (yes, I can find no better word) to S$28,000+ for small cars, S$36,000+ for larger cars and S$42,000 for Open Category, I felt compelled to pen down my thoughts on how cycling can be a very rewarding alternative form of transport, albeit with its associated “cons”. In our small island called Singapore, somehow no one really gives cycling the kind of attention it deserves, and it seems to be relegated to two different camps: one of the enthusiasts (who are decked out in full gear including helmet, aerodynamic body suit, arm and knee pads and matching shoes), as well as foreign workers, who use cycling as a simple and cheap mode of transport to get from one work site to another, or from their work site to their living quarters. There seems to be scant attention paid to cycling as not just a form of recreation, but also a practical way of getting around the island.
For myself, I use my trusty bicycle for almost everything from buying groceries at nearby NTUC, for leisure rides (exercise), buying supper and also commuting to and from my tuition student’s house (I choose a student near my place which is accessible by bicycle). I only use the bus or my feet for purchases of bulky items, or during inclement weather. On average, I cycle about 10km per trip, with some leisure trips at East Coast Park bringing me a total of about 30km plus.
Let’s break down this topic into a few core central concepts (hence the title!):-
The Cost of Cycling
This is obviously a no-brainer, but I think it would be good to list the associated costs of owning a bicycle, in order to properly compare the cost of cycling (in monetary terms) compared with owning a car or taking public transport. I think there are enough websites dedicated to breaking down the cost of owning a car, such as this website, so I will simply delve into the costs of owning a bicycle.
Note: All the costs below relate to my current mountain bicycle, which was purchased in 2003 (from Rodalink at East Coast Road). The other incidental costs relate to repairs and maintenance plus replacement parts to keep my bicycle in working condition to this very day!
Cost of Bicycle: S$240
Cost of Brake Pads (replacing per year): About S$5
Cost of New Seat: S$30
Cost of New Wheel*: S$36
Cost of General Maintenance (per year): S$50
Adding up everything gives a total of about S$700, over a period of 7 years. This translates to about $100 per year or less than $10 per month. The figure above excludes the cost of a very good cable lock (about S$30-S$40) to securely lock your bicycle to prevent theft.
*Note: My front wheel got stolen some time in 2005 as I parked my bicycle near East Coast Road. To this day, I still wonder why anyone would bother to just steal one wheel and leave a bicycle “marooned”. Nowadays, I lock my bicycle’s body AND wheel too using 2 separate locks. These thieves are relentless……
The Benefits of Cycling
There are quite a few benefits related to cycling, and these are not just based on financial or health considerations. One of these is convenience, as one can go almost anywhere on a bicycle without much worries for traffic flow direction, and can also “squeeze” through narrow lanes or fields to “short-cut” one’s time taken. Couple this with a bag pack and basket (I don’t have one), and the bicycle becomes a perfect tool for grocery shopping. I use the bicycle for library books (borrowing and returning), buying groceries, visiting showflats nearby, commuting to tuition, running simple errands and buying food from hawker centres or McDonald’s.
The fact that one can “park” the bicycle anywhere also means you can mount and dismount almost anytime, and that to me is the ultimate convenience. With a car, one has to find a parking lot or else illegally park, and then the coupons or cash card has to be used for parking fees. A bicycle has no such additional fees and one can park anywhere as long as one does not obstruct the flow of traffic.
Cycling also has obvious health advantages in that one can build stamina and thigh muscles similar to cycling a stationery bicycle at the gym. I usually use the bicycle to work up a sweat and this ensures I get my weekly dose of exercise.
The Disadvantages of Cycling
The disadvantages of cycling are mainly due to distance, and weather conditions. Singapore being the humid and hot country that it is, makes it very tough to cycle for prolonged distances without ending up drenched in sweat. Even a short five-minute cycle to the nearby grocery shop in warm weather has my shirt soaked in perspiration, of which I have to change out of and maybe take a shower. I think this is the KEY reason why I do not see more Singaporeans (especially girls) using the bicycle as a mode of transport. Imagine cycling to your favourite mall dripping in sweat with half your make-up flowing down your face! Not a very pretty sight indeed. This is in contrast to China where the cool weather and low humidity means that droves of young people make use of cycling to get around (yes, including young nubile females too). This is one of my main grouses of cycling in Singapore, but over the years I have got used to it somewhat. If I need to, I just bring a towel and some change of clothing as well as a bottle of water and I can get by.
Another pet peeve of mine is that the roads are generally quite dangerous for cyclists, and weirdly enough, except for Tampines, everywhere else in Singapore it is considered a crime to cycle on the footpaths! Another contrast to China – there is a dedicated “cycling lane” just for scooters, motorized bikes and normal bicycles in most cities. This makes it very safe for bikers to use such lanes to get from one place to another, and cars also are careful to watch out for such cyclists as it is part of the inculcated culture. In Singapore, most motorists are impatient with cyclists and will honk at the first opportunity. Others simply like to speed (even across pedestrian crossings) and this makes it a bigger hazard for cyclists. Even with reflective clothing and back lights, cyclists remain at high risk on the roads. So, most of the time I stick to footpaths, even though technically it’s “illegal”. Add in a little courtesy (“excuse me, thank you”) and it all works out well in general.
Yet another major problem with cycling is that of the weather, which is somewhat of an understatement. Knowing Singapore’s tropical climate and penchant for sudden, thunderous rain storms, this makes cycling a rather unpredictable affair. These days I have learnt to anticipate strange weather conditions much better, and can act as an amateur weather forecaster because for me, it is so important to know the weather before you set out. Of course, even the best planning can fall flat and often times the return journey can be severely disrupted because of a sudden passing cloud. Suffice to say cycling is close to impossible if the rain gets heavier than a drizzle. Not only is visibility obscured, but the rain makes roads much more slippery and is also causes the dreaded “splash effect” (ok, it’s my fault for not installing a mud guard).
Suggestions on how to Enhance the Cycling Experience
The Government, in its relentless attempts to wean Singaporeans off the car, should actively promote the use of bicycles as they give out less pollution (more environmentally friendly) and take up much less space. But seeing how bicycles are not subject to expensive COEs and ERP systems, I guess the Government would be somewhat shooting itself in the foot if it promotes cycling as it will deprive itself of an extremely lucrative source of revenues. Nevertheless, I will list down a few suggestions I have on how to make cycling a safer and more economical alternative to driving or public transport.
First off, making ALL footpaths cyclist-friendly would be a good next step, other than just designating Tampines as a “cycling town”. This seems to imply that cyclists only exist in Tampines (of which I am not a resident of), which is somewhat ridiculous. Secondly, the Government could increase awareness of cyclists and educate road users on how to give way to cyclists and watch out for them on the roads. This can be done via incorporation into a motorist’s Basic or Advanced Theory lessons at driving school.
Another suggestion would be to set up bicycle points at strategic locations around the island, where cyclists can lock their bicycles under shelter. Currently, there are only “ad-hoc” bicycle locking locations and these locations are not enough and may be exposed to the elements. In a further bid to encourage cycling, the authorities can look into the “Ride and Park” scheme – bicycles can be rented out from one location and “returned” at another location (similar to borrowing library books); but users are charged a flat fee per month.
I have a Class 3 Driving License but still choose to use the bicycle as my main mode of transport. For purely personal reasons, I enjoy the thrill which cycling gives and the feeling of freedom. Maybe for reasons unknown, I tie back the feeling to the ones I had during my childhood and therefore experience the same kind of child-like joy when I am on my bicycle, even though I am a middle-aged adult now. Since happiness, pleasure and satisfaction are intensely personal, I can’t vouch that everyone who rides on a bicycle will feel the same way; but I am hoping they can trigger some sort of positive emotional response nonetheless. It constantly amazes me how many people do NOT know how to even cycle (mostly women). To me the two important life skills are swimming (in case you fall into the sea) and cycling. But in an urban jungle like Singapore, perhaps only swimming is emphasized; and cycling is overlooked because there is neither infrastructure nor impetus for this skill to be learnt.
If only more Singaporeans could look to cycling as a viable means of transportation, we could, as a group, lobby for the Government to take cycling to new levels. Currently, all I see around me are cyclists who are mainly foreign workers commuting to and fro; as well as the hard core fanatic cyclists who are decked out in full gear. Probably at least for the next 10-20 years, I do not see a change occurring anytime soon. Singaporeans will continue to be car-crazy (notwithstanding the high COE prices) and most will prefer to squeeze bum to bum in a crowded MRT carriage or bus. This post is just to highlight that cycling can be part of one’s personal finance plan to cut down on expenses over the long-term.