GEORGE TOWN, Sept 30 ― Fed up with the port city’s traffic jams and lack of parking, civil servant Wong Kim Fei has ditched his car for the bicycle to get to work on time ― joining a cycling revolution here that has more urbanites rediscovering the beauty of the two-wheeler and the environmental wonders of their hilly island.
The special assistant to the Penang chief minister cycles to work every day from his home in Weld Quay to the state government offices housed in the nearby Kompleks Tun Abdul Razak (KOMTAR) ― the hub of the northern state’s business and shopping district.
“Sometimes it can take me up to an hour to reach the office if I drive,” he told The Malaysian Insider.
Wong started cycling in earnest last year, switching to the bicycle after office hours to lose weight, when it dawned on him that he could cycle to work instead of driving.
“That’s when I decided to cycle to work, especially when my office is not so far away,” he said.
Cycling to work has proven much easier and less stressful for him, so much so that he has not driven to work ever since. He did not even break out in sweat on his way to work, so Wong does not bother to bring a change of clothes.
“I take all the shortcuts, through the less busy lanes and road, to KOMTAR so I reach the office pretty early each time,” he said.
He said cycling to work not only saved him on parking fees but also in terms of petrol and car maintenance costs.
Even though he cycles to work every day, Wong continues to go on short cycling excursions around town on his days off.
“It’s more than just my transport; [it is also] something fun and a great way to exercise,” he said.
Bicycles that have long declined as a mode of transport are making a comeback here as a growing number of Penang residents are now parking their cars and taking up cycling. The trend has prompted the state government to draw up bicycle lanes all over the state.
Wong is not the only one to commute to work on his bicycle. Outdoor gear retailer Arnold Loh travels from Glugor to Pulau Tikus on his bicycle every day.
“I cycle everywhere. To meet clients, to the shop, to the supermarket for grocery shopping, everywhere, regardless of whether it is raining or sunny,” he said.
Loh owns a regular road bike that enables him travel all over without much trouble. He also owns a car but he rarely uses it, preferring his trusty bicycle than the four wheels.
“Cycling is very liberating. My stress levels are lower, I lose weight because of all the exercise I am getting and, best of all, I know that I am leaving very little carbon footprint this way,” he said.
So, how does one navigate the busy roads, especially when cycling alone or in the rain? Loh said a cyclist is just like any another motorist on the road.
“All cyclists must abide by the traffic rules and, at the same time, be extra careful for their own safety,” he said.
Wong and Loh form only a small group of commuting cyclist in the state but the Penang G Club cyclists hope to change that ― they are looking to encourage more of their members who are recreational cyclists, more than 2,000 of them, to make the switch to commuting with their bicycles through their campaigns.
“Cycling has become a trend nowadays because it is easy, can be done in big groups, as a family activity and best of all, we can go cycling anywhere, anytime,” said club captain Ronnie Tan.
The club is now in discussions with the state government to create bicycle stations at several locations near office complexes. These stations will have a proper bicycle park, lockers and shower stalls for cyclists to change and freshen up before going to work. “Cycling is a healthy, environmentally-friendly activity and we hope to encourage more people to use the bicycle as their main mode of transportation,” he said.
Tan and several of his friends got together one day in 2009 for a ride from G Hotel to Teluk Bahang, and that was when the Penang G Club was born. In that very same year, the group approached the local government and mooted the “Campaign For A Lane Ride”.
The first campaign was a success, drawing more than 1,300 participants who cycled round the island. Since then, the number has grown each year, until this year, when the campaign managed over 3,500 attendees.
“Most of our members are recreational cyclists from all walks of life and we all have one thing in common, a passion for cycling,” Tan said.
The club organises a ride every second Sunday of the month that members may join, provided they are equipped with proper safety equipment and road-worthy bikes able to take them the distance.
A normal city bike may costs around RM300 but for most recreational cyclists who go for long-distance rides often set their sights higher. Medium- to top-of-the-range bicycles are favoured for this level of activity, and these often cost upwards of RM1,000.
For the more extreme cyclists who take part in bicycle tours, cycling out of state and even out of the country, even more durable tour bikes are needed to last the distance. One such tour cyclist is Lim Chee Loon.
Lim was once a graphic designer but gave up the office job for a more exciting adventure ― to be a tour rider while earning his income as a refurbished bicycle shop owner.
Last year, he took on his very first international tour ― a charity ride from here to Shangri-La County in Yunnan Province, China that took him three months.
“It was an unforgettable experience and once I came back, I opened this refurbished bicycle shop,” he said. Lim’s shop, Green Bikes, sells only refurbished folding bicycles from Japan. It also rents out bicycles.
On the increasing interest in cycling, Lim said Penang was one of the best places to cycle around as it is an island so cyclists could go round island trips and the traffic is not as bad as compared to larger cities like Kuala Lumpur.
“However, cyclists still have to be very careful and obey the traffic rules. Just recently, a cyclist was killed on the road when he was overtaken by a bus on a [slope],” he said.
The Penang G Club plans to organise a memorial ride in honour of the fallen cyclist.
“This is why the club will soon be organising safety campaigns to remind cyclists about road safety when riding, especially at high traffic areas,” he said.
The club has successfully campaigned for bicycle lanes as the state government has allocated a number of bicycle lanes.
The state government has also introduced Car Free Day every Sunday for several roads within the heritage zone of George Town so cyclists would often take advantage of this period to cycle all over the area.
The hype surrounding cycling has also spurred the local economy, as ailing bicycle shops flourish while many new ones mushroomed within the inner city. Rent-a-bike shops have also started popping up, especially in the inner city, to provide bicycles to those who do not wish to purchase their own.
Only time will tell if the trend will gain enough traction to convince the majority of local residents to abandon their cars in favour of bicycles, particularly within the inner city where traffic jams are normal during rush hour, for a greener and cleaner Penang.