From a recent study abroad trip to Asia, I would like to give my take on their transportation and how it compares to our beloved city of Lansing. I focused most of my attention on bikability, walkability, public transportation, and a few other modes I didn’t expect to be options! We traveled to 3 countries, including Seoul (the capital of South Korea), Malaysia and Singapore.
25 million people live in the city and surrounding area, and 10 million within the city limits. This as you can imagine creates incredible challenges when it comes to pedestrian and bicycle accommodations. Combining all users of their roadway and creating ‘complete streets’ (a concept that is catching on in the States) is a work in progress.
A small fact which helps explain and inform their built environment would be the country’s geography. Not to bash the enormous beauty found in the country side, but it sucks for building houses or livability! The mountains are bedrock, and a plethora of tree covered rolling hills make it extremely difficult to build roads, deliver material and even farm. Any flat area of land in these mountains is covered with rice fields or growing vegetables/fruit. Hence the city of Seoul (the largest and possibly only flat area in all of Korea) is almost 2 times as dense as New York City.
I was amazed by the difficulties South Korea has faced with their landscape. However, I was more impressed with how they’ve dealt with it. The complexity of the construction and the speed at which new projects are completed is astounding compared to the United States. This has a lot to do with our democratic process, which I do stand by as a great way to get public opinion, but seriously, when Korea decides to have a bullet train, they get a bullet train. I took one of these bullet trains to the south of South Korea, a town called Mokpo. Within the first 15 minutes I was awake I counted at least 5 tunnels, which were up to a half mile long. The relaxing ride was only interrupted by the ear popping as you passed through the tunnel. Going 200+ mph messes with the pressure and you can barely see the scenery whizzing by.
With the density of people to land being so high, it is almost impossible to bike or use a motorcycle (although many people try)! The city has made a grand effort to put in bike lanes, in the sidewalks, but these usually are taken over by people, parked cars and motorbikes, or store fronts.
Seoul had one of the best subway and light right systems I have ever seen! If only I could read Korean…
The first thing I noticed about Malaysia while riding our shuttle bus from the airport, was they have their own motorbike lanes! There was even a beautiful bridge that was only for motorbikes.
Whether the lanes were planned by the city within a master plan, or simply the response to the abundance of bikes on the road and another method for accommodating them, I am not sure. But the design for combining these bikes with traffic is unique and effective. They are protected with a guardrail on the highway, but combined with an on-ramp to access local streets, and then mix with traffic. Bike drivers are aggressive and do not seem to be deterred from skipping ahead of traffic due to their small size and ability. I was very tempted one afternoon for an “urban research project” to rent a bike requesting the services of my older motorcycle license carrying fellow student to be my driver. However, after watching days of traffic patterns, pedestrian and motor vehicle interactions, that was voted out. I had to settle on a jet ski when we stayed on the coast to get my fix of speed and adventure. And to reassure my father that I would come back to the States in one piece.
Singapore was the ritziest city and country I have ever experienced. It seemed they were just too good for bikes! Walkability was a key design factor for this tourism based country. Pedestrian walks were stationed mid-block and there was never a pedestrian signal missing! Cars are heavily discouraged in Singapore and are taxed excessively. Regardless of which vehicle you are purchasing the final price tag gets to be around $100,000 or more. Thus, motor vehicle traffic on such a small island was surprisingly manageable.
All in all, it was fascinating to watch experience and learn about different cultures, especially from my new perspective on transportation. However, in the end, I was very grateful to come back to my beloved Lansing, to bike my side streets in peace, with no close calls with any person, car, motorbike, bus or train. People(me included!) complain about the bikability of our streets here, but I realize now, at least we have space. We have potential. I admit not the liveliest and exciting pedestrian landscape, but you get to choose your landscape or neighborhood style. Although most streets are not the safest for us pedestrians and bicyclists, but at least our laws allow us to be on the road. These laws allow us to have a right to get mad when that car blows through a red light. And laws that give us the realistic hope that “Oh, one day a cop will catch him!”