Friday, August 24, 2007

Cycling in Malaysia

‘BABU’ Muscarella is new to Kuala Lumpur but instead of familiarising himself with the public transportation system, he cycles everywhere.The 28-year-old Mexican belongs to Cyclown Circus, a group of westerners who has made the city its base for several weeks and commutes on their trusty and showy bicycles.

You might think they are foreigners on a shoestring holiday with lots of time on their hands, hence they cycle everywhere. Indeed, Cyclown members lead a carefree lifestyle but they try to convey a strong ecological warning: human addiction to petroleum. So, everywhere they go, they promote cycling as a sustainable means of transportation.

It started when its founding member Channing “Dr Durak” decided to see the world on his bicycle upon finishing high school in Texas. He first criss-crossed the United States and Mexico, then hopped over to Europe and Asia. He was soon joined by other like-minded individuals. Covering some 40,000km over six years, the informal group has attracted close to 150 people who travel with it for an unspecified time period.

Muscarella joined the group in Bangkok, Thailand, early this year after completing his master's degree at the University of Miami. From Bangkok, the group cycled south into Malaysia and travelled along the west coast, making stops in villages and small towns.

“Wherever possible, we hitch a ride with lorries. It will take us longer if we depend solely on the bicycle. We cycle about 30km a day but we don’t move every day. If we like a place, we might stay longer,” explained Muscarella.

The group perform circus tricks and play their brand of jazz music to generate income to pay for meals and essentials like bicycle parts and medical aid. Each member carries his own tent and they camp in parks or open spaces. They also accept free lodging from acquaintances. In Kuala Lumpur, they got connected with the arts community of Central Market and helped out at art exhibitions and performances, engaging the crowd with tips on juggling and music from home-made instruments.

The group also initiated the first Critical Mass event in Malaysia. Critical Mass is a global movement which originated in San Francisco in September 1992 when 48 cyclists got together on the last Friday of the month to cycle home en masse in response to the growing traffic gridlock. From then on, the group kept growing and the idea spread to other parts of the world.

On July 27, 40 people rode their bicycles into Kuala Lumpur city centre to raise awareness on the growing number of cars on the roads. Muscarella believe the inaugural ride inspired many and is optimistic that the motion for change has been set.

“Cyclists are often scoffed at by motorists as a traffic nuisance but we want to send out the message that cyclists are the traffic,” said Muscarella, who participated in his first Critical Mass ride 10 years ago in Mexico.

He added that mass cycling grabs public attention and creates awareness that cycling is a sensible choice and gets motorists caught in jams to ponder the benefits of cycling.

“For me, the enjoyment of driving is outweighed by the frustration of getting stuck in a traffic jam. The bicycle is non-polluting. You don’t have to pay for parking, fuel, costly maintenance and insurance.”

Many think the humid weather and poor cycling infrastructure discourage cycling in the city but Muscarella actually finds Kuala Lumpur a promising city for cycling.

“It is small and the terrain is mostly flat. The traffic is generally slow, hence it’s not that dangerous. Bangkok, with its four-lane roads, is a worse place for cycling. Of course, it will really help if there are dedicated lanes for bicycles,” he said, adding that when a critical mass is reached, there will be no excuse for authorities to ignore the need for such basic infrastructure.

Chi Too participated in the cycling event to find out if it is feasible to cycle in the city.

“I live in a part of Cheras that is only 7km from the city centre and I am seriously considering cycling over other forms of public transportation. The Critical Mass event provided the chance to experiment whether urban cycling could work for me,” he said.

“We may have come across as a nuisance but that was the only way to raise the visibility of cyclists as another road user,” he said.

He admitted that negotiating the traffic was dangerous but hoped that the event would gain momentum and lead to reforms, such as the inclusion of cycling as part of the city’s transportation system.

Source: The Star Online : Lifestyle - by Hilary Chiew

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