KUALA LUMPUR, Aug 16 — I was having my usual breakfast of half-boiled eggs and a lightly-toasted kaya butter bun at Baba Low’s at Lorong Kurau when I noticed a large black-and-white map taped on the counter wall. The silhouette of a bicycle hinted at its purpose – a map of cycling routes in Kuala Lumpur.
Who rides bicycles these days though, I wondered, given the often dangerous roads and hordes of motorists in a perpetual rush to get to their destinations? It’s something you see expatriates do, sweating under a weekend sun, pedalling against the current of traffic.
Not true, says Jeffrey Lim, the man behind the Cycling Kuala Lumpur Bicycle Map Project. There are plenty of locals riding around the city and seeking safer cycling paths. He’s an advocate for urban dwellers to return to the good old days of pedal power.
Lim is a designer by profession and runs Studio 25 in Bangsar. Baba Low’s was one of the first shops he chose to place his cycling map to share with other residents in his neighbourhood.
However, Lim’s journey started earlier when he was still working in Singapore over five years ago. He recalls, “I was working at a design firm there and was looking for an easy way to get from home to the office. I decided to cycle to work.”
Lim started noticing a number of cyclists riding old-school bicycles which still looked like new. “Finally, curiosity got the better of me and I stopped one of the riders to ask him where he got his bicycle from. The old uncle told me to go to Jalan Besar and to search for new but old-fashioned bicycles made in China.”
During his search, Lim started learning more about the history of bicycles. “Did you know that Malaysia used to produce bikes in the 1960s till late 1980s? This was in Batu Tiga, under the Raleigh brand. It’s a pity that most of the old bicycle shops that are part of our heritage are disappearing.”
Lim started documenting how he built an old-style bicycle from scratch online and shared with other enthusiasts on how to source for spare parts. “It’s getting more challenging to find the right parts as these businesses are dying off as fewer folks ride bicycles these days and even fewer ride the old-style bicycles.”
“Ridden and recommended”
When Lim first moved back to KL, he sent his bicycle back via the KTM train and after picking it up at the station pedalled home to Ampang. “Everyone in the neighbourhood came out to ask about my bicycle and how I rode it back from the station. There was a sort of communal interest where even the uncles from the barber shop and chicken rice stall started chatting with me about it.”
He smiles, adding, “That’s when I knew cycling had the power to bring people together.”
Cycling in Kuala Lumpur proved to be quite a challenge at first for Lim: “There were no real routes or pedestrian paths I could use half the time, only the main roads which are a risk. Google Maps was my best reference – I printed the maps out ahead of time and used them as a journey planner.”
Still, he found that he couldn’t go to many places as he did not have local knowledge of the area or safe and tested routes. That’s when Lim decided he would design his own map for cyclists like himself.
“I have been involved in design projects in Singapore that included developing commercial maps. In fact, maps are one of my passions and I love collecting old maps from all round the world,” he says.
Travelling in London and China, Lim hunted down maps designed specifically for cycling routes. This was partly because he appreciated the design, but more importantly because he wanted to learn how they developed the cycling routes.
“I discovered that these cycling routes had all been tested – ‘ridden and recommended by cyclists’ – as they put it. I also learned that along with designing the maps, a movement of cycling activism was crucial in bringing about more facilities such as appropriate signages and engagement with authorities.”
How to design a cycling map
Once Lim got started, he rapidly realised that most existing maps were outdated, incomplete and sometimes inaccurate. He shares, “Rather than using these imperfect maps, there is a sense of ownership in designing a proper map from scratch, one that is developed specially for cycling routes in KL.”
Lim began by comparing every available map with one another and coming up with a master map that was up-to-date. He then approached residents, especially cyclists, in a certain area to offer advice on suitable routes.
“It was a painstaking and laborious process,” Lim says. “I started designing the map in June 2012 and it took me six months of doing this in my free time after work to complete the first working draft of the map.”
Challenges included figuring out the various styles, format and thickness of roads to be shown on the map. “For now, my basic map has simple features such as rivers and main roads or highways but other details will come in later editions.”
Next, Lim passed the 700 maps he printed using his own money to volunteers – other cyclists he met through local cycling communities – to test the routes and give feedback on how to improve the map.
“This second phase took three months. By having volunteers test the routes, it becomes a community project. Every Saturday, I would open my studio for discussions with other members of the cycling community. This way we share our knowledge and spread the message.”
Lim plans next to approach the relevant authorities after printing the latest, updated cycling map in order to improve amenities and increase paths for cyclists in the city.
Lim insists that this is more than a project to design a map.
“I consider it a necessary form of advocacy for cycling in urban areas and to improve safety standards for cyclists. There are areas that even authorities do not foresee such as necessary access points or facilities for bicycle parking.”
Lim notes that the project has evolved organically over time, but that this was a normal process.
“I’ve studied different cycling maps from different countries to learn how they did it. For example, London took more than 30 years to incorporate cycling paths. Like Kuala Lumpur, London rose up around a river – the city developed organically; it wasn’t planned.”
By contrast, cyclists fought for their rights in the Netherlands. “Today, if you look around in Amsterdam, pedestrians and cyclists come first before motor vehicles.”
Lim admits part of the problem is getting people to use the routes, i.e. to actually cycle. “In Malaysia, thanks to cheap fuel and the relative comfort level, we prefer driving and do not have the survival reason to cycle. For example, in Italy it could cost an equivalent of more than RM7 per litre of fuel so they cycle or use public transport whenever they can.”
Ultimately, Lim hopes that more people will take up cycling in the city again after coming across a copy of the map. “It’s part of our shared heritage. In order to use the map, cyclists will have to learn to read the map and subsequently learn more about KL. These are living maps which change and develop, just like our city.”
Laughing, he says, “People were cycling long before there were cycling paths. This map project serves only to enhance the experience and make it safer.”
Here’s to the pedal power of the people!
Cycling Kuala Lumpur -- Bicycle Map Project
Map website http://studio25.my/map/
Village Bicycles https://www.facebook.com/villagebicycles
Bicycle Map Project Facebook group https://www.facebook.com/groups/CyclingKualaLumpur/
This story was first published in the print edition of The Malay Mail, August 15, 2013