Bike Safety for Commuters in Singapore (… and SE Asia)

(Pictures coming soon. Be sure to check back esp. if you’re in Singapore.)

Commuting by bike is becoming more popular around the world, likely inspired by the increasing awareness of the environment and a desire for healthier lifestyles. Cycling is a great choice for transport not just because it takes cars off the road and give you good-looking legs – it’s rather enjoyable. If you’re well-prepared, commuting is really pleasant compared to being stuck on a bus or train. In my experience, most unpleasant experiences met by cyclists come in the form of traffic – human and vehicle.

In Southeast Asia, cycling can be especially tricky because of densely population and roads are lacking in bike-friendly infrastructure, such as bike lanes and non tire-eating drain grates to name a couple. Commuting culture is still a very new trend in this part of the world, therefore lacking in general awareness and traffic etiquette.

But still, you’re a committed cyclist. What to look out for to prevent from becoming a statistic? Let’s start off easy with Singapore.

I’ve summarized the issues I’ve faced while cycling (on the road) in Singapore below in the order of frequency experienced:

  1. Feeling invisible – people are not used to seeing a bike on the road and won’t even look for you. So watch out for opening doors and be wary of merging vehicles. Also, many locals ride on the sidewalk. They even ring their bell at you to get out of the way. At first I was appalled by this, but apparently riding on the sidewalk is normal. That’s why you’re invisible on the road. ALWAYS LOOK AT THE DRIVER TO SEE IF HE ACTUALLY NOTICES YOU. 
  2. Drivers and pedestrians misjudge your speed – this happens ALL the time and people end up either cutting you off when they drive or walking onto your path. Usually leaving you with very little time to react. I believe this happens because locals are not used to cyclists, especially commuters, going at any real speed. They expect you to just potter along slowly and assume there is plenty of time to get into and out of your way.
  3. Left turn/merge lanes at intersections (junctions) – this is sort of a combination of the first two problems. When you approach an intersection and you’re going straight,  you could be in the way of a car that wants to turn left.
  4. Vehicles passing too close – not a new problem for most cyclists. The roads are pretty narrow in Singapore with zero bike lanes.
  5. Drain covers from hell – try to avoid roadside drain covers. Some are okay but most of them have grates that are parallel to the road and are the perfect width for a road bike tire to trap in. No prizes for guessing what would happen if you suddenly get your tire trapped while going fast.
  6. Completely unexpected obstacles – I guess this applies wherever you go but in Singapore I’ve personally almost wiped from fallen green mangoes and camouflaged sunbathing monitor lizards on the park connectors.

In addition, basic safety equipment is a must:

  1. Helmet
  2. Lights – front/back (white/red)

These items really are the bare basics. Other considerations for your commute:

  1. Reflective patches – highly recommended for frequent commuting before light in the morning and after dark at night.
  2. Bell – technically a requirement for all bikes on the road. Mostly I use it when riding on shared paths with pedestrians, such as when a stray runner darts out in front suddenly or  when children are running amok. Though I once I did use it on a sunbathing monitor lizard (a different one). And even monkeys. It’s useful!
  3. Handlebar mirror – I personally do not have one but I’ve been told it’s amazing to always know what is happening behind – without having to turn and look.
  4. Rack/pannier, frame bag, basket backpacks at their best they’re hot and sweaty (in Singapore). At worst, they are unwieldy, make it difficult to balance in start-stop traffic and restrict shoulder movement.
  5. Pollution mask – lots of car exhaust and the occasional haze. See here.

Basic regular maintenance goes a long way:

  1. Air – I can’t even tell you how many half-filled tires I’ve seen on a daily basis. Don’t risk getting a pinch flat in the middle of traffic and keep your tires pumped. Check on the side for the recommended psi.
  2. Brake pads – the hot weather wears out brake pads really quickly it seems. You’ll be really glad you have efficient braking in rainy weather. Monsoon season, anyone?
  3. Cables – tropical humidity is not kind to brake cables. I prefer not to have them break on me when I need them most and replace them once a year. They stretch too, and change the way your gears react.
  4. Oil – chains rust really fast in the rain and humidity here and no one wants it to come off in the middle of traffic. Using proper bike chain lubricant prevents buildup of gunk.
  5. Nuts and bolts – Once in a while, I like to make sure they’re tight. Even if it’s just for the peace of mind. With a torque wrench, even better!

If you can do this by yourself, props to you. Since I don’t have the tools, I just send my bike to the mechanic for a regular checkup.

That’s all for now and feel free to add anything I’ve missed. Happy commuting!

-J

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