Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Checking out the commute to work on my new protable bicycle

Not without a bit of trepidation, I purchased a portable bicycle, late this afternoon, and began exploring. Much to my surprise, Singapore, which is so advanced in many ways, is not particularly bike-friendly. Unlike Washington DC, with its aggressive WABA (Washington Area Bicyclists’ Association) lobby, Singapore’s Bicycle Society is very low key. In general, lobbying by civil society groups is a much more muted activity in Singapore than in Washington. However, encouraged by a new acquaintance of mine, who owns a store that sells portable bicycles, the government granted approval last March for portable (folding) bicycles to be carried on MRT trains and busses. Since this is Singapore, MRT Stations and some busses now have signs showing what is and is not allowed. A biking friend told me there are probably also fines for violating the rules, but I haven’t seen anything about fines. Singaporeans are good about the following rules, in general, and my impression is that fines rarely have to be levied.

Anyhow, I purchased a Taiwan-manufactured budget-priced portable bicycle at my neighborhood shopping mall, received instruction how to fold it up, added a bell, helmet and lock to my purchases and set out.

I have only seen one portable bike in Washington DC, where carrying full-sized ones on busses and trains is permitted. They are odd looking contraptions. There is a full-sized seat and seven speed derailleur gear, and a huge chain sprocket wheel attached to the pedals, but tiny wheels with fat, relatively low pressure (35 psi) tires and a small frame. Perched high above the road, riders make an odd picture. Balancing on this contraption takes a bit of practice, but after a few minor mishaps, I got the hang of it.

Since I plan to get most of my riding in commuting to work (against the advice of some friends, incidentally), I decided to check out the route. Using Google maps, which offers Singapore directions that seem about as good as the US ones, I had already printed out two alternative options and chose one. I had my trusty iPod GSM as a backup. Like the directions, this, too, was only moderately helpful.

There is one, among several, features of Singapore road signage that makes following directions a bit difficult for foreigners and that the designers of Google directions don’t yet fully grasp: roads may have two names simultaneously, one on one side and one on the other. Names seem to blend into one another a bit like hues of a rainbow. For example a major thoroughfare on my route was named Ulu Pandan Road traveling East towards my office, and Holland Road traveling west - but only on part of the road. This is also true of Bukit Timah Road and Dunearn Road where the Lee Kuan Yew School is located. You appreciate this, in the abstract, when being driven by a knowledgeable bus or taxi driver, but at a whole different level when trying to find your own way, somewhat vaguely worded Google directions in hand. I got lost a few times and missed one important turn entirely - but did find a useful secondary route and make connections between geographic points that I had previously visited.

The very good news is that bicycle commuting is definitely feasible and, now that I know the route, should take no more than 45 minutes. In fact I am going to try commuting both ways, leaving about 7:15 in the morning and returning home about 7:00 at night, to avoid the really hot weather. No doubt there will be challenges, not yet anticipated, to overcome, however I need the exercise and am up for new adventures.

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