This City is for Riding
Tokyo! San Francisco! London! New Delhi! Shanghai! Kabul!
Every survey I’ve ever read on what makes a city great for cycling has failed to capture the uniqueness of the place.
I’ve lived, worked and commuted by bike in those cities. For me, the perfect ride is framed by the unique elements of the locale, from its culture to its rule of law, weather conditions to urban geometry. Every ride includes an appreciation that today’s experience could not be anywhere else.
How does Shanghai compare to London? Tokyo to Kabul? Read on…
China is the wild west of cycling.
Many of the rider short-cuts that make beating the traffic in cities like New York a joy are dependent on other drivers obeying the rules of the road. In China there’s always someone who gives less of a fuck of the road rules than you do. It’s like playing Super Mario in five dimensions. I’ve ridden a bunch of Chinese cities —Beijing, Chengdu, Ji Lin, Urumqi and the experience is broadly similar. As a rule of thumb, the less cosmopolitan the city, the less fucks that are given.
The middle class Chinese dream is to own a car, an apartment and to have a thriving family business. Many are driving their first, newly bought car, in a manner that befits their road experience. Most cities also suffer from horrific traffic jams during rush-hours contributing to the already bad pollution, making any health benefits of cycling moot. In Shanghai you can count the number of clear-sky days on four sprained hands and two sets of fractured legs. On a bad day you’ll struggle to see across a street.
For road accidents, China has a variable rule of law. Who is “in the right” depends on who you are, who you know and what you think you can get away with. Cash settlements for accidents (whether or not you are at fault), with money going to the victim (or “victim”) and the police are common.
Cycling is very much the domain of the working class (who would rather be using motor/electric vehicles), and a thriving independent ~fixie subculture.
Chinese roads also have a silent killer. Priced between a bicycle and a engine scooter, the electric scooter is popular in Tier 2 to 4 cities, a little less so in Shanghai. There’s nothing like riding hard into a headwind and having a perfectly upright office lady cruising past in perfect silence. Check your 6 before pulling out.
Every neighbourhood block has a mom and pop stores— flat tires can be changed for a small fee if that’s your thing. CRS* 6/10
Shop: Factory Five.
My home town, first love, and the first city I got to experience intimately. I used to know every pothole, speed bump, short-cut, pelican crossing and traffic camera from Hammersmith to Mile End.
It’s also the first city to break my heart. In an autumn drizzle, a cab pulled in sharply to pick up a passenger, I swerved, slid under the back wheel and. fractured my fibula. The taxi drove off, of course.
The layout of the city lends itself well to going with the flow, though traffic is fairly evenly distributed it’s rare to have the road to yourself. Asphalt is of a middling quality, with a fair amount of Victorian induced potholes. London is prone to bus, train and underground/subway delays, so there’s the added satisfaction of arriving on time, under your own stream.
Daylight hours are short for a quarter of the year, and the London weather is poor. Curbs are high enough to pedal park, or send you sprawling when you’re trying to avoid a wayward door . CRS 7/10
Tokyo has the best asphalt and most predictable traffic of any major city, making it perfect for proactive, fast cycling. The weather does get a bit extreme in the summer, but if you’re from colder climes, you’ll smile at the experience of a warm downpour during rainy season.
It’s mostly flat and most backstreets i.e. most streets, are curbless, so you can use the entire width of the road. Most local cyclists ride on the pavement, leaving the streets for sports/commuter bikes and messengers.
Vehicle traffic mostly sticks to the main roads so once you’ve figured out the back routes, it is literally possible to traverse the entire city without being overtaken by a single car. Pedestrians and cars maintain a good spatial awareness of cyclists.
The main downside of riding Tokyo is parking. The local commuting norm is to take a cheap bicycle to the local station and then hop on the train. Parking is heavily restricted near stations, and bikes are frequently carted away to compounds — it costs 1,000JPY/$10 to get it back. The upside is that you can leave you $5k bike on the street with a flimsy lock and expect it to be there untouched when you get back. The psychology of not mentally having to track the likelihood of your bike being stolen only kicks in after a few months of living in Japan.
It’s a breathe of fresh air.
On arrival in Tokyo it was jarring to see the 246 freeway slice right through the city, with its fast moving traffic, separating neighbourhoods. However, it soon becomes your friend: sucking street traffic up onto it’s upper deck, and providing shelter on the outside lane during rainy season.
Tokyo has the most eclectic street layouts of any major city, with hundreds of car-free, winding backstreets and alleys. You can have a new urban experience on every ride. CRS 9/10
To this foreigner, American drivers are skittish around cyclists, unsure how to read them on the road, and overly compensating when they pass, or having zero spatial awareness of bikes. They do like their cars big.
The American insistence of fully stopping at Stop signs, is often ignored by cyclists in SF, especially on the many hills. It takes a month to figure out the optimal route through the city, that doesn’t hit a steep incline. Like other hilly cities such as Seoul and Chongqing, San Francisco has its own version of the wiggle.
Road conditions in the city are atrocious. Many drivers in the city treat the freeway feeder streets as if they are already on the freeway. Theft is a bitch.
Marin, with all that it has to offer, is a mere 20 minutes out from the city. Early morning rides out to headlands are likely to encounter the Sausalito Express — the pelotons of Marin commuters heading into the city, with lit up rigs that would shame a Bolivian mining party. They deserve a medal for the daily ride into the stiff headwind.
There’s an intense focus to many of the local riders, completely at odds with the many tourists that meander their way to the GG bridge.
As is befitting the capital of a nation with 1.25 billion people, New Delhi has wide, traffic choked boulevards. Traffic lights last an age, and the police lean towards the officious. You’ll be competing with cacophonous herds of auto-rickshaws, and tiffin wallahs on bicycles. The heat is enough to melt the road.
It is considered bad luck to run over a foreigner on a bicycle. CRS 4/10
This is one funky city to ride. You’re also going to be the only foreigner on a bike.
Almost the entire city is off-road, forget about street lights, and the consequences of getting lost can be problematic (see also: Kabul, A Walking Guide). Traffic jams are common, especially in the green zone, the street layout emphasises security over flowing traffic i.e. you are cycling past blast walls. The pollution, and the dust kicked up by the gravel is pretty bad.
On the upside, two wheels are great for beating traffic jams and finding those pockets of the city that are otherwise off limits to those that live in compounds. There are great eateries, interesting markets and fascinating conversations to be had.
Steer clear of military convoys. CRF 4/10
Shops: two decent repair stalls close to the sewing machine & gun market.
Your Perfect City?
Everyone looks for something different in a city ride.
What makes your city perfect for riding?
*CRS: Chippy Ride Score.
I’m a writer, photographer and the Founder of Studio D. Mostly found on two wheels. Our sister studio SDR Traveller recently launched the Courier 60, a minimalist, ultra light and very discreet bike pouch. Want more? Subscribe to the Borderlands mailing list.
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