Friday, October 30, 2015

Guide to Hong Kong Commuting


As the temperatures cool, and by way of galvanizing some thoughts on this topic, I thought I'd try to write a succinct 'Guide to Hong Kong Commuting', capturing some of my experiences, and lessons learned in the past 7 years of living in the rather challenging of cycling environments. By way of qualification, my commuting destinations (otherwise know as the office) over the years have varied from Cyberport to Central, the Airport to Quarry Bay, and most recently, West Kowloon. During this time I've also lived in a few places on HK Island, so, while everyone's commute is different, I've hopefully had enough experience to provide some meaningful thoughts / advice, no matter what your home / work scenario is. I'll be the first to admit I'm not quite a 'normal' cyclist, in that I'm a little more obsessed than most, but the determination not to give up commuting by bike just because I moved to Hong Kong, does hopefully put in in a good place to try and offer some tips and tricks.

The MTR sucks

Given how few people decide to commute by bike in Hong Kong- even hardened and very committed cyclists-, I should probably start by listing some of the reasons why 2 wheels good, 4 wheels bad :
1./ It saves time. In a race between pedestrian using public transport and a cyclist riding a bike, bike wins in 9/10 scenarios IMO. Beating a taxi / private car is a bit more of an uncertainty, but in a city where traffic is so variable, having a fast traffic proof commuting time is a definite bonus. Having the option to bail out of early morning rides because I'll be doing my training on the commute in is also a time saver in the grand scheme of things- add up those 20 minutes here, 1hr diversions home there, and you'll be surprised how much extra training you've done without even noticing.

2./ It saves money. This time the scenario is flipped- I can't argue that cycling is cheaper than public transport in this town, given its so exceptionally cheap, and there are expenses in the logistics of a commute, but it defiantly saves money over paying out on taxis, or, even more expensive- a car. Frustratingly, since they raised cost of the star ferry for bikes, my latest cross harbour commute is more expensive than the mtr without factoring in my penchant for running tubulars ;-)

3./ It's fun and not so stressful! Just how fun depends on a lot of things, but personally I can think of few things better for unwinding after a long day at the office than hitting a trail or a quiet bit of pavement. I can also think of few places I'd rather not be than sat on a platform at Admiralty waiting for the 6th train that might have space for me to squeeze on. Who knows, you might come up with the next theory of relativity?

4./ It's good for you. Breathing in fumes isn't always great, but if you are flexible on routes, HK is full of cheeky off piste leg breaking climbs to boost your aerobic capacity and leg strength. I even find carrying a rucksack and spending less time sat in seats boosts your back strength also. See item 3 for head related health...

5./ It's good for Mother Earth. As Mao Tse Tung commented, 'revolution is not a dinner party'. But every little helps.

The star ferry rocks

Why Not?
For every reason to ride to work, there must be at least 10 other reasons not to out there that people have thought of. Some will be valid, and are easy work arounds. Some will be stupid, like 'the lift attendant looks at me like I'm smoking crack'. Others will be irrational, which I'm not going to bother with (you wouldn't have read this far...). And some will be rational.

The key rational reasons - it's p*ssing it down outside / I'm getting drunk, or on a plane after work, for example, are good reasons I quite agree with. And why I don't ride in every day either. In my thoughts below I'll try and outline the workarounds to the key rational reason most people have in the back of their minds- 'I don't want to die' , that should make commuting (on the days you want) a safe, pleasant experience in what isn't always the easiest city to ride in.

Harry in front of HSBC

The Route
This is the most important bit to nail on any commute. When people think of commuting in HK, they tend to think about the highways, the lack of bike lanes and all the traffic. This adds up to a picture of unsafe pollution addled misery. But be a bit flexible in your route planning (and sometimes with the law) and HK is full of quiet roads, pavements and trails that are perfect for riding early morning or at night. I can't expand in this too much publicly on the web, but a bit of imagination goes a long way...
Less imaginative in the way of solutions include riding the tram tracks, the lesser used residential roads, and going mixed mode. 

Tram Tracking

Taking bikes on the MTR is surprisngly legitimate in HK. This opens up new commuting possibilities. esp if you have distances to cover. Both the star ferry & the airport express are also good for bikes and are nice and quiet in the lower deck / last carriage, meaning you can sneak some of those time consuming little things, like adding air to tires or even putting on a shirt if the weather is cool enough not to need a shower.

Carbon road bike or cast iron pig- both work, but I kmow which I'd rather leave on the street.

The Shower
Speaking of which, next on the list of priorities to sort out is the shower. Give or take a month or two during the winter where you could get away without (if your commute is flat), on most days you will get pretty sweaty in HK humidity. Therefore a shower when you arrive at work is pretty much an essential. You may be lucky and have a shower in your building, or you may need to join a gym. I've done both, and whilst the gym is an expensive shower, I still think its worth it. Less popular, and a bit more innovative include rinsing airport lounge privileges (you can only push it for so long) and using government facility showers.

Airport lounging

The Security
A bit like the shower, this one depends rather on circumstance. You may be lucky and have a convenient place to stash a bike without anyone noticing / caring. Or you may have to park it on the street. Either way, both are workable, and if you're on the street - dig around the streets by your office there's a fair chance a developer will have gone for some Brucie bonus bike racks as part of meeting a LEED sustainability target, or something. Take pleasure in being the only people who use it! No seriously, there is very little bike theft in HK it seems, so it's safer than you might think. Leaving carbon fibre super bikes locked up with a cable is obviously stupid, but I feel relaxed in leaving my steed in one of these bike parking areas with a half decent lock and a bike cover (Oxford make them) to conceal what lies beneath. Actually it looks like a motor bike with the cover on, so I don't think it occurs to people to try and steal it.

Sadly not too many bike parking stations like this in HK

The Bike
To adapt the phrase 'sometimes the best camera is the one with you at that time', sometimes the best bike to commute on is the one you already own. I've commuted on everything from a fixed gear track to a TT bike, from a full suspension mountain bike to a carbon road bike. Obviously the route you are taking and the security available will inform what you ride.

Single ringing

Right now I'm riding my single speed set up Colossi Max CX commuter bike, that I've built up especially for this task, largely using freecyled old kit with the goal of something cheap enough to lock up outside, but solid enough to do the job. And a fine job it does too. I'm a real fan of fixed / single speed commuting, as it's fun, the bikes are cheap to buy and simple to maintain. If you really feel you need to buy a dedicated bike I'd recommend something along these lines, depending on how many hills you climb, and whether you want to venture off road.. The industry standard of flat barred hybrid also works, but to my mind they're quite heavy, and more importantly, they're just a bit boring to ride. At the end of the day ideally you want cheap, comfy (esp. with rucksack), reliable, simple, and not too flash. But still a bit fun.

Checking some alternative wheels

The Clothes
This might sound a bit daft, but it's actually a really important part of making the decision to ride in. There's nothing worse than getting to the gym, post shower, and realising you forget your pants. Well, actually, if you're Ozzie or American, this scenario is even worse than if you're a Brit.
The key to getting this right is all in the preparation. One strategy is to take your clothes in on Monday for the week (perhaps by public transport?) and home again on Friday. This works well if you need to wear a suit, but does necessitate somewhere to keep your clothes at, or near, the office.

Maillot tarmac

Personally I prefer a bit more flexiblility. So, what I tend to do is pack one drawstring nylon bag within my main rucksack that contains a work shirt, trousers and undies. When I get to work and get dressed this becomes my dirty washing bag for the clothes I rode in on. When I leave work and get changed into riding gear I do the same thing with my second draw string bag that contains my riding home gear. I know 3 changes of clothes sounds a bit excessive, but in the summer it's pretty much essential. In cooler temperatures, or if I'm in a rush I may just ride in office gear minus the shirt with the trousers rolled up (yes, I do wear an undershirt). In the winter merino is also a top tip for base layers / riding tops, as it doesn't get smelly if you leave it damp in a bag for the day. One thing I cannot stand, however, is riding home in the same Lycra shorts from the morning....
The last tip is always keep a pair of shoes under your desk so you don't have to carry these. Feel free to supplement with spare pants / shirts- just in case.

Track bike with Chrome Bag- a nice commuter combo

The Bag
This one depends quite a lot on your your clothing & security strategy. If you've got a shower in the office and you've planned in advance maybe you can get away without a bag at all? A basic rucksack may also be enough (I've done both). But right now, given I lock my bike up outside and typically use the shower at work, I've found having a purpose built waterproof rucksack to be really worth it. 

Loaded pack

I've got a Chrome rucksack that I also use as my carry on flight bag a lot of the time. I also like the ability to squeeze in some shopping, or a vietnamese pho in on the top of my kit on the way home. Equally intriguing are the mission workshop offerings, both of which you can see at rodafixa. I know the one strap courier bags can also carry heaps, but I don't think they're as good for your back when loaded.

Outside is free - or something

So there you go, hopefully a few tips of interest. See you out there on the, errr, plethora of legal cycling routes provided by HKSAR.

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