I’d written quite some time ago about seriously giving biking in Chennai a shot. I’ve recently joined Pramati technologies in Chennai and have been biking to work (about 9km one way) almost every day for the past month-and-a-half. Here are some observations and an initial attempt at guidelines for people considering biking as a means of commuting in Chennai.
I found biking to be fairly time efficient relative to cars for the stretch I’m covering. When I had to drive to work for a few days when my bike was under service, my drive time over 3 days (40-60mins) ended up consistently longer than my bike time (35-40mins). The peak-time traffic is exhausting.
I arrive fresh at work and I reach back home refreshed. I’m sweating like a pig when I reach my office and when I’m back home. Thankfully Pramati Chennai has a shower … and so does my home.
If I take main roads to work, my lungs can’t take it for more than a couple of days and I start wheezing. So I take smaller roads, though that makes my ride about 1km longer either way.
Thus far, auto rickshaw drivers have been the most courteous to me, often pausing to let me cross. It’s no fun inhaling off the tail pipe of an auto-rick. So I really appreciate this gesture! I empathize somewhat with car drivers for not showing the same courtesy because for the three days I drove to work, I was rather irritable throughout the drive.
Two major irritants (apart from pollution) - habitual honking and spitting. As the days roll by, I’m bound to be spat on by someone by sheer probability, though it looks like I’m getting better at predicting when someone will spit in my direction. Folks - please, spitting on roads sucks. As for honking, it is completely unnecessary in Chennai. I’ve managed to drive several thousand km so far in Chennai without honking even once. I’m now convinced about my statement in my previous post - that the belief that a honk is necessary has becomeo out of touch with reality.
Choose smaller, less polluted roads and enjoy the scenery. It is surprising how many of these are to be found just a little off main roads. I ride through streets that give me the feeling that I’m in Madurai and I totally enjoy that.
Ride steadily and at some decent speed comparable to motorbikes and cars. If you’re slower, you can end up obstructing traffic .. especially on smaller roads.
Use a bike that’s half-way between a road bike (thin tyres) and a mountain bike (fat tyres). You absolutely need shock absorbers on your bike. You also need to learn to ride without transmitting road shock to your spine or joints. A bike with gears is a must - otherwise stop/starts at road crossings get too tedious and you don’t reap the benefit of nice long less polluted roads if one is on your way. Don’t get an expensive “racer style” bike - ‘cos you’ll end up killing both the bike and your spine.
Don’t put your weight on the handle-bars when riding. I see some kids doing this and they tend to wobble a lot .. dangerously so. You can ride steady and at good speed if you use the handle-bars for steering and not for resting your body. This is particularly important since we don’t have the luxury of long straight rides in Chennai most often.
Take a break if you feel you need one and stay hydrated.
While you can take some liberties with a cycle that you can’t with a motorcycle (ex: roll it along and cross a road with pedestrians), try to be a good road citizen .. better than the riders/drivers around you. Pedestrians have a hard time in Chennai, so if you’re rolling your bike on walkways, do not hassle pedestrians or cause them discomfort. Of course, respect red lights to the last second.
If your bike doesn’t have a rear-view mirror (mine doesn’t), follow the “blind spot check” rule religiously - i.e. before you change your direction of movement, turn your head over your shoulder in the direction of the turn and check. Bikes are far more agile than other road vehicles and this agility can be a surprise for many, which might lead to accidents.
DO NOT USE A CELL PHONE WHEN RIDING. It looks like this advice needs to be given even to pedestrians - DO NOT USE A CELL PHONE WHEN CROSSING A ROAD, dear pedestrians! If you’re in the vicinity of a rider/driver using a cell phone, ensure your own safety first before you think of telling them to put away their phones when on the road.
Honkers and spitters are irritating. Avoid the urge to pick a verbal fight on the road. If you’re saintly enough to bless them, do so and move on. I’m not so saintly, so I just pretend to be deaf to honkers. Spitters are harder to deal with ‘cos ignoring doesn’t help. Sometimes I’ve told off a few folks with anger both real and faked, and at other times I’ve just avoided them ‘cos it was too dangerous to divert their or my attention.
If you’re riding post-sunset, do get head lights. I’m yet to find ones that don’t fly off the mount and shatter on the roads when I encounter a small bump … so if you find a good one, post in the comments.
Some cops stop traffic to let pedestrians cross at some points. Way to go Chennai Traffic Police! While bikers can usually find gaps to ride through, resist the temptation and be a model for the motor vehicle drivers so they learn to stop for pedestrians.
Offices - if you have showers, it may help encourage more cyclists in the city and a cleaner environ for all.
I’ve heard that bike lanes are being planned. I urge the authorities to consider giving more tree shade instead initially. Bikers don’t get much respect on the roads. So I don’t think just marking our bike lanes is going to get other vehicles to not use them, but tree shade may encourage more to take up cycling and may create de-facto bike lanes. In any case, shade-less bike lanes are useless in Chennai.
It would be awesome if we can take our bikes on trains - perhaps with one cabin reserved for it.
Dear Chennai Traffic Police - “can we have a week day designated as “no honking day” please? I believe the Bangalore police did something like that.