For our first two years in South Korea I owned a motorcycle. Okay, it was only 125cc but next to the other Korean bikes and scooters it looked like a hog. I loved it. I felt like a 21st-century urban cowboy outrunning taxis and trying to beat the traffic lights.
But also like a cowboy I felt lucky to make it home in one piece after a ride. Korean car drivers are the enemy to the modern day urban cowboy. Some days it feels like they are gunning for you. And why not? Motorcyclist in Korea are flashy, ride dangerously and always cuts to the front of traffic at a stoplight.
I often felt more disrespected on my motorcycle then the man I use to see everyday in a tunnel on my commute. He was older than God and he would be cycling through the tunnel against traffic while carrying a load of cardboard on his bike. Cars always gave him a wide berth. Those same cars would pass by me blaring their horn close enough for me to smell the kimchi on the passenger’s breath. So with that man in mind, I bought a road bike when we came back to Korea.
Cycling use to be
a prominent method of transport in Korea. Not until the 1970s did cars begin to overtake bikes. Perhaps this is why Korean drivers still tend to respect cyclist. It is very common to see an old man or woman cycling through town oftentimes in traffic I wouldn’t dream of getting in. Even the kids here have a talent for riding double through busy streets and sidewalks. This sight never fails to bring a smile to my face. But largely, bikes are gone and Hyundais and Kias rule the roads.
Nevertheless, with a helmet firmly on my head, sneakers on my feet and business attire on, I make my way across town to school along with my cycling bretheren the retired people and the school children. We integrate ourselves into the sea of cars heading to work.
So far I have found it to be a little safer than riding a motorcycle, but I still have to be very alert. Here are some of my personal tips for riding in a Korean city.
1. Assume nothing. Don’t assume the car is going to stop. Don’t assume that the taxi isn’t going to stop abruptly right in front of you. Don’t assume that pedestrian will look both ways before stepping out in front of you. Don’t assume that a bus won’t pull out right in front of you. Koreans seem to never look to see what is coming. Don’t assume that they are looking for you.
2. Proceed cautiously. Don’t be the first person though an intersection. Traffic lights are a suggestion. Without fail, a car goes barreling through an intersection after the light has turned red. You don’t want to be in front of that. I always let a car go first through an intersection before I proceed.
3. Be clear about your intentions. Learn your signals and use them. Cars have no bones about passing you on double lines. Be sure they know if you are making a left or not so they don’t choose to pass you as you are making your turn.
4. Stay calm. Panicking isn’t going to help you on the road. If you have to, take it to the sidewalk. Korea has adequate sidewalks and plenty of people cycle on them.
Also check out Jan Boonstra’s more detailed cycling in Korea tips and helpful website.