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Sanjay Surana Headshot

Why Singapore Is Heaven For Cyclists

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This morning while riding my bike, I saw the above sign outside my local subway station. "Whoa," I thought to myself, "need to make sure I lock my bike properly from now on."

You see, since moving to Singapore seven months ago, I have become blasé about securing my bike to anything sturdy by means of using something sturdy. Like most expats, I have been unconsciously seduced by the city-state's rock-bottom crime rate and apparent nonexistence of the scourge that we call theft. Friends -- Singaporeans and outsiders -- don't think twice about leaving their bag or phone on a table at a coffee shop, going to the counter to order a hit of caffeine, waiting for the drink and returning to the table five minutes later, their items arranged just as they had left them. In fact, whenever I go to my local supermarket, I leave my bike outside, no lock, rummage around the store for a few minutes before paying and leaving and return to my bike of course untouched. Today's sign was my wake-up call, a warning that there ain't no Utopia.

I read the sign again. Seven thefts in 2012. Back up. Seven in a year, not in a day? This converts to one bike stolen from outside this subway station every 52 days? Hell, in New York City, where I moved from, seven bikes would disappear in a heartbeat.

I remember one afternoon, when I was a bike messenger in Manhattan at the end of the freewheeling 1980s, cycling up to a building on Sixth Avenue in the teens to encounter a handful of dazed messengers standing outside -- they had all had their bikes stolen in less than a minute, just picked up and hauled off, locks too. Poof, just like magic.

In comparison, when I scrutinized the numbers on the signboard before me, I felt kind of warm and fuzzy inside, reassured that my bike wasn't going to get jacked so clinically. (I felt all warm and fuzzy outside too, it was already 88 Fahrenheit at 9:30 that morning.)

I studied the row of cycles parked outside the station; there were approximately 200 of them in various states of deterioration. Multiply that by 365 for a figure of 73,000 opportunities for a bike parked there to be stolen throughout 2012. Of those 73,000 chances, only seven were taken, a rate of less than 0.01%. Those odds I can live with. I can't tell what the comparable number in New York City is, but even as a sworn non-gambler, I'd bet it's much higher.

In NYC, I was paranoid every time I locked my bike anywhere in public -- and it's a $25, Craigslist-purchased, Puch beater for goodness sake. Maybe the lamppost wasn't set properly in the concrete and somebody would lift it and slip the bike and lock off? Maybe a thick-necked goon with a pair of bolt-cutters and a pick-up truck was about to make a sweep of the area? Maybe I'd come back and somebody would have taken off my headset and saddle just for the hell of it?

But comparing the statistics of bike thefts in my former and current homes puts things in perspective. According to NYPD figures reported in AM New York, 1,694 bikes were stolen in New York from January through July 2012, or approximately 242 per month. In Singapore the number of thefts in the first six months of 2012 was 752, or 125 per month, about half the rate of New York you might observe.

Of course, there are more cyclists, and people, in New York. Singapore is not a pleasurable place to ride a bike on the streets. Each time I go out someone tries to run me over for no other reason than I am on the road. One driver, after almost hitting me, berated me for not cycling on the sidewalk and instead taking up precious road space -- then said "Why would I kill you with my little car? I think you would be much happier if a BMW or Mercedes killed you, then you could go to heaven happy." And the Big Apple has policies geared toward boosting the number of bikers on the roads, so when you dig a little deeper, the theft numbers aren't as disparate as they first appear. After factoring in the populations of Singapore and New York -- 5.3 million and 8.2 million respectively -- and reworking the figures, the monthly bike theft rate per million people in Singapore is 23.6, and in New York it's 29.5. That's by no means a huge gulf.

But rather than let a bunch of fuzzy math shape this story, I wanted to see how the average Singaporean cyclist interpreted our little neighborhood "crime spree," so I stopped anyone on a cycle. My first subject was an Indian construction worker, who just nodded his head when I asked him if the number surprised him. I couldn't tell if he meant yes or no. Next up was a young Filippina maid, who had been expertly trained to avoid strange men like me. (And who'd blame her?) I then approached an older Chinese man walking toward his bike -- I was able to catch him because he was on foot having just come out of the subway, weighed down by a couple of plastic bags filled with groceries from Sheng Siong supermarket.

I led him to the sign and asked him about the figure. As he was about to respond, his phone rang. He answered it and launched into some rapid-fire Hokkien. The call ended after two minutes. "No la, number not high. They just put sign there to make people worry, so they will lock bike and be more careful. Police want people to put sticker on bike for safety so can trace." He nodded to a sticker on his bike, shown here.

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I asked him where I could get one and he pointed me to the local Neighborhood Police Post (NPP). I tried to engage him in some idle banter but he quickly pedaled off, less interested in speaking with me than I was with him.

I sped to the local NPP. It was a 100-square-foot wood-paneled office with a crest of the Singapore Police Force on the back wall, a glass-fronted cabinet with a few trophies and a set of Babycham glasses to the right, a display with some pamphlets on crime prevention on the left, a door with a small mirrored window at the back for authorized personnel and two photos (one of the President, the other of a very sweet looking woman who was obviously a government honcho) hung up high above a desk behind which sat the officer on duty.

He was stocky young man with arms thicker than my thighs, a baby face, a big smile and cropped hair. On my side of the desk, a thin, striking, elderly Malay woman was recounting something from a bundle of handwritten pages. I expected to be stuck there for hours, waiting for her to finish her tale of intrigue. Luckily, the officer saw my bike outside, caught my eye, jumped up and interrupted the woman, "Just one minute. Very fast, this will take two minutes." He turned to me.

"Bicycle security label?"

"Yes," I replied, shocked that he knew the reason for my little visit, though in retrospect it was kind of obvious. He took down my name and address and handed me a little sticker with a serial number on it.

"Put that on your bike and if it's stolen we can trace it."

"But what happens if someone peels the sticker off?"

"Don't worry, we can trace it."

"How?" I asked him.

"We have ways, we can't tell you how." Ah police. Secretive no matter where you are.

"How do you find a stolen bike? If mine is taken, you can't have every officer checking every bike out there to see if it has a sticker on it whose number matches the one in my record?"

"We have a number of procedures. We routinely visit all the second-hand bicycle shops to see if they have the bicycle or if they have sold it. We also will put out a description of your bicycle, so if a street officer sees a similar bike being ridden on the street, he can stop the rider and check the bike." He could tell how unimpressed I was with the likely efficacy of the methods described. "Basically, like any theft, there's an element of luck. But the sticker is definitely a deterrent."

So, even if the system isn't foolproof, the rate of bike theft isn't markedly lower than in scary ole NYC and I don't mount a GPS-enabled anti-theft device to my frame, I still somehow feel that my bike is so much safer in Singapore than in New York.

But, oh how I miss bike lanes.