Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Scooters: Riding in Seoul

I've got an hour free from the kids late this morning. It's nice because I am at the beginning of a two-week conversation exam. 2100 minutes of conversation for points! I get to speak with each of my 700 or so students for three minutes: introductions, favorites, memories, personalities. It's difficult for me because of the mind-numbing repetition. It's horrible for the kids because they are acutely aware of their below-expectations conversation skills. I hate that about school here. The students are really ground in to the locale. I'm working hard to make the three minutes as entertaining as possible; I'm only 85 students into the 700-deep kid pool and very tired indeed. In fact, soaked.

During my break. I thought I'd write a little about Spring scooting in Seoul. It's worth thinking about riding safety this month because we had a rather atypical winter. It was very wet and very cold. And winter sucks the humidity right out of Seoul. So, it's dry, too. This is not good for the scooters and the roads.

First, I think it's a good idea to get your scooter tuned after each winter. (Even better, tune it yourself.) On the newer scooters, it might not be necessary for you to change your oil. However, it's worth it to get the brakes checked and get somebody to physically inspect the bike. Also have the variator, its bearings and belt examined.

It's obvious that Seoul bureaucrats didn't anticipate a rough winter because many streets had been newly paved with soft, black asphalt in November just before the first chill and snow. This means a two to three inch layer of asphalt was laid on top of already existing streets and never had time to fully set before the rigors of winter and traffic. Many places in my district, the city didn't bother to demolish the decaying older layer of concrete and asphalt and the roads are now a mess. But we should expect to see problems even in the areas that were torn up to prepare for a new street.

Because of the unseasonable weather, we have streets with soft, crumbling pockets of asphalt in heavily traveled lanes and rightmost bus lanes. In addition, we have very dangerous potholes. Because many new manholes have been created on side streets, you will want to look out for manholes sticking out and above the street. You won't want to be running into those.

I want to address the potholes because they are, in fact, the most difficult road hazard to see. When scooting on an asphalt or concrete road with little traffic, an attentive rider will have little trouble spotting holes. Seoul's traffic makes this cautious, predictive riding difficult. As a result, we have to assume that we will encounter potholes while riding, even if we can't see them. My advice is to ride in the middle lane of traffic whenever you're riding in an area of town you're unfamiliar with.

Most major streets in Seoul have three accessible lanes of traffic. There are typically four lanes, but one is often for the buses or clogged with parked taxis. My advice is to ride in the center lane because the rightmost lanes are always the most heavily traveled and are likely to have the most potholes as a result. The most dangerous potholes will appear in two places in the right lanes: where the driving surface meets the concrete foundation for the curb and to the right of the painted lane divisions where the left tires of most vehicles travel.

The safest place to scoot is in the middle of the middle lane of traffic. Never mind the potholes, it's simply safer than the left or right lanes. While you're learning to ride and learning to ride in Seoul, I think it's a good idea to resist cruising in the right hand lanes. Seoul drivers love to make right hand turns from the middle lanes. They do this because they're impatient and lost, but also because the taxis usually clog the right hand lanes and often pull over to pick up or drop off passengers without any notice. Scooting in the right hand lane, therefore, takes some skill and nerve. If you make a habit of it, you will need to learn how to be cut-off and pinched from your lane without stopping and falling off your scooter or, more likely, causing every driver behind you and to your left to have to quickly stop while you do.

The left lane is also a difficult proposition because Seoul drivers, and especially taxi and bus drivers, love to jockey between lanes without reason and without signaling. I have begun referring to this as "lane protecting". The drivers like to protect a comfortable area in a lane or potential lane. I used to think they were jockeying just to travel faster. After six months of scooting, I have learned that drivers know they are getting nowhere fast. The lane jockeying is often an aggressive (and sometimes violent) reaction to the clogged traffic conditions. Anyway, many will signal but just as they pull into their new lanes.

Lane-jockeying might be the most dangerous habit drivers develop on Seoul streets. It's such a terrible itch for some that they will drive with a quarter of their car occupying the left lane and the rest in the right. And if you try to pass them, they will knee-jerk their car in front of you.

Seoul road conditions make scooting here dangerous and something for the aggressive driver. Seoul is not the place for leisurely scooting: it's dirty, aggressive labor. It's a blast, too, don't get me wrong. Just don't buy a scooter thinking you'll be loving leisurely scoots along the river or through Hongdae or to Itaewon. These are three of the most traffic-bound areas in Seoul and, consequently, the most dangerous places to ride.

Back to lane tactics: I find myself accelerating out of bad situations much more often than decelerating and playing defense. This is necessary because the drivers are often completely unaware of your presence. Be warned: Seoul drivers only use their mirrors to park. When a driver makes a move and cuts you off, you may not be able to slow down because of the tailgating traffic behind you and that may cause you to get pinched in between cars. If that happens you'll likely be bumped into, scared, and scratch the other cars as well as your scooter. And the drivers will likely pretend nothing happened or you'll have an old guy follow you and insist you give him money. If you think I'm exaggerating, take a moment to examine the condition of cars in Seoul (if you haven't already). There are not many that lack physical evidence of minor accidents and collisions. If you get bumped in heavy traffic, you'll likely only receive an ugly stare. To the point, if somebody begins to move into your lane, it's often safer to quickly accelerate (as you can on a good scooter) and travel the 15 feet to get in front of the dangerous idiot cutting you off.

A side note: taxi drivers are often the most aggressive drivers. This is good for us because we can easily see them. And if you keep their driving habits in mind, you'll be the safer for it. On Lane-splitting: If you like to travel between lanes in slow traffic like many scooterists do here, you must keep an eye on the taxis. Many ajeossi will see you coming and turn into the lane you've split to cut off your access to pass. It's a dick move, but they'll do it. (And so will the bus drivers, but asshole bus drivers are for another post. Safe to say, watch out for them. They will run you off the road on purpose.) If you're traveling slow enough, you can simply turn behind the taxi and pass on his right with comfortable room. If you're zooming along at an unsafe speed for lane-splitting, you'll end up stopped near the driver's window and only to be ignored by the man who just got a huge kick out of encumbering your progress.

In addition, taxi drivers are not afraid of moving into a lane you occupy to accelerate beyond slower traffic. They will use the part of the lane you aren't driving in to just make it past a car traveling the speed limit in front of them. Yes, it's dangerous. No, it does absolutely no good to get upset about it. You must be prepared for these kinds of aggressive driving tactics. When they happen to you, you cannot get so frightened you lose control of yourself. Take a breath, don't change your speed, loosen your grip on the accelerator, and swear up a storm. I end up with a taxi driving two inches from my knee at least once each time a drive in traffic. You will get used to it.

Remember:
  1. If you aren't traveling at full speed, you can often quickly accelerate out of a troubling situation by traveling a mere ten to twenty feet forward and finding/creating new space to ride in.
  2. Never tailgate. Never Never Never. You will end up on the trunk of a car.
  3. You can stop more quickly than you think possible. If you need to stop quickly, don't throw yourself of your scooter. I've seen it happen.
  4. Ride in a lane that will permit you to see as much of the road ahead of you as possible. Good scooterists are able to see the road ahead and reliably forecast what will happen. In addition, you need to see the road in front of you to check for litter, industrial waste, sand, and potholes.
  5. The lane paint in Korea is much more slippery when wet than anything I encountered in the US. I don't know why but it's like ice. It's often slippery when visibly dry. You will lose control if you ride on the lane paint. It's only a matter of when. Stay off of it.

OK, students are returning to continue testing. I'll have more scooter info this week. And some photos and videos to come.

I've met a store owner who wants to sell scooters to foreigners, but he recently changed his phone number. I'll track him down shortly. He treated me fairly, and I think he believes he can create a little business by cultivating a good reputation with knowledgeable foreigners. Of course, before buying a scooter you should know what you want and the kind of bike you want. Otherwise, somebody will take advantage of you and sell you something you don't know anything about. It'll be your fault if things don't work out. If you need help, I have time to help. Ask me a question or two.

You can easily find info about scooters on the Internet. Just a search in Google images can help you discover what you like and help you learn names. My advice is to discover the scooters in our market. They have different names here than in Europe and the US. A quick primer: stay away from Chinese scoots; they need a lot of repair. Japanese scooters will be your best bet because many Korean brands are actually Chinese bikes. Some Taiwanese brands are good, too.

It's not worth it to unload $5,000-7,000 on a nice Vespa because you want to look cute or be hip. And if you don't know vintage scooters, stay away from the Genuine Stella or older Vespas. There are a couple of shops selling vintage and vintage-style scooters here; it's a shitty thing to do to a foreigner who knows nothing about scooters, lives in an officetel, has no garage, can't speak the language, and can't work on her or his own bike. Parts and service for old bikes and vintage-style two strokes are hard to come by in Seoul. There's only two or three trustworthy shops and they will be expensive due to their exclusivity. In addition, if you're like me and would like to work on an old bike, parts must be ordered online and garage space is difficult to come by. Anyway, your cool vintage bike will eventually break and if you know nothing about it, you'll be very pissed with how hard it is to insure its proper repair. And you'll likely be stranded on the side of the road crying about it all as your illusion of hipness evaporates into the Seoul summer heat.

In addition, your bike will get dirty and scratched and you can't do anything about it. Buying a fancy shining luxury item in Seoul is ok if you don't mind it losing half its value immediately and you don't mind the prospect of not finding somebody to buy it when you leave in a couple of years. Who would want to spend that kind of money on a used scooter?

Anyway, stay in touch scooter fans and don't be afraid to ask questions. If you've been waiting for me to respond recently, I have been sick and so busy at work and language school and with family. I apologize. Do get in touch with me now via the site or email. We'll talk. Let's get you a scooter. It's a real kick and the best way to learn about this city.

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2 comments:

marksim said...

Hey!

I've been looking to get a scooter for the past while.
Could you help me out?

You can reach me at marksim86@gmail.com

Thanks!

Mark

Gary Norris said...

Ok, I am back from a really busy time with school. If you need help, look me up. I'll drop you an email tomorrow.