Can bicycle transport work in a tropical city?

The past decade has seen densely populated cities such as Paris, Barcelona, New York and London take efforts to give cycling a meaningful role beside driving, public transit and walking. Each city has developed networks of off-road routes and protected cycle tracks, modelled on networks in the world’s two leading bike transport nations, Denmark and the Netherlands. As a seeding measure they have also provided cheap city bikes, to remove the barriers of bike ownership, maintenance and protection from theft. Assuming each city has the resolve to push forward with the experiment, each will add a new prong to urban transport that is largely immune from attack or natural disaster, and that immunises citizens by making exercise a part of their daily lives.


Of the cities mentioned, the nearest to the equator is New York, with a latitude of 40.71 degrees. The hottest is Barcelona, even though it is slightly closer to the North Pole. But to someone watching this bike craze unfolding from the equator, both cities must seem almost arctic. Singapore has temperatures in the 30s every afternoon, of every day, and humidity near saturation each morning. Commuting is as much a battle with perspiration as a battle with traffic or crowds squeezing onto the trains.

I’m working on a paper with a Singaporean colleague, based in Australia, whose expertise is natural and technological approaches to cooling. While we still have some figures that we need to grind, we’re optimistic already that Singaporean bicycle commuters could be kept cool while they are riding. The best way forward is decidedly simple, and in fact dates from ancient times. The emperor Hadrian used it to stay cool at his Villa in Summer, as he took his three mile constitutional walk every day. He built himself a criptoportico

The basic idea is to shade paths with concrete roofs, so massive, they can’t heat up each afternoon. The cool mass above you, drops cooler air on your body than you will find anywhere else in the day. Covered bike highways needn’t be so enclosed as Hadrian’s tunnels, to remain cool. They could have long views giving onto naturalised waterways, like Cheonggyecheon in Korea—it is a happy coincidence that most of Singapore’s available space for bike highways is beside cool bodies of water.

Cheonggyecheon in Korea

Meanwhile, cyclists will enjoy humid air blowing on them at whatever speed they are riding. In the absence of firm figures, I think you could assume air temperatures in the mid twenties, with a wind-chill factor making it seem even cooler.

Notional Bike Highway map. Image Wang Kewen Kelvin and Lam Jia Xin

That’s fine until you stop pedalling and start to sweat, so profusely it seems your skin is a tap. We’re hoping this problem could be dealt with by the building, over time, of thousands of secure bike parking stations, near shops and places of schooling and work, where riders could be bombard with fan-forced air-conditioning for a few minutes when they arrive. We’re hoping that even riders who have felt a little exertion will be able to walk into their offices, in the work clothes they wore on their bikes, and feel as cool as anyone who has just walked from the train.

Air conditioned bike parking station in sub-tropical Brisbane, Australia



  1. ladyfleur says:

    Japan should be the model for cycling in hot weather. They’ve got near-tropical heat and humidity in the summers and that doesn’t stop people from riding bikes. Sweat? Yes, but they don’t care. Pretty impressive for a culture known for its being fastidious about cleanliness. Too bad Singapore didn’t imitate that aspect of Japanese culture.

    Oh, and instead of concrete covers, I recommend trees. They do a great job, are much prettier and also clean the air. I survived a hot summer ride in the American deep south due to the massive oak trees.

    • Steven says:

      The other similarities I’m seeing between singapore and japan are a penchant for small wheel bikes that are more polite among pedestrians and easier to fit in an apartment, and the hobbyist approach they take to collecting rare bikes and parading them.
      Trees are cool, and they are cool, but they don’t provide shelter when your morning commute coincides with a tropical downpour. Give me stone barrel vaults lined with Roman imitations of Greek statues, and I guess a few reclining Buddhas and reliefs of the Ganges. Thanks fro dropping by Lady Fleur!

Leave a Reply to ladyfleur Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published.