20080313-trans-goose-cart Nolls.jpg There are around a half a billion bicycles in China---about 1 bicycle per household---more than any other country but this was down from from 670 million in the 1990s. There are seven million registered bicycle riders in Beijing and 6.5 million in Shanghai. In most places bicycles outnumber cars at least 10 to 1.

A Beijing New York Times reporter wrote: “Bicycles can be found on every street, and they come in an array of shapes, sizes and uses. There are bikes with cargo beds that carry everything from bags to trash to new sofa sets. There are electric bikes and miniature scooters. Children bounce on the luggage rack behind their parents, and older women teeter on even older bikes. No one wears a helmet.” It is not uncommon to see bicycles with caged songbirds dangling from the handlebars.

While riding in a black Audi sedan, the Vice Mayor of Beijing, Wang Baosen, told the New York Times, "Riding a bike helps you exercise. It can also help save energy, it reduces pollution and it is very convenient for mass use."

In the Mao era bicycles were regarded as one of "three bigs"---along with a sewing machine and wristwatch. People placed their names on waiting lists for years to get them and took out loans form the factories where they worked to help pay for them. Chinese valued bikes in part because the public bus system was so bad and owning a car was impossible. Many cities had wide bike lanes, ample parking spaces on the sidewalks and bicycles had the right of way at intersections.

The first bicycles with air-filled rubber tire seen in China were ridden by two Americans, named Allen and Sachtleben, who ended a three-year bicycle journey from Istanbul to China in 1891 recorded in the book Across Asia on a Bicycle. Not long afterwards the child-emperor Puyi passed many hours in the Forbidden City riding around on a bicycle given to him by his Scottish tutor.

Around 20 million bicycles are sold in China for the domestic market. These days more Chinese-produced bicycles are sold for export. In China The sale of mountain bikes and multi---geared bikes is rising in China as sales of traditional clunkers is declining. Bicycles are increasingly being looked upon as recreation vehicles as well as means of commuting and running errands.

According to a Beijing radio station sited in an Asia New Network article the number of people in Beijing that used bicycles for some of their transport needs fell from 60 percent in 1995 to 20 percent in 2010. It also reported that 40 percent of car owners in China use their cars to drive less than five kilometers, a distance that could easily be covered on a bicycle.

Websites and Resources

taxi driver bike rider fight

Good Websites and Sources: ; World Bank Report ; ; Chinatown Connection ; Library of Congress on Transport in the 1980s ; Sedans China Vista ; Wheelbarrows China Vista ; Sheepskin Rafts China Vista Bicycling : Web Report on Bicycling in China Report Westport.k12 ; New York Times New York Times ; Bicycle Adventures Bicycle Adeventures Bike China Travelogues Bike China Travelogues

Metros and Subways : Guangzhou Metro Wikipedia article Guangzhou Metro: Wikipedia ; Guangzhou Metro official site Guangzhou Metro Maps UrbanRail, Net and Joho Maps and China Highlights; Shanghai Metro Wikipedia article on the Shanghai Metro Wikpedia ; Urban Rail Urban Rail Maps of the the Shanghai Metro Joho Maps and Urban Rail ; Beijing Metro . Beijing Subway Maps Joho Maps and Urban Rail


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Bike commuters in the 1980s
Electric bikes known s as e-bikes have become very popular in recent years. Costing $200 to $300, they can reach a top speed of 30kph and go 50 kilometers (more with pedaling) on a single charge of electricity that costs 16 cents. The lead-based batteries can be charged overnight. They last for about a year before needing to be replaced and can be recycled. In some cities they account for 50 percent of all bicycles used.

About 20 million e-bicycles were sold each year in 2007 and 2008. Some buyers are former car owners. One 45-year-old saleswoman told the Washington Post, “My family bought our first car in the 1990s but we sold our car last year. Having a car is not that convenient, compared with an e-bike.” Alexander Wang of the National Resources Defense Council told the Washington Post, “The real sweet spot will be if China’s e-bike explosion leads to the development of electric cars and the infrastructure for charging these e-vehicles. China is probably better positioned to make this leap than any other country in the world.”

Evan Osnos wrote in The New Yorker, “Traffic alone made it hard to get around... In desperation, I decided to buy an electric bicycle. China has put a hundred million of them on the road in barely ten years, an unplanned phenomenon that, energy experts point out, happens to be a milestone: the world’s first electric vehicle to go mass market. Hunting for an e-bike, I ended up at a string of shops near the Tsinghua campus, where each storefront offered a competing range of prices and styles to a clientele dominated by students and young families. I settled on a model called the Turtle King---a simple contraption, black and styled like a Vespa, with a five-hundred-watt brushless motor and disk brakes. Built of plastic to save weight, it was more akin to a scooter than to a bicycle, and it ran on a pair of lead-acid batteries, similar to those under the hood of a car. The salesman said that the bike would run for twenty to thirty miles, depending on how fast I went, before I would need to plug its cord into the wall for eight hours or lug the batteries inside to charge. With a top speed of around twenty-five miles per hour, it would do little for the ego, but, at just over five hundred dollars, it was worth a try. [Source: Evan Osnos, The New Yorker, December 21, 2009]

“The manager rang up the sale, and I chatted with two buyers who were students at the Beijing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics. “You must have tons of these in the U.S., because you’ re always talking about environmental consciousness,” one of them, an industrial-design major wearing a Che Guevara T-shirt, said. Not really, I told him; American drivers generally use bikes for exercise, not transportation. He looked baffled. Around his campus and others in Beijing, electric bikes are as routine as motorcycles are in the hill towns of Italy.” [Ibid]

“I eased the Turtle King down over the curb and accelerated to full speed, such as it was. I threaded through an intersection clotted with honking traffic, and the feeling, I discovered, was sublime. The Turtle King was addictive. I began riding it everywhere, showing up early for appointments, flush with efficiency and a soupçon of moral superiority. For years, people had abandoned Beijing’s bicycle lanes in favor of cars, but now the bike lanes were alive again, in an unruly showcase of innovation. Young riders souped up their bikes into status symbols, pulsing with flashing lights and subwoofers; construction workers drove them like mules, laden down to the axles with sledgehammers and drills and propane tanks; parents with kids’ seats on the back drifted through rush-hour traffic and reached school on time. Before long, I was coveting an upgrade to a lithium-ion battery, which is lighter and runs longer. (Lithium-ion batteries have sparked interest in electric bikes in the West. They are a high-minded new accessory in Paris, and more than a few have even turned up in America.)” [Ibid]

“As a machine, the Turtle King was in desperate need of improvement. The chintzy horn broke the first day. The battery never went as far as advertised, and it was so heavy that I narrowly missed breaking some toes as it crashed to the ground on the way into the living room. Soon, the sharp winter wind in Beijing was testing my commitment to transportation al fresco. And yet, for all its imperfections, the Turtle King was so much more practical than sitting in a stopped taxi or crowding onto a Beijing bus that it had become what all new-energy technology is somehow supposed to be: cheap, simple, and unobtrusive enough so that using it is no longer a matter of sacrifice but one of self-interest.” [Ibid]

China’s alternative 863 energy Program has added a program to build a micro-electric car, inspired by bicycle components, for commuters. “Researchers at Tsinghua did just that, by attaching four electric-bike motors to a chassis. “We call it the Hali,” Ouyang Minggao, the Tsinghua professor in charge of it, told me. They took the name from the Chinese translation of “Harry Potter.” The car is tiny and bulbous, and is being road-tested near Shanghai. [Ibid]

Commuting and Commerce by Bicycle in China

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The Chinese ride their bicycles in the rain and snow. Up until fairly recently when it rained in Shanghai, the streets filled with bicycle riders in blue, yellow, red and purple ponchos. There were so many bicycles in Shanghai that sometimes traffic stammered to a halt with bicycle gridlock.

China has roads and reserved for bicycles. Roadside bicycle repairmen are common sights.

Each year there around 350 bicycle related fatalities in Shanghai. Chinese cyclist often ride against the flow of traffic, swerve suddenly and come flying in off of side roads without looking. Posters of cyclists horribly mutilated in accidents are hung up all over town. Cyclists who have survived several accidents are often sent to "re-education classes."

The Chinese perform modern day miracles with their bicycles and tricycles. National Geographic reporter Ross Terril witnessed a double bed with a floral mattress, boxes of hens piled eight feet high and tied together with string; and a purple velvet sofa and a wardrobe---all carried on the backs of bicycles and tricycles. Farmers take 100 kilogram pigs to slaughter on the back of tricycles.

These days, bicycle use is declining in many places as more and more people have access to cars. In 1998, bicycles were banned from East Xisi Street, near the Forbidden City in Beijing, to make it easier for car traffic. Violators were chased down by guards with bullhorns and red arm bands. The ban was extended to other streets later on. Many people were angered by the ban. Bicyclists were angry they had to take a longer route and environmentalists said it sent the wrong message at a time when Beijing has recording some of the world's worst air pollution. Bicycles were banned from all major roads in Shanghai in 2004 to make more room for cars.

One Beijing cyclist told the Washington Post, “The drivers are very aggressive. They won’t wait for you for a second. The road belongs to them now.” Some studies indicate that the decline of bike usage may be short-lived as the practicality of a bicycles kicks in and the novelty of car driving wears off.

Bicycle Riding in Beijing

“Beijing bicyclists pedal differently from their Western counterparts,” Joost Polak wrote in the Washington Post. “They set their seats a bit low, lean almost backwards and pedal with the arch or even the heels rather than the ball of their feet, which plays their knees out on the upstroke.”

Explaining how his Chinese friend shifted across six lanes of traffic in Beijing Polak wrote in the Washington Post, “Xian Fang, moved ahead to the first lane of cross traffic...Seeing a gap, she pushed through to the next lane, braked to a near standstill, them pumped her way across another lane. After a couple more lanes I began to see the gaps that seemed so clear to her. And then it was time to look in the other direction and work our way across the traffic coming from our left.”

On bike lanes on both sides of the streets are filled with bikes, electric and gas-powered motorbikes, delivery tricycles and pedicabs traveling in both directions. Polak wrote,: “They are almost always wide enough for cars to fit into. So they do. Sometimes they nip into the bike lane because all of the vehicle lanes are slowing. Sometimes the drivers pull over and park to make a cell phone call.”

American Olympic cyclist Taylor Finney took his bike out for a spin on the streets of Beijing during the Olympics in 2008. He said he couldn’t believe that none of the Chinese were wearing helmets. “I wore a helmet because I’m scared of Chinese drivers!” he said. “I’m scared even on a bus. There’s no way I’m not wearing a helmet.”


Bike Lanes of Beijing

Evan Osnos wrote in The New Yorker, “Beijing has at least three definable species of bike lane. The most luxurious, which we’ll call Business Class, is a ribbon of designated asphalt set off from the car world by a sidewalk and often a tree or two: The second variety, Economy Class, shares the roadway with cars and buses, but takes up the prized area beside the curb, monopolizing the space for parking that has John concerned.” [Source: Evan Osnos, The New Yorker, March 11, 2011]

“The third species, which we’ll call Economy Plus, has elements of both: a line of parked cars, a lane for bikes, and at least two lanes for autos. Pros and cons: Everybody gets their lane, but that has required widening some of Beijing’s roads to at least seven lanes, and very often twice that, producing not so much roads as “exalting deserts of tarmac,” as a visiting urban planner once put it. Along the way, the buildings on either side get leveled (with or without a fight) and neighborhoods are altered. None of this is the fault of the bike lanes---the roads are being widened, without question, for cars---but none of the options are without tradeoffs.” [Ibid]

“Before cyclists start boarding flights for Beijing like the fellow travellers of yore, know that bicycle production has been falling since 1995 here, and the lanes have been gobbled up by cars ever since. The country has been rapidly losing its attachment to the human-powered two-wheeler that it first glimpsed in the late nineteenth century and regarded as a “foreign horse” or a “little mule that you drive by the ears.” One of the replacements, I’m pleased to say, is the electric bike, which I’ve been driving by the ears for eighteen months and counting. Not surprisingly, I’m an ardent fan of the bike lanes and would seriously rethink my own e-bike evangelism if they disappeared. For a comparison of the situation on both sides of the Pacific, I turned to Ed Wong of the Times. He pedals all over this town, and did so as well in New York a decade ago, before bike lanes had taken off. [Ibid]

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On riding a bicycle in Beijing compared to New York City, Edward Wong of the New York Times wrote: “It was always a joy biking through the city, definitely preferable to taking the subway, but it’s no exaggeration to say that I had a close call on virtually all my rides. By comparison, biking in Beijing has been a breath of fresh air (or as fresh as air can be here.) The bike lanes give me a sense of security that was always absent from my experience in New York. As for the argument that bike lanes lead to automobile congestion, that seems absurd from a Beijinger’s point of view. Some studies show that Beijing is now the most congested city in the world. There are many reasons for this, but I have yet to hear any transportation expert cite the bike lanes as a factor.” [Ibid]

“No question that as Beijing has built more roads, drivers have expanded to fill them. But I fear that all of this braying has obscured John’s point that it is not the presence of the lanes he resents, but the manner in which they are being foisted upon him. As he argues, “it should be put to a vote rather than being enacted via bureaucratic diktat.” Bureaucratic diktats are something else that we in Beijing know well. It’s fashionable these days to admire Beijing’s ability to marshal public resources to do things efficiently, whether it’s installing wind turbines on the hillsides or embarking on another eight (yes, eight) new subway lines this year. But the part worth envying is the ambition of a city to envision bold changes and investments---not the ostensible efficiency of a system that deprives people of the right to participate in those choice. As we see everyday here, knocking down houses without adequate due process, in order to modernize the city, might make those neighborhoods more hospitable, but it also has a toxic effect on the political health of the city. Good ideas are good enough to put to a vote.” [Ibid]

Insane Cycling in Guangzhou

car and bike crashes
On bike riding in Guangzhou, William Foreman of Associated Press wrote: “Cyclists feel themselves being pushed aside. A bike lane near my home is marked with a thick white line, a sign and a bike symbol painted on the pavement. But the line has been chopped up for parking spaces. It’s now a bike lane only when motorists aren’t using it. Anyway, lanes may as well not exist---drivers seem to think their cars are protected by a force field. And it’s not just drivers who are a menace, but pedestrians and even other cyclists. I recently slammed into a migrant worker who blindly pedaled into an intersection. Neither of us was seriously injured, but I badly bruised my hip and wrist as I hit the road and bounced for a few feet. [Source: William Foreman, Associated Press, November 1, 2009]

“While leisure bikes are catching on among Chinese yuppies and college students, few take to the busy streets. Those who do wear helmets, as do I, but we’re a tiny subculture. The commuting laborers don’t wear helmets. Many of the people behind the wheels of the shiny new cars just got their licenses, and their driving sometimes reminds me of my own in high school. Some drivers are courteous to cyclists, perhaps remembering that they were among them not long ago. But others, especially the nouveaux riches in their Audis and BMWs, show an obvious contempt. They cut off cyclists and deny them the right of way. A honk is usually not a warning to be alert, but a “get out of my way” threat.” [Ibid]

“I encountered an extreme example during a training ride with a friend. It was 6:30 a.m. and we were hammering down an empty three-lane thoroughfare at 40 kph when a black Volkswagen Passat behind us opened up with its horn. As it raced beside us we exchanged obscenities until the driver---a beefy man in the kind of crew cut that’s popular with police, military and the mob---swerved in front and nearly knocked us down. Few people seem annoyed by Guangzhou’s cacophony of car horns. Sometimes drivers seem to be beeping just as a way of saying hello to the weird spandex-clad foreigner.” [Ibid]

“Once, while I was barreling through a tunnel, a cement truck rumbled up on my back wheel and the driver started honking. The sound echoing off the tunnel’s walls was deafening. Then I saw the driver and another guy in the cab laughing and yelling “Jia you!” It means “Add fuel!”---a Chinese sports cheer. Being tailgated is especially unnerving because roads are so poor. If your skinny racing tires hit a brick or pothole, you can quickly find yourself under a car.” [Ibid]

“Construction frenzy keeps the roads under a constant cover of dirt, gravel and debris. Water trucks cruise the streets before rush hour each morning, spraying water to control the dust. But they have no sweeping mechanism, so they leave a slippery layer of gritty mud that clogs expensive bike parts and can bring a cyclist down. Each new pothole must be marked on the cyclist’s mental map. Recently after a hard rain, I thought I was speeding through a harmless puddle but it was a hole. It cracked my custom-made bike frame and broke the wheel.” [Ibid]

Speed bumps are another hazard. The Chinese authorities love them. Their purpose seems designed not to slow speeders but to punish them. Rarely are they signposted, and they are usually unpainted and hard to see. Near my home, officials have opted for the cheap option---a thick pipe across the road, anchored by roughly cut spikes of rebar that can slice open a bike tire.Perhaps the most hazardous obstacles are created by the midnight mystery dumpers. Their trucks bring construction waste---cement chunks, broken bricks, scraps of dry wall, splintered plywood---to unlit stretches of road and dump the loads where they can easily bring down any unwary biker. [Ibid]

Bicycle Production in China

more car and bike crashes
Each year China produces 17½ million bicycles, three times as many bicycles as it nearest rivals, Japan and the U.S. If these bicycles were lined up together they would stretch three quarter of the way around the world. In the Mao and Deng eras China produced even more.

At its peak, the Shanghai Forever Bicycle Company alone produced 33.5 million bicycle every year, and one out of every four Chinese rode a bicycle made at this factory. Most of the bikes made there were black one-gear models made from water pipe known as Flying Pigeons. Models exported to the U.S. were called Wind Catchers. Many of the sophisticated road bikes and mountain bikes sold around the world today are made in China or Taiwan.

What to do with old, rusting bicycles is a big problem in many Chinese cities. Recycling centers are a rarity. Many people dispose of their bikes by abandoning them in fields, parking lots or alleys where they can remain for months.

Image Sources: 1) Columbia University; 2) BBC, Environmental News; 3, 7) University of Washington; 4, 5, 6) Nolls China website ; Julie Chao, Wiki Commons ; YouTube

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated July 2011

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