Biking in Beijing

I’ve acquired a lovable beast of a bicycle. It’s a Flying Pigeon circa 1970, built with copious amounts of low-grade, pre-reform Chinese steel. It’s equipped with rod brakes, a full chain case, an unreliable 3-speed hub gear and – perhaps most importantly – a pigeon emblem on the front basket. The steel wheels are wobbly (neither true nor round) and it rides like a tank. It’s perfect.

It’s taken me a couple weeks to adjust to the culture of bicycling in Beijing. In some ways there are fewer rules. Stopping at traffic lights appears to be mostly optional. I’ve never seen anyone use a hand signal. People ride at night without lights or reflectors. Cars drive and park in the bike lanes. No one wears a helmet (don’t worry Mom, I always wear one).

Riding counter to the dominant flow of traffic in the bike lane is also perfectly acceptable. Since turning left across a typical 8-10 lane arterial here is difficult and sometimes dangerous, people avoid this maneuver and just ride in the opposite direction on the same side of the street. It’s a completely understandable response to road design that prioritizes the movements of automobiles.

When an oncoming bicycle approaches, there does not appear to be a standard side of the lane one should stick to. Each interaction is dealt with on a case-by-case basis, like pedestrians walking across a square or through a crowded hallway. Sometimes it feels a bit like playing chicken, but I’m getting better at reading wheel angles and cyclist body language. I’m also learning to slow down – in the absence of clear rules, riding 15-18 mph like I’m accustomed to is both rude and dangerous.

Many of the rules that do exist are different than in Portland. For example, when I first took to the streets three weeks ago, I would instinctively yield to any pedestrian that looked as if she wanted to cross the street. Instead of being perceived as courteous, my habits confused and frustrated pedestrians. They refused to walk in front of me even when I came to a complete stop and waved them through. I’ve since learned that there is a clear hierarchy of road users in Beijing. Here’s what I’ve observed:

– Large vehicles like buses and medium-sized delivery trucks yield to no one.
– Full size luxury cars, especially the ubiquitous black Audi A8’s, not only yield to no one but can also park or drive wherever they please, including the sidewalk. Blocking pedestrian access is fine.

– Taxis and drivers of more modest means yield to busses, trucks, and black Audi A8’s. They are also entitled to park in the bike lanes, if necessary.

– Motorized cargo tricycles hauling fruit, jugs of drinking water, furniture, etc. yield to “proper” motor coaches. They often park on the sidewalk, but usually in considerate and unobtrusive locations.

– Mopeds and electric bikes whiz by people on human-powered vehicles in the bike lanes without warning, but yield to motorized vehicles with 3 or more wheels.

– Bicycles typically yield to anything with a motor, except when traveling in the bike lane in the same direction as cars.

– Pedestrians must yield to all of the above.

The “bike lanes” here are very spacious by North American standards. They are often more than 12 feet wide and separated from high-speed traffic by a low metal fence or (better yet) a raised curb and a row of trees. Nevertheless, the facilities aren’t true bike lanes or cycle tracks in quite the way North Americans or Europeans think of them, but bicycle-priority environments with a great deal of multi-modal flexibility. As previously mentioned, cars are permitted to drive in them at slow speeds. In fact, cars often must drive in the bike lanes in order to make right turns. Sometimes cars honk at bicyclists while driving in the bike lanes, but the honk is not a sign of aggression. It’s as if to say, “Hello, I’m right behind you and I’d like to pass you, if that becomes a possibility in the near future.” The bicyclists typically ignore the honking and carry on at a slow pace in the middle of the lane, which does not appear to frustrate the motorists one bit. If there is ample space, bicyclists will sometimes move over and let the car(s) pass. People are also free to walk in the bike lanes, and often do for one reason or another – construction, lack of shade on the sidewalk, Audi A8’s blocking the way, etc. It’s a very interesting shared space characterized overwhelmingly by patience and respect. Since the space belongs to everyone instead of a specific mode, nobody feels entitled about their right to be there over others. I think we can learn from this.

Despite the relative chaos, I feel pretty safe riding on the streets of Beijing. Sure, people drive crazy and sometimes ignore established traffic laws. But bicycles are still viewed as legitimate transportation vehicles and are generally treated with respect. No one would think to yell something like “get on the sidewalk”. Probably more than any other factor, there is safety in numbers. While there are no doubt fewer bicycles in Beijing than there were 20 years ago, I’m never alone in a city with over 10 million other bicycles.

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7 thoughts on “Biking in Beijing

  1. This is awesome! So glad you found yourself a bike. As a pedestrian, I completely agree with your hierarchy :)Now, talk to Alex about getting a helmet….

  2. Alex says:

    You should bolt on a cargo box and start selling ice cream.Caroline: Jerry gave me a helmet this morning, i'm safe.

  3. Sara says:

    can you post a photo of one of these audi A8's? i am picturing something out of transformers…

  4. What? No gold shorts?

  5. Lance says:

    Fantastic post…I only spent a month riding around in Xiamen, which is a much smaller city, but the hierarchy of vehicles was clear-cut. The propensity of luxury cars to block sidewalks frustrated me almost to the point of keying a few of them at first, but since none of the locals seemed to care, I decided I shouldn't either.

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