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.
Many of the rules that do exist are different than in Portland. For example, when I first took to thestreets 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:
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, peopledrive 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.