By JP McNeil – Shenzhen fascinates me. The transformation from a collection of farming and fishing villages into a megacity over the past 30 years – in my lifetime – is still hard for me to wrap my head around. I understand it conceptually, but as I walk around the city, I have a hard time imagining what it would have looked like, say, as I entered kindergarten. Historic photos help, but not a lot. With so much for a planner to focus on, I’m a bit surprised to find myself writing about bicycling and bike infrastructure in Shenzhen. Not that I don’t like bikes – I’m a fair-weather bike commuter and I love trekking around town in the summer months – but it’s not my specialty or passion. Nevertheless, a couple of things pointed me in the direction of this blog. The first was the detritus of my cubicle. The man who previously occupied my cube took a job in Shanghai, departing abruptly and leaving many of his belongings behind, including a fold-up commuter bike. I was told I could help myself to anything in the cube, so I did (the box of green tea was great, too).
The other push came out of a simple question from a Chinese colleague. Shortly after my arrival at CAUPD, I was asked to give a presentation about my past experiences as a planner in Oregon. My studio politely listened to me talk about land use policy in Oregon and small-town economic development, though they seemed only vaguely interested. At the end, one of them asked “What about bike planning? Why Portland?” I had not even mentioned bikes in my presentation, but my city’s reputation preceded me. This led to a request for a “lecture” on bike planning in Portland and also got me wondering about the experience of biking in the two cities and how they compare.
Upon my arrival in Shenzhen, one of the first things I noticed was the abundance of bike infrastructure. Wide, separated cycle tracks and marked bike lanes on sidewalks seemed to be everywhere. I came across two different bike shares. People tottered about on bikes and bike-like contraptions (e-bikes and electric scooters share space with pedestrians and cyclists). Despite the number of riders, there are still plenty of cars. The street environment is a chaotic mix of cars, buses, bikes, e-bikes, scooters, and pedestrians.
The spatial layout and road design varies across the city, ranging from narrow, crowded neighborhood streets where pedestrians, bikes, and cars share the road to wide boulevards lined with separated cycle tracks and spacious, tree-lined sidewalks. The quality and existence of bike facilities, level of separation from traffic, and actual use is highly variable. Nevertheless, I’ve come across some of the nicest cycle tracks here in Shenzhen than I’ve seen anywhere, with the best generally found in neighborhoods that cater to Westerners.
With all of this great bike infrastructure all around me, I set out on my Dahon China Domestic Commuter to test it out. I’d already ridden around the neighborhood a bit, but I wanted to ride up into the hills to the Meilin Reservoir and see a bit of nature for a change. According to the map given to me by a colleague, I just needed to get myself to the greenway (a shared bike and pedestrian path) and head up into the hills. Though I did make it up to the reservoir, this was easier said than done. What I realized on my trip is that Shenzhen planners and developers have been very thoughtful and intentional about including facilities for bikes in their designs; less so about how it all fits together. In some places, cycle tracks end abruptly in gravel or at a freeway on-ramp. In other places, they are used for parking (or secondary roadways). The city is also crisscrossed with many freeways and wide, auto-only boulevards. Scattered pedestrian bridges provide crossings, but they are not always easy to find or access.
At times, there seems to be something lost in the execution – seemingly well-designed, marked bike lanes blocked with lampposts and street signs. Or the stretch of the greenway paved with granite cobblestones. The dizzying pace of development also takes its toll. Construction equipment and detours are everywhere. I quickly realized that there are any number of reasons why I commonly see people riding in the right lane of the freeway or against traffic down a major boulevard. Often the only reasonable way to actually get to my destination took the kind of creative riding that in Portland would elicit brutal passive-aggression (or a ticket).
Overall, the trip to the reservoir was a pleasant experience, despite the challenges. My colleagues were very curious to hear about my trip, and they were not at all surprised with my critique. Though a few do ride around the city themselves, most do not. My unscientific survey suggests that, similar to Portland, women are more reluctant riders than men. The primary deterrents cited were concerns about theft, convenience, and safety. I’m told that bike theft is common, even with locks. I’ve noticed that, with a few exceptions, bicycle parking is exceedingly rare. As a result, most people just stick a lock through the spokes of the tire, so a high theft rate is not terribly surprising. Investing in more bike parking (and better locks) could reduce the amount of theft. As for convenience, I was told by several colleagues that they do not ride to work because they live in outer areas of the city – not only is it a long ride with large hills to cross, bikes are not allowed on the subway and buses are not equipped with bike racks. When I suggested exploring possibilities for bikes on transit, most dismissed the idea out of hand simply because transit is already so overcrowded.
From my own experience, I realized that safety concerns are certainly not without cause. Drivers in Shenzhen rule the road and they are aggressive. If you are a pedestrian or cyclist impeding the flow of vehicular traffic in any way (say, attempting to use a crosswalk or cross a driveway entrance) you will get honked at and/or edged out of the way. But there exists the potential for equally as much conflict between cyclists and pedestrians as they often share the same (crowded) space.
I’ll save a discussion of safety, comfort, and behavior for a future post because I think those factors need deeper examination. As for a comparison between cities, Shenzhen has certainly invested more in separated bike facilities and shared pathways. However, Portland seems to be doing a better job at developing a cohesive bike network that allows for a more seamless riding experience and low-stress routes. Nevertheless, the beauty of this internship is the cross-pollination of ideas. My colleagues tell me they are very excited to learn more about bicycle master planning.