Don’t Share the Road: Modal Separation in Chinese Cities

China doesn't think that cyclists co-exist harmoniously with cars - it's better if everyone has their own space!

China doesn’t think that cyclists co-exist harmoniously with cars!

Bumper (or bike bucket) stickers around Portland often encourage us to “Share the Road.”   Chinese planners would rather you didn’t.

That isn’t to say that they feel that bikes, electric scooters, and motorcycles have no place in traffic.  On the contrary, my experience has been that Chinese cities show great respect for slower-moving wheeled vehicles on major arterials.  Rather than mandating that cyclists ride in narrow bike lanes with only a thin white stripe of paint to protect them from the adjacent high-speed car and truck traffic, two-wheeled vehicles on Shanghai and Beijing arterials are generally given their own lane separated from auto traffic by a concrete-lined green planting strip.


A giant green buffer, concrete curbs, and fencing separate a cyclist from car traffic lanes.

A giant green buffer, concrete curbs, and fencing separate a cyclist from car traffic lanes.

Sometimes this side lane doubles as a parking strip, meaning that users of the bike/scooter share their space with the occasional car.  These cars are traveling about 10-15 mph as they search for the ever-elusive parking space and, while an occasional annoyance, they don’t pose the immediate threat to life that the main car traffic lanes would present.   The relaxed pace, combined with the overhead canopy of trees, makes for a reasonably pleasant route (until you get to an intersection, which is an entirely different beast (and blog post) all together).

That's a lot of right-of-way.

That’s a lot of right-of-way.

So how did cities like Beijing and Shanghai get the kind of separated infrastructure that Portland seems to only dream about?  Perhaps a few reasons.  The first may be the benefit of space.  Road expansions have been widespread and often brutal to the traditional fabric of historic urban communities, but the result gives Chinese planners a tremendous amount of right-of-way to work with.  When road cross-sections are over 100 feet, you suddenly have plenty of room for a full bike/scooter travel lane and a generous buffer.


A cross-section of Century Boulevard in Shanghai.

A cross-section of Century Boulevard in Shanghai.

The second reason, perhaps, may be timing.  Bicycle, e-bike, and scooter riders in Beijing benefit from living in a city that was re-designed right before the personal automobile consumed all right to the right-of-way.  Although the percentages are rapidly changing, millions of people in Chinese cities still rely on bikes, e-bikes, and scooters to get around and planners recognized this when re-configuring and modernizing the roads.  Thus the transportation system still contains significant and separate accommodations for the slower modes of transportation that people had relied on for the past hundred years. And, because those accommodations provide relatively safe, low-stress environments, cities like Beijing are more likely to retain cautious riders that might be deterred if their only option were to “share the road” with high-speed auto traffic as in American cities.

Regardless of the reasons, a cyclist is treated to more first-class facilities in car-crazy Beijing than in pedal-loving Portland.

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