When I first arrived in Beijing in 2010, my biggest surprise was the lack of bicycles. As a young lad, gaping over sepia prints of China, it was the hordes of bicycles on Beijing’s streets that made the biggest impression. These days, China’s bicycle situation is one of the most noticeable indicators of the changes China has made over the past three decades.
Beijing has many great things, but its diminishing bike culture isn’t one of them. Just 10 years ago, 60% of Beijingers used peddle power to get to work. But with increasing wealth, sprawling suburbs, bigger roads and lessening bike lanes, that figure now languishes below many European cities, at 20%. For someone who enjoys powering two wheels from a hard seat, I was disappointed.
Six months later and a 1,200 kilometre move south to Shanghai, my faith was restored. Shanghai is China’s original home of cycling and it still reigns as a dreamland for those who enjoy a little excitement when they play on their peddles.
China was late to jump on the bicycle movement. It missed the velocipede buzz and by 1900, the only signs of peddle power were from westerners in foreign concession towns like Shanghai and Tianjin, and a trickle of Chinese students, journalists and traders returning from overseas with their wheels. High tariffs & shipping meant bicycles in China cost 40% more than in Europe. Most wealthy Chinese who could afford them, had no desire to sweat on a bike when there were perfectly good sedan chairs, and later rickshaws, to get around. But as foreign fashions caught on in Shanghai, some of the nouveau rich joined the peloton. The city’s harlots (“sing-song girls”) also adopted bicycles as their vehicle of choice to visit clients on the concessionary docklands.
Bicycle adoption in China only really toddled along until Mao took charge in 1949 and declared the bike the vehicle for the people, incorporating a massive production drive as part of his Government’s first 5-year plan. That’s when the China with bicycles in the sepia prints came into being.
Although China’s bicycle-riding numbers are in decline, not helped by cities such as Shenzhen removing cycle lanes to ‘reduce congestion’, some of China’s cities still see the light. Shanghai restricts car ownership and has also retained a network of cycle lanes. Many of the city’s narrow streets are one way for automobiles, with bike lanes against the traffic, making getting around much faster than a car. Although the nouveau rich now drive orange Lamborghinis and Maseratis, many westerners still represent, as they did 100 years ago.
The best $60 I’ve spent in China
In spring, I spent 400RMB ($60) on a shiny new single-speed Flying Pigeon bicycle, complete with bell, basket and chrome fenders. It has changed my life. I’ve since invested in a padded rear carrier and toe pegs for the wife to ride side-saddle and share my fun, although I don’t think she finds it very comfortable and prefers her own bike.
There are few better ways to spend time in Shanghai than weaving down tree-lined streets between bicycles lugging antique wardrobes, 3-metre high stacks of polystyrene, tires, ice, flowers, boxes, spouses, ladders and pretty much anything else they can squeeze on, while dodging cars, trucks, buses and pedestrians who seem to come from every direction. Most brakes are a little dodgy, but that just adds to the fun. And you feel part of an underground brotherhood, Nihao-ing migrant worker cyclists at traffic lights. It’s a leveller. And it’s given me a much needed and regular adrenaline fix that I missed in Shanghai. It’s about as close as you get to a real-life computer game, short of holidaying in Afghanistan or becoming a Formula One driver.
Even if you’re visiting, I highly recommend it as a way to see the city. Just watch out for small housewives in big SUVs.