Beijing, China: Where Bikes Rule, Pedestrians Drool, and Cars Will Soon Rule.

In Beijing, China, “the bicycle is King,” says my friend James, who just spent a semester there learning to speak Mandarin. James is Boston College graduate, but never biked in Boston during his time here, so in a letter sent to friends including myself, he describes his experience biking in the city of Beijing for the first time. I thought his thoughts were insightful so I got his permission to share them with you here:

Since returning to China, I feel like an old timer. I look at the puzzled and afraid faces of my classmates and I’m very amused by all their reactions. It’s exactly how I felt the first time. Locals are spitting everywhere. Cars are busting through crosswalks. Bicyclists are running over pedestrians. It has left my [westerner] classmates with the following reactions: “I almost died,” “there’s no rules here,”” “I just can’t take China, man. For me, pushing through crowds, fighting off line cutters at the supermarket, and tearing my way onto the subway has become second nature. It feels like I have come back to a second home. Strange, eh?

(the following came in his next letter)

Some people dream of flying planes. Others dream of driving Ferraris. Since arriving in China, my only dream was to own a bicycle. With two bikes for every person in the most populous country in the world, bikes are woven into China’s social fabric. Bike lanes travel everywhere. I see grade school students being shuttled to school in a flat bed connected to a pedaling adult. A guy pedals his heart out, while the love of his life clings to his waist and balances on a metal platform over the rear bicycle tire.

Weaving through pedestrians and intimidating cars, bicycles own the road. Bikes hold their own on the street. Bikes intimidate pedestrians on the sidewalk. I decided it was time to get mine. So I visited a local bike vendor and pedaled away.

On my maiden voyage, my perception of the world changed instantly. Pedestrians parted at my approach. Cars respected my path. I rode around my university campus out of pure enjoyment. I could hear a voice saying, “You’re awesome.” Then 15 minutes later, one of my pedals fell off. Come on, I just bought this. So I pushed the bike to a nearby bike shop and got the pedal repaired. No problem. I got back riding again, feeling the bursting joy, and again hearing that voice saying, “You’re awesome.” Then, the bike seat fell off. All I could think was, “Welcome to China.”

I asked James to e-mail me some photos of bikes he encountered.

Notice how everyone has bikes with kickstands, that they are all “free-locked” to themselves, so there aren’t any bike racks. In case you’re wondering, yes, bike theft in Beijing is also a huge problem.

Here are baskets of steamed dumplings James says rode his bike to have for lunch every day (which he probably slipped in just to make us all jealous of the great food he has access to):

James writes that“Pedestrians parted in my way,” which is very telling of the attitudes of pedestrians over there. “There’s no rules here,” his classmates exclaim. But as we’ve learned from James, there certainly are “rules”, even if they aren’t immediately apparent and seemingly chaotic. One, as James points out, is that “the bicycle is king,” and that if you’re a pedestrian, you’re better off getting out of the way of a bicycle if you don’t want to get run over. I can’t remember the last time I rode down Comm. Ave. through BU, only to be met by a sea of jaywalkers crossing to and from class who gladly “parted in my way.”

Oddly enough, the “rule” in Beijing, China might change from “Bike is King” to “Car is king.” In the past decade, as suburban sprawl has exploded, and an upper-middle class has found themselves with more and more disposable incomes with which to spend on (you guessed it) cars. So much so that Beijing recently decided to regulate and limit the number of license plates it hands out each year starting last month. Unfortunately, this didn’t stop people from buying cars and applying for licenses anyway, and there was such an outrage(people still bought 700,000 cars anyway, and hope they win the lottery for 240,000 licenses) the governor responsible for the decision resigned from his position in December.

Ironically, as China builds a car-culture, U.S. cities like Boston are dismissing the “car” as “king.” As Mayor Menino boldy declared at last April’s first Boston Bike Summit, “the car is no longer king in Boston!” Fortunately, we’re also not dealing with automobile license regulation or bicycle registration and regulation, for that matter. In Boston, I’d say the “rule” is something like “everybody thinks she is king,” though as a cyclist, I just can’t wait…

Why the shift from bikes to cars in China?
As the LA times quotes an independent Beijing-based automobile industry analyst, “All Chinese admire the American way of life, and just like Americans, they feel they want their house as well as their own car.” Economically, in China so many people ride bicycles out of necessity rather than luxury (in microeconomics 101, we’d call bicycles “inferior goods” and cars “luxury goods,” since people give up inferior goods for luxury goods once they can afford them) With the rise of the upper-middle class who have disposable income and can now afford them, cars are associated with wealth and are such a symbol of wealth many people associate bicycles with the lower class. For some, it’s ingrained in Chinese culture to associate bicycles with the poor (or the racers). A few years ago when I told a Chinese-raised friend that I had fallen in love with biking in Boston. She laughed and remarked “seriously? What are you, poor?”

Of course, tons of people in Beijing still do bike (approximately 63% of commuters), and not everyone who bikes in Beijing is poor. In fact, last year, I had the opportunity to meet Kang Ping, a student from Beijing, China studying at BU while leading a group-ride with BU Bikes up the minuteman trail to Lexington. It was his first time ever riding his bike, a Target-bought mountain bike, outside of Comm. Ave from his dorm to his classes, just a block away. It was also the his first time experiencing New England’s beautiful fall foliage along the minuteman.
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Taking a break at Spy Pond on the way back, I asked Kang Ping if he’d ever ridden a bicycle outside Beijing to enjoy nature like were doing there. “No, never.” he replied, (which surprised me, given Beijing’s reputation for having so many bikes) “Beijing is a very big city. Everybody in Beijing rides their bicycle to work and the store, and that’s it. Nobody rides bicycles for pleasure.” (except maybe the roadies, I suppose). Instead, they’re now buying cars and discovering liberation of urban life by automobile. Or at least until the growing traffic congestion problem in Beijing becomes so slow that it’ll be faster to go back to biking (like it has in Boston), or if more people in Beijing learn to enjoy the pleasures of riding a bicycle outside the city, like Kang Ping did.

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