This was originally posted to the Bromptontalk forum on 30 October 2008. I have given a more reflective account of the experience of urban cycling in two Chinese cities in a second post called “Anarcho-Communalism in Hangzhou“.
A very satisfying Brompton experience in Beijing.
I had to make a visit some distance from the city centre and my Chinese colleagues were insistent that it’s not feasible by bike, last night coming a similar distance by taxi one of them pointed out how big and intimidating some of the main road junctions were, she rides a bike short distances in the suburbs.
This morning I asked the hotel porters to check the location (luckily as Google had shown me the wrong, old location) and they were also insistent that it was over 20km and not advisable. However I had picked up a very good Beijing A-Z street atlas the night before so I could see the route and as I had some time in hand I thought I might as well go part of the way by Brompton as taxis are easy to find all over the city.
The trip actually took around 45 mins and I don’t go that fast, with lots of stops to check the map, so it was probably around 10k and completely unproblematic. More than that it was a real back to the future experience since cycling in Beijing may be declining but the historic provision really shows how things could be elsewhere.
Unlike many cities where cyclists are advised to stick to the backstreets, here the way to cover the ground is to stick to the main roads which may have four lanes of motor traffic but they also have a broad cycle lane at each side, usually wide enough to get by parked cars with not much difficulty. You occasionally get a whiff of some nasty fumes in the air and some people wear masks but the traffic is very much less aggressive than in many countries and, apart from the occasional congestion due to a gaggle of bikes or a bus stop you can maintain a very good speed, Beijing is completely flat and the surfaces good.
The big junctions look worrying and chaotic but there are plenty of cyclists and you just need to tuck in with a small group or watch the technique for a minute, even without traffic lights you can get across the junctions without being scared, both bikes and cars seem to operate on the basis of trying your luck but not pushing it and motor traffic is not fast, if you make sure you can be seen, take your time and expect to have to brake sometimes, it doesn’t seem to be a problem. Less stressful than London.
The road atlas (Red and yellow cover, 220 pages called “Beijing City Atlas 2008”, no publisher’s name) was great and seems to be accurate and up to date. All main roads in the atlas have names in western script and pretty well all road signs have both Mandarin and Western script. The only problem I found is that some roads have versions of the same name so I thought I was looking for Huajiadi Street but in fact I wanted the parallel Huajiadi street south. That led me to get lost close to my destination so I just flagged a cab for the last short distance on the local streets. That’ll teach me to look closer at the map.
Coming back I took a detour through the backstreets where I stopped to look at a pavement bike mechanic and ended up in an animated Brompton discussion (in mutually incomprehensible languages) with two cycling traffic wardens, they were enchanted by the unparking move so I did the full fold which drew a crowd. Over the road there was what looked like a children’s playground, colourful tubular equipment, but turned out to be a community outdoor gym, I took some photos and the people there (all ages) were very pleased to demonstrate the kit and smile for the camera.
Lots of small-wheeled bikes including basic folders and my favourite commuter so far, a Brompton size bike with a young woman passenger standing on the rear rack with hands on the pedaller’s shoulders. THAT’S a reason to get a rack. One Dahon, and lots of electric bikes with huge battery packs including electric scooters and electric versions of the traditional bike rickshaw or cargo bike. They feel like the most positive aspect of urban transport here, top speed around 15mph but generally slower than that, They suit the local bike infrastructure perfectly and with no hills they’ll have a decent range. If encouraged they could really show how to develop clean low-energy urban transport with a lot more variety than purely muscle powered bikes.
So taking a B to Beijing is definitely worth it, you get the full benefit of the speed and mobility, probably more than in most cities, plus it opens doors, people are pleased to see you on a bike. A very positive experience.
I’ve added below some photos taken on my trip to Beijing
These girls on their way home from school had a rather neat little folder but did not know how to fold it up!
Very dodgy looking plastic wheels, reminds me of the Volvo Itera plastic bike.
This may looks chaotic but everybody knows exactly what they are doing
If you are not sure what to do at a junction, look out for a group heading in the same general direction, like the bunch at the traffic lights across the road in this photo, tuck in behind and do what they do, even if it seems a bit odd. One thing they will do is anticipate the lights, often moving forward a few metres at a time as the light phases change so they are in the best position, then setting off as soon as the other flows have stopped, even if the lights have not turned green yet. In the rush hour, people stationed at junctions to direct traffic will actually wave you across ahead of the green light, they all know the pattern and the lights become the environment against which you operate, rather than the rules you must follow. Quite the opposite of Britain where cyclists who anticipate the red light changing are treated as worse than mass murderers by motorists who never notice that cars all jump the red light at the end of their green phase.
Ready to roll, except for the couple on the left, for some reason she’s about to take off her jacket and give it to him, whereupon the lights change and he’s left standing.
Waiting for the missus outside the local shop, the variety of electric scooters available is endless.
I have been told that the authorities destroyed huge numbers of unregistered polluting motor scooters. since then the advent of silent, gentle-paced electric bikes and scooters has done a great deal to keep the sanity of Chinese cities intact and ensure that the infrastructure suits pedal bikes as much as cars.
This was one of the cuter scooters on sale at the “Great Electric Bike World” shop. Everything from very basic battery-assisted pedal bikes to machines that look just like a high powered large motor scooter but have a top speed of 15mph.
The widest bicycle lane in the world, across the top of Tianenmen Square, there’s one on the other side of the road too from where I took the next photo
Finally, my taxi-bound colleagues in Beijing were quite taken with me and my bike once they got over their incredulity so took this photo.
Incidentally, my office in Sheffield is just behind the gates in the picture over my left shoulder, I just noticed that.