Tag Archives: Beijing

Still more bicycles in Beijing

Matt’s visits to China have brought us some new perspective on the massive economic shifts in China. A recent photo he took attempted to show a multi-acre, $2 billion expanse of new solar panels, unsuccessfully–it stretches out to forever. Another showed a coal plant bigger than anything I’d ever imagined. In China there are no zoning issues, and they are agnostic about how they generate enough power to run the country. Relocate over a million people to build the world’s largest dam? Sure, why not?

“I’d rather cry in the back your BMW than laugh on the back of your bicycle.” I suspect this is not a formula for lifelong happiness.

The rise in prosperity has been matched with a rise in ambitions. One sign of this is the rise of China’s new “material girls” whose mantra runs: “I’d rather cry in the back of your BMW than laugh on the back of your bicycle.”

China had, at one point, a very deep bicycle culture, but it is fading in the face of the perception that cars are more prestigious. A couple of newspaper articles Matt brought back suggested that there was increasing awareness that a large-scale transportation shift from bicycles to cars was unsustainable in China, if only for its likely effects on traffic.

Just another commuter bike in Beijing

In the meantime, for many people riding electric bikes seems to be at least a short-term compromise. One of Matt’s colleagues uses this electric bike to commute and ride around the organizational campus in Beijing. Like all bikes Matt’s seen in China, this one has a generous cargo basket and an extra passenger seat. China is not exactly cutting-edge in the area of interesting family bikes, for the fairly obvious reason that families have one child apiece and a single child can be managed on almost any bike. However the back seat could be used either for carrying a child or a less-material adult.

This sign was posted outside Matt’s hotel in Beijing.

In the long term, if the government of China wants everyone to ride bicycles, that’s probably exactly what will happen. I have no idea whether this is any kind of national priority. It’s clear that alternative transportation is not a national priority in the US. However the advantage of living in a democracy is that change can spread from the bottom up.

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More bicycles in Beijing

Matt is in China, and that can only mean it’s time for another update of bicycles in Beijing. Last time Matt went to the tourist bicycle center of Beijing and caught some righteous triple tandems. This trip’s theme is practical bicycles spotted on the road. These seem to involve two things: electric assists and passengers.

Bicycle, moving toward a scooter aesthetic

There is a wide range of electric bicycles, and while some of them are primarily for occasional assistance up the hills, in Beijing the bicycle part seems like the afterthought. This bike has pedals, but it’s moving more toward a scooter aesthetic. And those giant batteries have to be sealed lead acid, an environmental disaster.

Definitely more like a scooter than a bicycle

Going even further along the spectrum is this bike, which looks more like a moped than a bike, although those pedals do seem to turn, I presume for legal reasons. But credit where it’s due: this bike, like the other, can carry a passenger and has a dedicated front basket. These are not the overpowered machines lacking space for even a briefcase that litter San Francisco sidewalks. They’re meant to haul, not to look cute, and I’m guessing they’re a lot cheaper than the Vespas parked next door to us.

Carrying older kids on the bike is okay

And in Beijing, evidently, it’s normal to carry even older kids on the back of the bike. I sometimes regret that our kids will be on our bikes for so long, which reflects the traffic and hills of San Francisco, but I’m beginning to think that this is inevitable for people living in a city that doesn’t have extensive bicycle infrastructure (e.g. Amsterdam, Copenhagen, Tokyo). Sure, it would be better if our kids had more independence, but you have to work with what you’ve got.

Riding with a baby in traffic

These moms make me think that the fears of riding in traffic are relative. I’ve gotten more confident riding in city traffic here, but riding in Beijing would probably give me a heart attack. And parents from smaller cities would probably have heart attacks here. We get used to the circumstances around us. It’s not like kids have never died in cars.

Pedaling a paddleboat is a kind of pedaling.

Matt still has yet to ride a bicycle in Beijing. But at least this time he’s pedaling.


Filed under electric assist, family biking, traffic, travel

Bicycles in Beijing

Rental tandems in the Huohai lake historic district

While I was riding around Portland and Seattle (more to come), Matt was in China for business. Because he knows I love bicycles, he took some pictures of the ones he saw while he was in Beijing. Most of Beijing is evidently terrifying by any mode of transit, and Matt claims that even standing still and breathing there feels risky. However a portion of the city, the Huohai lake historic district, is off-limits to cars and thus packed with bikes, bikes, bikes. He sent me these photos labeled “Copenhagen East.”

Little bike, big seat

In virtually all of the photos I’ve seen of bikes in China, riders have not shrunk from carrying passengers on bikes, even if said bikes were technically not designed for this purpose. The rear seat on this bicycle is disconcertingly far back on the rear wheel, which must make the bike itself fishtail like crazy. So I find it especially impressive, or alternatively crazy, that the rear seat is large enough that it could almost certainly carry a second adult. And that seat does not lack style. Compared to the sea of gray plastic child seats I see mounted on rear racks in this country, it is a nice change of pace for the child seat to outclass the bike.

Three-seat tandems, city-bike style

But if you really want to ride in style, you can rent a three-seater tandem. Compare these rides to the surreys you see in American parks: there is no comparison. I especially like that they come with fenders, chainguards, and front baskets, as though they were actually viable commuter vehicles, which seems pretty improbable. But it’s nice that that’s the assumption; tandems in this country seem primarily targeted to the road biking set. This is a shame given that kids love tandems.

Really basic bike shop: no walls, no ceiling

By contrast, the bike shops of the lake district are a lot more ad hoc. In Portland they put everything on cargo bikes, and I imagine that this is handy when you have a flat by the side of the road: rolling bike shop to the rescue! But in Beijing a bike shop is evidently a guy on the sidewalk. Despite having a lot less real estate at his disposal than even a tiny San Francisco bike shop, this guy has nonetheless provided customer seating. I thought that was a classy touch.

Maintenance lessons for the next generation

In keeping with the customer-focused theme, the owner of this open-air shop started giving a young customer a bike maintenance lesson while Matt was there snapping photos. I like that they’re working on another mama-bike–you can see it’s balanced on the child seat in the back, and has the usual commuter accessories: fenders, chainguard, front basket. The bikes in all of these photos probably sell for the equivalent of less than $100, and every single one of them is a more practical commuter than over 90% of the fixies I see in San Francisco’s Financial District. The US is a great country, but also crazy.

Soft and Lazy Restaurant, clearly catering to the tourist trade

Unlike me, Matt was not able to bail on many of his business obligations to ride bikes around a strange city, more’s the pity. So his impressions of actually riding a bicycle in Beijing will have to wait for another time–there will be at least two more extended trips this year, and I have faith that eventually he’ll make it out of the taxi. He said he came back feeling much like this perhaps-too-honestly-advertised restaurant. Chinglish: it’s funny because it’s true.

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