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Cycling in Beijing


Photo by Alexandra Moss.

Once known as the world’s ‘bicycle kingdom,’ China has experienced rapid urbanization leading some to declare the beginning of the end for China’s bikes. While it’s true that from 1995 to 2005, China’s bike fleet declined by 35 percent and private car ownership more than doubled, there is no evidence today that bicycles are a thing of the past on Beijing’s streets.

Increased urbanization and growing diversification of transport has only meant cycling Beijing streets is becoming a greater challenge, particularly in areas where designated bike lanes have been removed. Cycling in Beijing – let alone mastering the art of walking Beijing’s overcrowded streets brimming with buses, cars, bicycles, motorcycles, and some 18 million people – is (in a word) terrifying, yet somehow millions of Beijingers seem to cope just fine.

Helmets are nonexistent, and the agile Chinese have mastered the art of multi-tasking while cycling. Not only do people seem to cart their livelihoods on bikes, but I’ve witnessed whole families perched atop a single tandem, ladies cycling one-handed with umbrella in tow to prevent any sun exposure that would risk their pale complexions; I even saw a man with three 15” computer monitors strapped above his back wheel (and they were not flat screen). And you’ll never see a hint of the abashed – anything goes in the Beijing bike lane.

mask.jpgPhoto by My Left Ventricle.

Aside from the physical factors that make cycling Beijing streets daunting are the very real environmental effects one feels after a short bike commute to work. Beijing’s plentitude of dust and frequent sandstorms often leave me with a mouthful of grit by the time I arrive at my destination. Any pedaling above a moderate speed leaves one gasping from all the particulate matter that takes up residence in your lungs. It’s no wonder Beijing cyclists often wear surgical face masks or full-face visors that are indeed function over fashion.

Despite what you may have heard, bicycle is still king in Beijing.

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  • Hello Twyla,

    Thanks for your interest in cycling. I highly encourage you to get in touch with the blog’s author, Angel Hsu. In the meantime, you can also browse our archives. You might be particularly interested in this post, about using bicycles for transportation AND water filtration:

  • twyla matos

    I study industrial design at PUC-Rio University, in Brazil. I am graduating this year and my graduation project theme is about carrying things on the bike.
    So, I would like to hear from you, who have experience in this subject, what do you think about racks to carrying groceries, what works, what doesn’t work and why?
    Your opinion would help me a lot!
    Since now, I thank you!

  • Joseph

    Beijing’s streets are a world in themselves. My first experience of living in Beijing was back in 2001 when Car ownership was much less. The change I witnessed between then and now has been a phenomenon. First of all was the increase in car ownership that led to cars being allowed to use certain cycle lanes. When I say, “cycle lanes” think a 5 metre wide road running parallel to the other traffic lanes.
    Before then cycle lanes were these heaving mass of people moving like a river past your stationary car. But that was then. Much has changed with the increase in cars, but then much has changed everyway in Beijing.
    I enjoy the streets of Beijing, but when I first arrived they scared me to death. “How do I get across…… and survive?” was the thought that filled my mind for the first week or so. Cars mingled with bicycles that mingled with trucks that mingled with men pulling carts laden with everything imaginable, and there in the midst of it all were pedestrians. Yet no one got hurt!
    How was this possible I thought? Whether the lights were in your favour or not and whether the elderly uniformed citizen blue his whistle in disapproval or not, people still got across the road safely.
    I was there to stay, living in Haidian, each day having to negotiate 3rd and 4th ring roads, Chi Chun Lu, Xue Yuan Lu and all their intersections, so not crossing the road or finding a bridge were not options, this art had to be learned.
    With most things in life however, faith often comes before learning, so out I stepped one day, walking next to the elderly as I supposed this would add protection. My neighbours must have thought I was mad. Being the only westerner living within a mile radius I was certainly a peculiar sight and one in retrospect that must have provided much amusement. Car drivers and bicycle riders seemed cautious of me. I must have walked like a man walking to the gallows.
    After a while of crossing the road with my elderly neighbours I began to feel the nature of this new world.
    There was no great urgency and certainly no fear. It had its own style of movement in much the same way that fish move through coral reefs. People walked in straight lines, bumping into one another was OK (very un-British but OK) with bikes meandering through and round them. Cars occasionally beeped their horns but mostly inched forward, avoiding the bikes and people, turning this way and that. I began to observe each of these individuals, seemingly oblivious to everyone else, but obviously aware of everything and before I knew it I found myself at home amongst them. The weeks and months had past me by along with millions of people.
    You could call it a “rite of passage”. I was now a Beijinger, now unnoticed. Car drivers drove around me, cyclists in front and behind me and the elderly overtook me! The only people I had to watch out for was other foreigners. They looked scared and scary.

  • Oladayo

    Good write up.I will produce a similar thing of motorcycle in lagos, Nigeria

  • Ringiie

    Check out the film, “Beijing Bicycle.” It’s good.