China: Bumping Along Crowded Bike Lanes

The daily commute in the bike lane has turned into a real adventure. Be Careful!

A bridge in Yangzhou...ebikes, scooters and cars are bumping into each other with alarming frequency, writes the author. Andrew Neal photos.

By Andrew Neal

Pedicabs, cars, bicycles and now, ebikes, all collide in the crowded Yangzhou's street

A sunny afternoon in Beijing and myself and some friends are heading out for Friday lunch at the local dumpling place.Electric bikes whizz along beneath us as the wind pushes our hair back, chatting along as we go.

“Look out!” she shouts as a car shoots from a side alley, our friend hits the brakes and power slides along the asphalt.

Thankfully our downed companion hops up with little more than a scratch, while the driver of the car appears to be more irritated he nearly killed all three people than concerned, before he drives around us onto the main road.

Contact Sport

While the usual image of an electric-assisted bicycle in cobble-stoned European waterfronts seems like a peaceful form of travel – my experience in China has been somewhat different.

A number of cities in China have made it difficult to ride combustion engine motorbikes within the city limits and swarms of people opt for electric e-bikes.

While this would seem slow and eco-friendly, the hopped-up bikes can get quite speedy and also come in many forms, including vespa-style cruisers and modified sports bikes. Some are three-wheeled commercial behemoths, used to carry big loads of trash such as barrels oozing and slopping with grease scraped from the gutters near restaurants, on its way to be recycled into cooking oil.

Navigating a roundabout is one of the tricky maneuvers needed.

I have even seen one carry a load of disused old bikes atop and it is not uncommon to pass towers of stuff, stacked and teetering, four times higher than their courier whining beneath.

This often leads to a cataclysm in the bike lane when many different types of riders converge into busy downtown areas.

Pollution solution or driver derider?

A scooter driver dressed for winter on a Beijing street.
A scooter driver dressed for winter

Just a few weeks ago a 20-minute trip into town in the Jiangsu city of Yangzhou, I witnessed three accidents. One woman, bike loaded with groceries and boxed gifts attempted an over taking maneuver behind me and slammed into a row of parked bikes sending all items and herself akimbo like a startled octopus over the road.

The second was two young girls who while chatting away suffered a lapse in concentration and slammed straight into each other leaving them sprawled in the middle of the lane while a large pack of traffic attempted to swerve and avoid running them over a second time.

Finally, a rather oblivious man chatting on a cell-phone, stepped from the bus stop curb straight into the path of a rider and both ended up hitting the pavement.Often there are the riders which choose to zip the wrong way through the main route, which is a big bug-bear of mine, as they can take up half the lane, riding full-speed causing many a close-call. If I point out to them they are traveling in the wrong direction with my horn or words, most times I am met with angered responses or the same horn blast back.

Then there are cars coming from the main road, across the bordered bike lane, and other riders which magically appear from blind alley-ways. They are expecting traffic to stop for them without even slowing, until panic sets in once they have made it to the middle of the road where they feel it is time to stop.

A few days ago it appeared that many people had lost regard for their children when I witnessed a grandmother allow an unassisted toddler to walk into the peak-hour afternoon traffic only scooping it up when I had to brake erratically.

Bikes do all sorts of work, like this freight hauler.
Bikes do all sorts of work, like this freight hauler.

Accidents are also dealt with in their own special way, where instead of swapping insurance information and making a police statement, cops will arrive on-scene to act as mediators. The people involved will then argue about income and gather witnesses by shouting at passers-by, before settling on who should be compensated for loss of property or medical bills.

Unregulated Traffic

Traffic regulations are often flouted in China, according to the World Health Organization, which late last year said caused fatal road accidents to be a serious problem.

I have discussed the utter disregard of traffic awareness with Chinese friends and they tell me it is a small minority who cause these problems and assholes can be found anywhere in the world.

In one of my neighbouring cities, Suzhou, a 2010 study found more than half of non-fatal accidents involved e-bikes and regulations for their use have not been updated for more than a decade, from a time when they could not travel more than 20km per hour.

The view from the bike seat.
The view from the bike seat.

They go a lot faster now. E-bikes do not need to be registered and no licensing is required to drive one, even though they now top out at more than 60km per hour.

While some Chinese leaders have called for further regulation, and some cities have tried to add their own controls, many have applauded the electric bike’s convenience as a solution to clogged roads, so they remained unchecked.

But pressing the issue of why some people just completely ignore any common sense it is noted the rapid expansion of China’s economy and opening up during the past decades has left divides in the nation.

Where once there were busy and slow-moving sections of push-bikes there are now legions of cars and swift (but deceptively silent) e-bikes which swathes of the population have yet to assimilate into their everyday thinking.

Car ownership in China has boomed during the past with some estimates stating in 1990 there were 5.5 million car-owners and, by 2010, a staggering 70 million.

So, if e-bikes are the most convenient form of transport in China, it bears the question of how to limit your issues when getting around.

One friend’s solution was to affix a truck air-horn to his bike which, when blasted towards erratic drivers, induces quite a confused but often fast response.

Another approach is to just take a minute to try and understand a different mind-set and go with the flow.

Like all road-rage, anger will only make your driving worse and possibly put someone else in a bad situation.

So, I think I’ll take a deep breath, stick out my elbows, and head to the shops.

Andrew Neal

Andrew Neal is a former newspaper reporter from New Zealand who has been traveling and teaching in Korea and China for three years, moving in to travel writing and photography.

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