Posted by: Brad Nixon | November 27, 2010

Beijing Biking

A recent article in the New York Times (CLICK HERE) illustrates the continuing challenges for integrating biking into urban areas. Most people generally agree that it would be advantageous if more people rode bikes, and if bike riders could have safer ways to navigate city streets. However, with urban streets already highly engineered to accommodate the maximum amount of cars and trucks and buses, there’s rarely any spare room for bike lanes. It’s a simple equation: take space on a street for a bike lane and make it a moving violation to encroach on that space, and the existing amount of traffic has to squeeze into a narrower space, or else other things, like parking spaces, have to give way to the bike lane.

It’s a chicken and egg situation: a critical mass of bicycle riders guaranteed reasonably safe routes could eventually reduce the number of powered vehicles, but, given the risks and difficulties, large numbers of people won’t give up their cars to try bikes without establishing the space first. (I know that not only would I not want to ride in the streets of Manhattan on a bike, I wouldn’t even want to drive a CAR there.)

I think I understand both sides of the problem; as a regular driver, I find it difficult to make room for the brave souls who ride their bikes to work near my office: there’s no bike lane, and I can choose a) to drive behind them at 10 mph, b) swerve to avoid them and thus occupy ANOTHER lane c) kill or injure them. Whatever my choice, traffic is going to slow down on El Segundo Blvd. that morning. As a fan of cycling and one who has to side with those intrepid souls taking another car off the streets of LA, I applaud them.

I am not here to offer a solution. I’m not certain there is one. If it could work anywhere, it should be here in Los Angeles: relatively flat terrain, low relative density to our development (unlike Manhattan or Chicago, for example) and gorgeous weather that makes bike riding practical nearly every day of the year. There ARE bike lanes here, and there is a strong advocacy in favor of more cycling, including a special day each year when major city streets are reserved strictly for bicycles (which inevitably results in a massive traffic migraine for the day). But we’ve already engineered LA for the automobile to an extreme degree; we took out the public transit system (the “Red Cars”) of the early part of the 20th Century to make room for more automobiles; there is rarely enough parking space anywhere, and, most importantly, we are not acculturated to sharing the road with cyclists. We had the automobile before any other urban areas (we all got here by car), and the metropolis and its surrounding hundreds of square miles of suburbs is predicated on the wide availability of cars for everyone. In other cities, in other countries and cultures, cars came later to the game, and people lived a more confined, purely urban existence, and also an existence not so economically supportive of the automobile, so they learned to co-exist with bikes. Not something we know how to do. Can we re-learn? Yes. Will we?

I rode a bike around parts of England a couple of times, and that included biking through the heart of London as well as riding out westward past Heathrow Airport and beyond to Winchester. I don’t recommend that experience and I don’t intend to repeat it. I have been in more cycle-friendly cities, although in places like Rome and Paris and Shanghai and Hong Kong, the motor scooter now probably carries most of the riders who might’ve been candidates for bikes in an earlier day. Here are a couple of looks from Shanghai in 2005 (click on photos for larger view):

I’ve never been to the Netherlands, where I know the cycling culture is well-established, and where the world is organized to suit them. Perhaps faithful reader, Niels, will weigh in with some cycling experiences of his own. Two places I’ve been where cyclists can ride with aplomb are Beijing and its port city, Tianjin. There’s a reason it works there. First, it HAS to work. With millions of residents, many of whom can’t afford a car, or have no place to park one if they did, cycles are de rigueur. They simply have to exist. God help Beijing as increasing numbers of people acquire that first automobile and give up their bikes; it’s already a hellish pandemonium on the freeways of Beijing, and it’s almost impossible to imagine the place with MORE cars. Oops, Beijing won’t allow help from God. Well, somebody help  ’em.

Do NOT attempt to drive there. Period. Even if you can read the signs (which you can’t, except for my know-it-all nephews), your life is in jeopardy. Trust me on this.

The primary reason that cycling works in these immense and immensely busy cities is that the “bike lanes” are actually large (sometimes extremely large) streets paralleling major arteries. Here’s one in Tianjin.

Tianjin, China

I do not know the details about restrictions of access by powered vehicles; as you can see, there ARE some cars there, but I suspect that these roads are “access” roads, where cars are only permitted to access adjacent buildings. As you can also observe, these are serious pieces of urban infrastructure, and not just lines painted into existing streets. It would take massive re-engineering to put something like this into American cities, given that government does not have the luxury of just declaring what shall be so, as it does in China; rather than our problematic principle of “eminent domain,” Chinese cities have what you might call “pre-eminent domain” and can just do what they need to do — not a system I am recommending.

The lanes I saw in Beijing, at least along the major thoroughfare that led me to Tiananmen Square, were even broader, shaded by trees, and were thronged with cyclists early in the morning as I did a little run from the hotel to the Square (also a great facility for runners, though I didn’t see any others). Beijing’s cyclists have their challenges, not the least of which is some of the most polluted air on the planet that’s not inside an acid factory. I regret that I don’t have a photo from the Beijing bike scene, but I wasn’t carrying a camera on my run.

Even with two-wheeled traffic still a powerful presence, the streets can be a mess, as the Shanghai photos above testify. And, demonstrating not only the congestion, but the confusion of driving there, here’s a closing shot from Shanghai of the pandemonium that resulted when our local driver turned the wrong way.

Don’t try this at home.

© Brad Nixon 2010, 2016. Thanks to ace producer Shannon Wickliffe for the Tianjin and “wrong way” photos. The Tianjin photo depicts globe-trotting cinematographer, Laurie, capturing the Tianjin bike traffic while I observe, dressed in a suit to show that I’m in charge. All photo rights reserved, and no copying without express permission, please.


  1. Beijing Biking « Under Western Skies…

    Here at World Spinner we are debating the same thing……


  2. […] See the original post here: Beijing Biking « Under Western Skies […]


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