Alex Bikes

Ottawa bike politics.

Biking in Beijing: the freedom of lawlessness.

Beijing is different. Biking in a city with no rules is surprisingly liberating.

I was in Beijing last month for work and managed to squeeze in a couple of hours of actual biking in with a fellow Ottawa cyclist. We’d already been there for a week and were fascinated by the totally different approach to traffic than what I’m used to in North America and Europe.

I don’t know what the traffic rules are in Beijing, but practice matters more than the written laws. I saw pretty much every traffic rule and safety guideline I know of violated: running red lights, driving on the wrong side of the road, double parking on sidewalks, talking on the phone while driving on the shoulder, etc. The violations that make me cringe in Ottawa happen at ever intersection all the time. It’s really quite stressful when you predict certain death for an elderly woman about to get mowed down by an unsympathetic bus driver.

There, nobody expects any rules to be followed, so everyone is responsible for their own safety. Since there’s no rules, there’s quite a bit of freedom in using the roads. Being able to ride on sidewalks, pass traffic on the right, run lights or cut across stopped traffic is actually liberating and maybe even fun. But only if everyone agrees that there are no rules.

Notice how wide this intersection is. Notice how the pedestrians are already halfway through the intersection before their light turns green.

The main boulevards are wide. Most construction has two auxiliary roads (intended for biking and parking) and a two to four lane main road. So they have a lot of space to fill. My recollection from my first trip in 2005 is that the outside lanes used to only be used by bicycles, but they’re now used for parking and driving.

Turning has priority over straight through

The lawlessness has one noticeable effect on pedestrians: on a green, traffic turning right or left effectively has the right of way. This means that you can never cross at a crosswalk and expect you won’t be run over, because you will. There’s no eye contact or pause from the car and they’ll come centimetres away from running over your feet. Once you’re aware that you’re never actually safe, you time the crossing carefully. And you start early in the cycle to give yourself enough time to make it across.

Certain death in Beijing.

Air quality

The city lives up to its reputation of having terrible air quality. Rarely were there any actual sunny periods. Most of it was grey and hard to see through the fog. And the vehicles are mostly two-stroke engines and buses so riding in traffic is pretty gross.

Other forms of transportation

This doesn’t have anything to do with biking, but the taxi drivers are the worst I have ever seen. Remember the scenes in Amazing Race where a team gets thrown because a cab driver gets lost or doesn’t understand a location? That describes all drivers we had in Beijing. There wasn’t a single driver who knew our destination, could speak any English at all , could read or understand a destination written in Chinese or read a map. All the cabbies who passed the special training for the 2008 Olympics have graduated to driving in Ashgabat or Seattle. The ones who failed form the backbone of the Beijing cab industry. The minimum fare is ¥10 ($1.60), but that gets you about 4km.

The subway system’s expanded greatly over the last few years, and you can cross town for ¥2 ($0.28), so that makes it attractive for tourism given the incompetence of taxi drivers.

Requisite Forbidden City photo.

I only saw one accident, a fender bender on the highway back to the airport. Stats indicate that there’s quite a few more accidents in China as a whole (449.6 deaths per 100,000 vehicles compared to our 13). I don’t know what the numbers are for Beijing, but if I was willing to invest $100 I bet I could find out.

I don’t know if I’d describe the experience as really lovely. Next time I might rent a road bike and head out of town to escape the crowds and the smog. But for ¥50 ($7.50) it was an interesting experience.

There’s a certain freedom in biking in a place where nobody follows any rules. You become much more aware and it is liberating to not be constrained by rules.

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One response to “Biking in Beijing: the freedom of lawlessness.

  1. Charles A-M July 31, 2012 at 1:43 pm

    I was in Beijing about a decade ago and found that there weren’t really many crosswalks; most roads had roundabouts and other devices to keep motor traffic moving without stopping (in theory; in practice it was a parking lot). Pedestrians were expected to cross at overpasses. Ankara, Turkey is similar, although there at least the unstopping cars go under many intersections allowing pedestrians to cross at grade.

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