I love cycling. It’s fun. It’s good exercise. Second only to walking, it’s the best way to get to know the geography of a city and – depending where you’re going – it’s often faster than public transport or taxi. But most important of all, it’s empowering.
Whether Beijing is the first foreign city you’ve lived in, or your tenth, you can probably appreciate how disempowering the process of moving somewhere new can be. As a newcomer like me, it’s so easy to feel like things are just happening to you: you’re getting lost. You’re getting ignored. You’re getting shouted at. You’re unable to exercise much choice about what to eat or drink or even breathe. Loss of agency like this is mostly temporary, but it can seriously affect your mood and outlook.
Yet cycling is a powerful way to, ahem, get back in the saddle – the second rubber meets road you’re in control, an active participant in the game of city living.
I’ve been getting around on two wheels for years now, so no matter how many well-intentioned friends and family flapped their hands and wailed about how dangerous and terrifying it would be, I never considered not getting a bike and cycling in Beijing. What I didn’t expect was how enjoyable it would prove.
The infrastructure is great
Compared to many Western cities, the bike lanes in Beijing are gigantic (Chang’an Avenue, anyone?), and in great condition. Wide bike lanes mean easy overtaking, which is essential if you want to keep both the lycra set and 80-year-old cyclists happy. Narrow bike lanes on the other hand cause bottlenecking, which in turn puts pressure on people to ride fast, causing an unreasonable and potentially dangerous situation. Wide lanes also solve the problem of bike lanes being obstructed by the delivery trucks, scooters, and cars, hazard-lights merrily blinking, an irritating but unavoidable fact of cycling the world over.
The geography is in your favor
This is an obvious one: Beijing is as flat as a pancake. Whether you’re riding with a zillion gears, an Ofo, or on a fixie, you’re unlikely to break a sweat while riding around, unless you actually want to.
History provides a strong tailwind
Unlike in the West, as recently as ten or 15 years ago, cycling was pretty much the only way to get around in Beijing. Everybody rode. Everywhere. While this may no longer be the case, there are still far more cyclists in Beijing than Paris, and there is a historical and cultural acceptance of cycling as a normal thing to do. Furthermore, compared to every other place I’ve cycled, drivers here have a much lower sense of entitlement to the road. Truly.
Culture flows into everything
Is it the result of growing up with over a billion other people? The need to endlessly navigate around each other in confined spaces? Or is it the impact of ‘face’ which prevents petty outbursts of dissatisfaction? I don’t know. I just know that Beijingers move around public spaces in a surprisingly easygoing way. Road rules are mostly guidelines, and despite the frequent cutting-off and pulling-into-busy-traffic-without-even-pretending-to-look, most of the time people adjust to accommodate one another without a word. Don’t believe me? Ride the wrong way up a bike lane in Beijing and see what happens (nothing). Now try that again in London, New York, or Paris. Shannon Bufton from Serk relates this to a phenomena he calls “negotiated flow,” explaining, “when you come to an intersection, everything slows down because [road users] don’t know who should be first since there is no steadfast rule … you look everyone in the eye, and then you personally negotiate the space, which makes it very, very safe.” The added benefit of this system is, in his view, “if something goes wrong, by the time you’ve slowed down to that speed, it’s just not dangerous at all.”
In the West, personal space is sacrosanct and people are less willing to adjust their trajectories. The upshot is that if you’re alert and sensitive to your surroundings, riding in Beijing can be a relatively harmonious experience.
Tips and Tricks for staying safe on Beijing streets
- Never wear headphones and ride: you need to hear what’s going on around you.
- Expect the unexpected. People will cut in front of you, step out randomly into the street, and stop abruptly. Be ready, and go with the flow.
- Be aware of the “turning right is at all times allowed rule” and always watch out for rogue cars when approaching junctions.
- Invest in a good anti-pollution mask for bad air days (but don’t forget that even on a bad day, it’s still healthier to cycle).
- Deck your bike with some bright LED front and rear lights for night riding, and if you’re feeling extra jazzy, wear a reflective vest.
- Wear a helmet. Seriously.
I am an experienced urban cyclist, so my standard for what is “normal,” “scary,” or “unacceptable” may be different to others just starting out. Saying that, we should all learn sometime, and despite the perceived chaos, Beijing makes for a great city to adopt a set of wheels. Now strap on your helmet and get exploring!
Ready for a decade-old throwback? Check out this story from 2009, when the Beijinger staff raced across the city on bike, foot, private car, bus, subway, taxi, and scooter.
Photos: Anna Pellegrin Hartley, Giphy