October 25, 2009

Beijing, bike city

Just got back from a trip to Beijing, where bikes may no longer rule the streets, but remain a force to be reckoned with in the city's transit.

The number of vehicles in the city has multiplied sevenfold in the last 16 years, and the new high-tech subway lines link downtown to the outskirts like never before. But bicycles are the wheels that get everyday Beijingers to where they want to go — and cargo trikes are the basis for innumerable small businesses, too.

Beyond the usual rickshaws, there are enclosed bike cabs; platform bikes for hauling blocks of coal, wares for sale, or the neighborhood's recycling; food vendors selling their wares from bike carts; and even portable bike repair shops that store everything from chain locks to new tubes to baskets and smaller parts in their compact shelves.

Once I sort of knew my way around, I rented a bike (from one of the plentiful curbside rental stands) and delighted in cruising freely around the city, which is too spread-out for walking, and tough to cab around when you don't speak Mandarin. Traffic is always crazy, but busy streets have wide bike lanes separated by a median. Like Europe, but unlike in the States, drivers keep an eye out for bikes — which means everyone feels safe enough to ride without lights or a helmet. And for any visitors looking for a cheap souvenir, the classic, monochrome Flying Pigeon bikes that have gained a small cult following Stateside cost a mere $30-40 in Beijing bike stores. Ride on!

No comments: